Our View: Laws unnecessarily punish the unemployed, on food stamps

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One thing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and Democratic President Barack can agree on is the economy is gaining strength in many parts of the country, particularly when it comes to jobs. In his final State of the Union address Monday, Obama boasted of a national economy that has stabilized after nearly falling into a Depression as he first took office.

“We’re in the middle of the longest streak of private-sector job creation in history -- more than 14 million new jobs; the strongest two years of job growth since the 1990s; an unemployment rate cut in half,” he said.

McCrory last week, at a small business summit in Raleigh, said the state’s unemployment rate has improved dramatically since he took office in 2013, and is now at 5.7 percent. The state has also created 250,000 private sector jobs since 2013 and expects to add 100,000 new jobs this year.

However, no one is saying where those jobs will be created. And clearly, no one is referencing how many jobs were also lost during that same time. Nor are they talking about unemployment rates that include those whose benefits have run out and those who have stopped looking, which in North Carolina was 11.5 percent in September and 10.8 percent nationwide.

Nor are they saying what type of jobs are being created. Are they long-term, good-paying ones with benefits, or are they minimum wage and part-time jobs in the service sector?

Seemingly lost in all this politicizing of the jobs picture is the face of those who have lost a job through no fault of their own. Not enough is being said about the household that is strapped with rising debt while the unemployed breadwinner searches in futility each week for a job that matches their skills and pays somewhere close to what they were making.

Those in that painful, and many times helpless, situation need a hand up, not sand kicked in their face.

Yet, McCrory and the Legislature saw fit last year to pass two laws that punish the unemployed and food stamp recipients, who have not enjoyed the benefits of what conservative columnist John Hood of the John Lock Foundation has called the “Carolina Comeback” of economic progress.

As of this month, those who file new unemployment insurance claims must now make five valid job contacts a week instead of two with potential employers. Apparently, pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps another three times a week supposedly will make all the difference. Those who don’t make five contacts a week lose their benefits for that week. Also, they “must keep a detailed record of their work search activities,” according to the Division of Employment Security.

“This legislation will give us the tools we need to put people back to work sooner and crack down on the fraud that has plagued the program for years,” McCrory said.

There’s that word “fraud” again, which was also used by the legislature to justify making voting harder through stricter voter ID and shortened voting hours, even though penalties for voter fraud already existed and documented cases were extremely rare.

With the new unemployment law, claims will be entered into a database that can be cross-referenced to will allow investigators to more easily detect identity theft. The big fraud case cited by McCrory happened in 2012 when three Swain County Jail inmates were collecting unemployment payments while they were still locked up.

As for food stamps, it used to be that able-bodied adults without dependents could continue to receive food stamps as long as they could prove they were seeking work.

Now, thanks to the legislature’s “Protect North Carolina Workers Act” signed into law in October by McCrory, an estimated 110,000 people will lose their benefits after the standard three-month period unless they can prove they worked, trained or volunteered 20 hours a week.

That’s because a federal waiver that enabled those adults to receive food stamps beyond three months -- which was enacted because of the recession and higher jobless rates -- was not renewed under the state’s legislation.

“It’s harsh and inhumane to starve people if they are unable to meet the requirements,” said state Sen. Angela R. Bryant, D-Rocky Mount.

Apparently, our lawmakers would rather use the proverbial stick to motivate those citizens hard-pressed through no fault of their own — those usually wrongly characterized as lazy welfare leeches — than give them a dignified hand up with good-paying jobs or at least the means to eat.

The governor is right in recognizing that an improved job market is good for the state. But it’s more important that he send the message that a few gains here and there are not enough; the objective of prosperity is a shared benefit for all North Carolinians.