Commentary by Stefani E. Buhajla originally published by RealClearPolicy.com
These days, storefronts are adorned with “Now Hiring” and “Help Wanted” signs. Local family-owned businesses and restaurants are announcing reduced business hours and even closures, often citing a lack of employees. And many post signs imploring customers to be patient as fewer workers mean longer wait times.
A new jobs report released this week shows there are now more than 11 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. Where have the workers gone? Thanks to the Biden administration, millions are staying at home, where they’re given financial incentives not to return to the workforce. What started off as temporary measures to alleviate the pains of the pandemic have instead become a nearly two-year economic reality.
Under the auspices of an ongoing national emergency, the Biden administration continues to extend welfare benefits. With no need to work, millions of Americans are foregoing a job with wages for a government paycheck. According to the latest labor statistics, there are nearly 3 million workers missing from the workforce compared to when the pandemic first began, and labor force participation rates are still falling. This is unsustainable.
In August 2021, the Biden administration announced a 25 percent increase in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — food stamps — adding $20 billion to the already staggering $79 billion in costs annually. With millions of Americans no longer needing to buy their own food, there is no urgency to find employment.
Meanwhile, the federal government has suspended work search requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents enrolled in the food stamp program. This further discourages potential jobseekers from obtaining the kind of employment that allows them to develop important skills, build self-esteem, and provide for their families. When businesses are struggling to hire employees, higher wages and benefits can only do so much — especially when the government pays as much or more.
The states, as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted, serve as “laboratories” for our way of governing. It is here we discover what works and what doesn’t, what should be replicated on a national level and what should be avoided. On the matter of work, the stark differences in policy outcomes could not be clearer.
In Michigan, residents on unemployment are only obligated to conduct one job-seeking activity per week to receive unemployment insurance (UI) benefits for up to 20 weeks. The state’s unemployment rate stands at 5.1 percent. Compare this to Utah, which requires a person to submit four job-seeking activities per week. Utah’s unemployment rate stands at 2.3 percent.
With little help from the federal government, states are forced to take matters into their own hands. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed cutting the number of weeks of unemployment benefits from 26 to 16 while increasing the number of job-seeking activities beneficiaries must do. Legislators are moving on this reform, and business leaders have heralded the bill as a desperately needed solution to ease the worker shortage.
Existing efforts to undo the damage caused by ever-extending federal benefits have been commendable. But much more must be done before it’s too late.
Never has it been more important to bring commonsense reforms to our safety net programs. We must establish and enforce work requirements for food stamps and unemployment insurance. This should include accountability measures that verify individuals are truly seeking employment, as well as caps on the duration of benefits for working-age, able-bodied adults.
We know that the dignity of work is so crucial to an individual’s confidence. Jobs build the skills necessary to advance in rewarding careers. They allow us to pursue our dreams of things like home ownership and caring for our families. And the longer people stay out of the workforce, the harder it will be for them to return once their benefits finally run out.
We must not wait. The COVID-19 pandemic created extraordinary circumstances that upended our entire economy. But, nearly two years later, we must demand a return to normalcy for our workforce. And if the Biden administration won’t do what it takes to get more people back to work, state leaders must act instead. Our country’s future depends upon it.
Stefani E. Buhajla is the communications director for the Foundation for Government Accountability.