In the past couple months, there have been some great victories in the fight for economic and housing security in Washington State. While there is so much work to do to reach economic and housing stability for our most vulnerable people, I often feel a mix of sadness and guilt about the increasing divide in economic stability and liberty we have compared to other states. The bizarre politicization of the human right to basic health and economic security means that people in red states live with far greater instability.
At least 11 states are refusing federal money for unemployment benefits because, despite evidence to the contrary, they argue that unemployment checks are preventing people from returning to work. It is the all-too-familiar, and often racially loaded, argument that people are “too lazy to work.” Since the founding of our nation on the enslavement of Black human beings, it has never been about whether people are lazy, and always about exploitation of the many for the profit of a few.
The states refusing the $300 federal unemployment benefits are predominately states that have no minimum wage or match the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and often significantly less for tipped workers. The resultant $14,000 annual salary — working 40 hours per week at $7.25 — is just barely enough to be above the federal poverty level for one person. Which is to say, it is not completely illogical to think that when you provide so few economic protections for the minimum wage working population, which is approximately 30% of the workforce aged 16 and up, some people will decide the work is not worth it.
However, the data indicates that the unavailability of childcare and similar barriers are what keep people out of the workforce. Given that a disproportionate number of minimum-wage workers are women, especially women of color — the data is gender binary — and the pandemic forced so many people out of the workforce for family obligations, it is no wonder that until the barrier is removed, those people won’t return to the workplace.
The states where so many hardworking people are one illness, accident or work reduction away from poverty overlap with the 11 states that have opted out of the Medicaid expansion, though the coronavirus has put some of that in flux.
Research shows that humanity is hardwired to come together in community because no individual has the capacity to survive, let alone thrive, alone. Government is a formalization of that community. Our federal government should provide a floor, not simply a safety net, for basic needs regardless of the state where you reside.
Jill Mullins is an intersectional feminist, attorney, activist and much more. She has written for NW Lawyer, King County Bar News and LGBTQ+ outlets.
Read more of the May 19-25, 2021 issue.