The Republican Welfare Paranoia

Right wing Republicans’ primary domestic policy goal is eliminating government welfare programs, otherwise known as the safety net. This is a sad waste of their time and talents. (Just to clarify, Medicare and Social Security, enjoyed by many older Republicans, are not included in programs slated for elimination).

This writer takes extra effort to listen to and read a variety of viewpoints. Sometimes the racism that underlies social media conversations and articles circulated under the guise of conservatism boils over. Perceptions that welfare recipients are predominantly black and illegal immigrants and that taxpayers are white underlie much of this. Not all people trying to remodel the US safety net are racists. Yet, the confluence of a black president at a time when unemployment was at very high levels was like adding gasoline to a fire.

Republican Tea Partiers have interesting theories. Some claim unemployment and recessions do not exist. These folks each personally know an employer who couldn’t get anyone to take a job they had open when unemployment was supposedly high. This proves (to them) that people on welfare are just too lazy to work.

Someone comes up with a theory that unemployment is created when non-Christian Democratic presidents like Barack Obama take tax money from hard-working white people and along with $multi trillion deficits, redistribute it to lazy black people so they don’t have to work. Millions of black Welfare Queens and Welfare Kings along with illegal immigrants on the government dole are running the US into bankruptcy. Since it paints Obama in a negative light, it must be true. Continuing their logic (or lack thereof), if we simply eliminated welfare, all these good for nothings would have to get jobs or starve. The $trillions saved would pay off the deficit and end income taxes.

In listening to Republicans and their fixation on eliminating unemployment benefits, or at the least demeaning recipients with drug tests, it seems they are jealous of the unemployed. How anyone can be jealous of a family living on unemployment benefits that are about 30% of their last job’s take home pay while working more than full time finding a new job? But, the Tea Party perception is unemployed people spend their time watching cable tv and having unprotected out-of-wedlock sex.

Give credit to Republican Congressman Paul Ryan who actually spends time with poor people. Unfortunately, most don’t want to complicate their perceptions with  reality.

The Republican alternative calls for churches providing temporary financial help to the  destitute. Cutting income taxes frees up donations to churches to fund charity for needy people.

A great story, but…

Throwing caution to the wind, this website attempts to use data to limit emotionalism in our political decisions while recognizing many people have no use for information that doesn’t back-up their long-held prejudices. This analysis focuses only on unemployment benefits. Food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance are also for working poor and are ignored while focusing on the unemployed.

Assuming the Republican/Tea Party explanation is correct, measured unemployment should be fairly constant except when Democrats control the presidency. It should skyrocket during President Barack Obama’s watch.

Figure 1

Source:Bureau Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Unemployment Rate, Seasonally adjusted, 16 years and over (Annualized).
Source:Bureau Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Unemployment Rate, Seasonally adjusted, 16 years and over (Annualized).

In Figure 1, the U.S. unemployment rate over the last 35 years (the blue line with the axis on the right side), reached its highest levels at 9.7% in 1982 and dropped to 9.6% in 1983. These were the second and third years of Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The unemployment rate averaged  7.5% in 1992, the last year of Republican George Bush’s presidency. It declined steadily during Democrat Bill Clinton’s tenure. The unemployment rate bottomed at 4.0% during his last year in office (2000) and started going up following Republican George W. Bush’s inauguration. The unemployment rate was 7.8%  in January 2009, George W. Bush’s last month in office as his Great Recession was hitting full stride. The recession continued during Democrat President Barack Obama’s term and the average annual unemployment rate peaked at 9.6% in 2010. This was just below Ronald Reagan’s highest unemployment rate.  It has plummeted since then and is at 5.7% in January 2015. The annual average from 1980-2014 is 6.5%.

What the data tells us…

Figure 1 blows away two Republican paradigms.

  1. Unemployment doesn’t exist. The data clearly shows a great deal of variation in annual unemployment rates, ranging from 9.7% to 4.0%. One can’t measure this kind of difference in unemployment rates and claim it doesn’t exist. While Republicans focus on the employer that couldn’t fill his opening, they ignore testimonials from companies with hundreds of applicants for their jobs. Success or failure in hiring during a recession says more about each job, the pay and the employer’s reputation  than anything about the economy.
  2. Democrats create unemployment by increasing jobless benefits when they control the presidency. Unemployment dropped from 7.5% to 4.0% during the Clinton presidency. Although Obama’s presidency saw unemployment rates reaching Reagan’s level, Obama came into office with an unemployment rate of 7.8% and in January 2015, it is down to 5.7%.
But there’s more…

So what about the Republican claim that all unemployed people are just plain lazy? Most unemployed workers collect benefits for a short period, find another job and re-enter the work force. Figure 1 also includes data on people who are unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. These are considered “long-term unemployed” since they received government unemployment benefits for at least half a year. Republicans likely categorize these people as freeloaders, welfare queens and welfare kings.

Assuming the Republican generalization is correct, this group should be a fairly consistent size. They will collect benefits for as long as they can, get a job when forced to, get fired as soon as possible and go back to getting unemployment benefits.

However, Figure 1 tells a different story.  The long-term unemployed almost perfectly mimic the unemployed population. When the overall unemployment rate goes down, so does the unemployment rate of the long-term unemployed. When it goes up, the size of this group also increases in size. In January 2015, 2.8 million people or 1.8% of the civilian population force were unemployed 27 weeks or longer.

What is different now…

What has changed is the duration of unemployment for some people. Using historical averages, workers losing their jobs got new ones in 10-20 weeks.

Figure 2

Source: Bureau Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Seas) Average Weeks Unemployed, Number of Weeks, 16 years and over; (Seas) Civilian Labor Force level, 16 years and over.

Figure 2 illustrates how this changed with the current recession. This number has not changed because of any extension of unemployment benefits. While the unemployment rate is at 5.2% in January 2015, the average length of unemployment is 33 weeks.

Figure 3

Source: Bureau Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Seas) Median Weeks Unemployed, Number of Weeks, 16 years and over; (Seas) Civilian Labor Force level, 16 years and over.

Averages are often misleading and this is the case here. Figure 3 gives a more accurate picture of typical unemployment durations. While the shape of the data curves in Figures 2 and 3 are almost identical , the numbers tell us different things. Because the median weeks unemployed in January 2015 is only 13 compared to the average of 33 weeks, it seems a segment of the unemployed aren’t working for a very long time and skew the data average.

Figure 4

Source: Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Number Unemployed and Number Unemployed 27 weeks and longer. Both in thousands and 16 years old and greater.

Figure 4 takes this a step further. While the majority of unemployed workers get new jobs quickly, this recession finds record numbers of people not able to get new employment even after 27 weeks. This is unprecedented. The good part is this group’s numbers are dropping rapidly.

The other segment of the non working workforce are classified as Discouraged Workers. These are people who dropped out of the workforce. They may have entered the underground cash economy, decided to stay home and raise children while the other spouse/partner works or retired early. Data is available on this group since 1994.

Figure 4

Source: Bureau Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Seas) Discouraged Workers, 16 years and over; (Seas) Civilian Labor Force level, 16 years and over.

The Discouraged Workers data closely follows unemployment and long-term unemployment data.  The Discouraged Worker annual average since 1994 is 1.4%. In January 2015, it is 1.8% of the workforce and dropping rapidly..

Putting this into perspective

The Republican blanket assertion that US citizens are too lazy to work is just plain wrong. The data clearly shows unemployment rates were actually higher during Ronald Reagan’s presidency 30 years ago than they were at any time in Obama’s term. The data also shows a dramatic drop in unemployment the year after George W. Bush left office.

Welfare,not all it is cracked up to be.
Welfare, not all it is cracked up to be.

For most people, the US safety net is working very well. In a dynamic, ever-changing  economy, people lose their jobs, get temporary help and get back in the workforce. What has changed is that 30% of the unemployed are having a very difficult time finding employment. The question we should be asking is if this is a problem needing attention?

As the economy improves, the number of long-term unemployed numbers are dropping rapidly . Because the Discouraged Worker numbers are also dropping in tandem, it doesn’t appear the long-term unemployed are simply moving to that group. It could be this problem will go away on its own.

The last Republican charge that the welfare safety net caused the US’s huge budget deficits is also devoid of fact. George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s tax cuts caused the $multi-trillion  deficits in Obama’s first term. At the start of Obama’s second term, he ended many of these tax cuts and others have expired. Not coincidentally, both the deficit and unemployment have dropped dramatically.

So, what do we make of all this? Republican Tea Partiers say silly things. Their fixation on President Barack Hussein Obama and his various evil plans to destroy working Christian US families are almost comical if they didn’t betray Republican Tea Partier’s blatant racism, hatred and their own stupidity.

Rather than admit Obama has done a wonderful job lifting the country out of George W. Bush’s recession, they would rather pretend there never was a recession. Rather than admit the country’s unemployment rate has crashed since Obama took office, these ignoramuses pretend there is no such thing as unemployment. Obviously, these are not conditions for reasoned political discourse.

Rather than try to eliminate the safety net, a far more effective way to lower the number of people receiving unemployment assistance is to mimic President Bill Clinton’s formula for lowering unemployment to record low levels by balancing the federal budget. Impacts on employment from having a balanced federal budget are explained at


Annual averages were calculated for the data in the graphs. Each month was weighted equally in the averages.

The “US Percent Discouraged Workers” was calculated by taking  the US Civilian Labor Force and adding the Discouraged Workers. This was the denominator and the Discouraged Workers average for each year was the numerator.



3 thoughts on “The Republican Welfare Paranoia”

  1. When discouraged workers leave the work force and don’t return; aren’t their available workers numbers dropped from the unemployment number? I think so. Also; when a discouraged worker re-enters the work force it creates a bigger % drop as they were not counted before but are now counted as a newly employed worker. Careful when working with numbers, percentages, and graphs. They can be mis-leading.

    1. Good point. The segment “Discouraged Workers” are not included in the Unemployment numbers. The Unemployment Rate (%) is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed by the Civilian Labor Force. The Civilian Labor Force includes employed people and unemployed people and not Discouraged Workers. You are correct whet happens when a Discouraged Worker enters the workforce.
      Figure 4 is a calculation of the percent of the workforce that are Discouraged Workers. Since Discouraged Workers are not included in the Civilian Labor Force, simply dividing the number of Discouraged Workers by the Civilian Labor Force (which is the at risk group) would be inaccurate. As I included in the Appendix, to correct this, I added the Discouraged Workers to the Civilian Labor Force. This is the denominator and the number of Discouraged Workers is the numerator to calculate the percentage of Discouraged Workers. This is the correct way to do this and I’m not certain why the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t include this calculation in their data? Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. My answer to Anonymous’s comment yesterday was more about counting trees and in so doing, I missed the forest. Often when we get wrapped up in data details, we lose sight that we can make data alterations and the numbers will change. However, the decision we made from the original data doesn’t change. This is the case with Discouraged Workers impacting the % Unemployment figures. In Figure 4, a 0.75% annual change in % of the Civilian Workforce that are Discouraged Workers is huge. However, when I increase the Civilian Workforce (the denominator in the % Unemployed equation) by 0.75%, January 2015’s Unemployment Rate changes from 5.71% to 5.67%. Both numbers round to 5.7%. While no data is perfect and we need to be careful using graphs, the far bigger danger is diminishing good data’s value by arguing about nuances. In so doing, we risk more people ignoring data and going back to making decisions using their very inaccurate perceptions and prejudices.

Thanks for commenting!

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