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Pandemic relief helped millions, but Republicans continue attacks on the safety net. That’s what they do. | COMMENTARY

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says the state will stop paying jobless residents an extra $300 in weekly pandemic-related benefits in July, two months before the benefits were due to expire.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says the state will stop paying jobless residents an extra $300 in weekly pandemic-related benefits in July, two months before the benefits were due to expire. (Brian Witte/AP)

Larry Hogan apparently embraced the unproven, anecdote-based, classic Republican claim that people who get government benefits would rather sit on a couch and munch Cheez-It crackers than report for work. The Maryland governor, after all, was a big fan of Ronald Reagan, the president who exploited welfare queen anecdotes to denounce public assistance to the poor. Hogan even voted for Reagan last fall, 16 years after the old cowboy traded his spurs for wings.

But there’s a more direct political reason Hogan announced that he’s cutting off the $300 enhanced weekly unemployment benefit that helped laid-off workers get through the pandemic: He had to. If Hogan wants to get aboard the 2024 presidential dinghy he has to keep up with other Republican governors, nod to the Chamber of Commerce and be seen pushing sluggards off the COVID-19 couch.

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The extra unemployment benefits were due to expire in September, but Hogan says they’ll stop on July 3. That way — being the 25th Republican governor to announce an early cutoff — he doesn’t look overly cruel while maintaining his conservative bona fides.

Even at the height of the pandemic, as unemployment soared, many Republicans were opposed to giving the extra money to laid-off workers, arguing that the benefits were so generous they would discourage people from getting back to work.

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As in the past, this was based on conjecture and not evidence and, more recently, on anecdotes about businesses being unable to find enough workers. As always, the insinuation is that low-wage workers, particularly, lack ambition and, if you give them a safety net, they’ll turn it into a couch.

A lot of those workers are registered Republicans, but it doesn’t stop Republican politicians from trying to reduce the size of the safety net that serves families trying to make ends meet, in good times and bad.

Republicans opposed Obamacare, then tried to repeal it. They continue to oppose raising the federal minimum wage, holding steady for the last 12 years at $7.25. While supporting tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, Republicans kick and scream against help for people who live paycheck to paycheck, even in a pandemic. And they continue to argue, because that’s what they do, that the safety net begets sloth.

“Think about what the Democrats have done,” Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, tweeted last month. “They have demonized work so Americans would become dependent on big government.”

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Demonized work? Right. That must explain why employers added 559,000 jobs in May. That must be why, pre-pandemic, about 7 million Americans were employed but still living below the government’s official poverty line, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of course, we’ve been hearing this kind of stuff from Republicans for decades, the tone set in Reagan’s time, when, even in the midst of a recession, they complained that too many Americans were on the dole.

But the complaint sounds even more obtuse and dishonest today, and not just because of the economic consequences of the pandemic, but because of the way things were before the coronavirus arrived.

Unemployment was low in February 2020, at 3.5% nationally. In Maryland, the February 2020 unemployment rate was 3.3%.

But while the job picture looked good, other measurements showed just how fragile the economy was for millions of Americans and four out of 10 households in Maryland.

I refer here to a measurement that offers a deep assessment of economic conditions, particularly for the working poor. It’s called ALICE, for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.”

Starting with data from 2018, United Way of Central Maryland calculated the real costs of living for people who have jobs but struggle to make ends meet. ALICE household budgets consist of the costs of housing, child care, food, taxes, technology, transportation and health care, plus a 10% contingency fund. The detailed calculations were based on data from Baltimore and surrounding counties to determine ALICE household budgets for each jurisdiction.

Based on that, United Way calculated how much families needed to earn to keep up with bills. It was $77,000 for a family of two adults and two school-age children in Baltimore County, the same for Harford County and Carroll County, and higher in Howard ($94,000) and Anne Arundel ($88,000). A family of four in Baltimore needs at least $72,000 a year. (And these figures do not include the cost of child care for preschoolers.)

The first time I reported these budgets, I thought someone might challenge them as too high. But no one did.

United Way concluded that, based on these numbers and 2018 data on income, nearly 40% of Maryland households were living below the ALICE threshold. The number was greater in Baltimore, at 55%.

Most of the adults represented in the ALICE measurement were working at the time.

Keep in mind: The impact of the pandemic was not represented in the first ALICE calculations, which gets me back to Republican attitudes toward middle- and low-income families over the last four decades, especially the last year.

The disconnect between conservative orthodoxy and the reality of American life is even more exposed and jarring now. It’s cynical politics that decries the safety net while it ignores income inequality, the obnoxious concentration of wealth, the corporate downsizing that led to even greater profits during the pandemic and, now, denies a couple more months of extra relief for people who still haven’t returned to work after a horrible year.

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