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More red states extend unemployment aid to vaccine opponents

In the spring, Republicans were desperate to end jobless benefits. Now, they've changed their minds — but only for the unvaccinated.

It was in the spring when many of the nation's Republican governors embraced a provocative economic idea. As regular readers may recall, after congressional Democrats approved enhanced unemployment benefits, these GOP officials decided the smart move would be to cut off the extra assistance to the jobless, in the hopes that it would force people back to work faster.

We now know, of course, that the idea was wrong, and the Republican policy didn't have the intended effect. But the larger point remained unchanged: Leading GOP officials saw unemployment aid as a problem. The sooner jobless benefits could be curtailed, the better off we'd be as able-bodied Americans returned to the workforce. Paying people not to work, Republicans argued, was counter-productive.

In recent months, many of those same GOP officials have changed their minds — but only for a small part of the population.

In October, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — one of the Republicans who rushed to get people off of jobless aid in the spring — acted quickly to make unemployment benefits available to those who lost their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated. A month later, a handful of other red states had done the same thing. The Washington Post reported yesterday, meanwhile, that the list is gradually growing.

Workers who quit or are fired for cause — including for defying company policy — are generally ineligible for jobless benefits. But Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have carved out exceptions for those who won't submit to the multi-shot coronavirus vaccine regimens that many companies now require.

Conservative officials in Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Missouri are reportedly weighing similar policies.

As the Post noted, these moves have plenty of critics. Businesses disapprove — employers would rather have protected workforces than shoulder the UI costs — as do Biden administration officials desperately trying to expand the reach of their vaccination campaign. Public health experts, meanwhile, have noted that these red states are "incentivizing people to skip shots" that would help end the pandemic.

The critics, of course, are entirely right.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, under normal circumstances, Americans who voluntarily give up their jobs or are fired for cause aren't eligible for unemployment benefits. But thanks to Republicans in these five states, those who leave their jobs because they oppose vaccines can get checks from the government anyway.

As Catherine Rampell recently explained, these red states are now effectively "paying people not to get vaccinated."

The larger disconnect remains jarring. In the spring, unemployment insurance was derided by Republicans for creating unhealthy disincentives: People would make irresponsible decisions, they said, affecting themselves and the larger economy, as a result of unneeded financial rewards. The goal, they argued, should be to get as many people off jobless aid as quickly as possible.

But over the last couple of months, as some Americans began giving up their jobs after choosing to go unvaccinated during a pandemic, Republicans arrived at an entirely different set of assumptions. All of a sudden, government handouts to people who aren't working are a good thing — just so long as GOP officials approve of the recipients' political agenda.

If these jobless benefits undermine the Biden administration's efforts to get Americans vaccinated and curtail the pandemic, that's a price these Republicans are happy to pay.

It's another detail to remember as Republicans try to blame the White House for the fact that the crisis is still ongoing.