It’s no fun to be poor under any circumstances, but it’s especially tough in Florida. The state takes umbrage at helping the poor, doling out aid with a Scrooge-like mindset riddled with suspicion and skepticism.
Take Gov. Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign promise to give drug tests to Floridians on welfare. The Legislature approved the drug testing in 2011 and even made sure welfare beneficiaries paid the $35 cost for urine tests. After a federal judge ruled the tests unconstitutional, citing the Fourth Amendment’s protection against searches and seizures, Gov. Scott vowed to fight the ruling, spending tax dollars to press the state’s case.
Next, the Legislature refused to expand the state’s Medicaid program, even though, under the Affordable Care Act, the feds would pay for several years’ coverage for about a million Floridians not eligible under current Medicaid rules.
Now comes officials’ response to the state’s glitch-ridden new online unemployment-claim website, CONNECT. The site, like one recently launched in California, had a defective registration system, stopping unemployment checks in October because claimants’ eligibility couldn’t be verified. California took the humane route. It cut the checks first, then dealt with the online problems to determine eligibility later.
But Florida officials spent three months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to determine whether the roughly 10,000 jobless claims were legit. Rather than cut checks to help out-of-work Floridians the last three months and verify claims later, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity spent $500,000 on overtime and, later, $165,000 a week to hire extra people to review and verify claims.
DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio announced Saturday that the payments can now resume, citing clearance from federal officials to proceed. Yet it remains unclear why federal approval was needed in Florida, since it wasn’t necessary in California.
What is clear is that the state wants to accommodate the folks who pay for jobless benefits. Florida businesses pay taxes on employees to pay for the unemployment fund — plus there are federal subsidies for the system. A 2011 state law makes it harder for the unemployed to gain access to benefits, therefore helping businesses’ bottom lines by reducing jobless claims overall.
The law requires recipients to take a 45-minute skills test and file proof every week that they’ve sought work from five employers — the highest number in the nation. The law also cut the number of weeks, currently at 16, people are eligible for jobless assistance, based on the state’s unemployment rate, and makes it easier for the state to deny benefits for “misconduct.”
The law brought down the number of unemployed receiving benefits to 15 percent, one of the nation’s lowest rates.
There are two ways to look at the state’s policies: One, Florida’s tough rules have pushed jobless people into finding new work sooner; two, the rules are so stringent that many out-of-work residents simply stop trying to find another job or seek benefits. In both cases, though, Florida businesses are the winners by keeping their unemployment taxes down. That can be seen as a positive for a state still struggling to recover from the recession, which, in turn, could ultimately increase job creation.
But Tallahassee needs to strike a better balance between being business-friendly and semi-hostile toward those who need a hand.