Tough love for South Carolina’s jobless

Published on January 20, 2012

By Libby Lewis | CNN Radio

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich may or may not win the GOP nomination. But his words warm the cockles of the hearts of Republican business leaders here.

If’s he’s elected, he told South Carolina business leaders this week, “We never again pay anyone for 99 weeks of doing nothing. … It is profoundly wrong to pay people to do nothing.”

Gingrich wants to require job training in exchange for an unemployment check. In South Carolina, some lawmakers want to impose mandatory volunteer work and drug tests.

Welcome to the tough love state for people without jobs. Or people who have some work but not enough to make it.

Kevin Bryant, an outspoken conservative in the state Senate, is sponsoring a bill to require drug tests for people who apply for unemployment benefits.

Conservative lawmakers in 10 other states have introduced similar measures.

Bryant, an affable, rosy-cheeked pharmacist from Anderson, is backing Ron Paul for president.

“Barry Goldwater said back in the day, ‘It is not my goal to promote welfare — but to protect freedom,’ ” Bryant told CNN this week, standing on the steps of the South Carolina State House.

“When we protect freedom, the quality of life always improves. When we try to distribute wealth, we only bring everybody down.”

South Carolina is one of the poorest states in the nation, and its official unemployment rate — just under 10 percent — is higher than the nation’s. It has been since the recession began.

It ranks near the bottom — 45th — in the amount of money it gives to people who’ve lost jobs. The average check is $235 a week. And South Carolina cuts off benefits six weeks earlier than most other states.

Bryant says he thinks it’s too easy for workers who don’t really want to work to get unemployment benefits.

“We’re subsidizing poor behavior,” he says. “When you do that, you get more poor behavior.”

He tells a story of a constituent who called his office asking for help to extend his unemployment benefits. Bryant’s office offered to help the man get a job that required a commercial driver’s license.

“And he said, ‘No, I’m not really interested in that job. I just want to keep my check coming.'”

“And it’s unfortunate that we do have a mind-set that is really based on breaking one of the Commandments — Thou shalt not covet. We have some segment in our society that feels like they are deserving of something taken from somebody else. And we’ve got to get away from that.”

That’s not the real issue, some people say.

“The problem is, we are a poor state,” says Sue Berkowitz, director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of poor people.

“We don’t have many jobs. The jobs we have don’t pay living wages. Instead of addressing the real problems out there, he’s blaming people for having misfortune.”

Frank Knapp says Kevin Bryant isn’t alone in doing that. Knapp heads the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

“What we typically do here in South Carolina is try to blame the victim — instead of having a true game plan to grow our economy from the bottom up,” Knapp told CNN this week.

South Carolina has long tried to create jobs by recruiting outside manufacturers — such as BMW and Boeing — by offering huge tax breaks and other incentives.

One of those incentives is South Carolina’s cheap labor force. It’s a right-to-work state, meaning unions have little influence.

Knapp says the state’s strategy of “chasing the big elephants” has left South Carolina with a vulnerable economy.

“We rely on all these deals to recruit a manufacturer from another state,” he said. That’s what we did with Boeing. Boeing was going to build someplace. We won that deal. Did we create any new jobs for this country that weren’t going to be created anyway? No.”

“But if we invested a little more effort in South Carolina to grow small businesses and create jobs that would not go anywhere else, and are never going to move out of state — we would have more of a sustainable economy.”

He said that would mean fewer unemployed people.

One of those unemployed people is Hudie Evans of Columbia.

He’s 62 years old, and he hasn’t had steady full-time work since mid-2009 when he lost his job as a production supervisor at a bakery company.

But here’s a twist: Evans says he likes Senator Bryant’s tough-love philosophy.

“I’ve worked all my life,” he said. “I don’t believe in government handouts. Because it’s not government’s job to do that.”

Evans is another Ron Paul supporter. He’s a college grad — he has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

But he doesn’t know where his rent is coming from in three months.

His last real job was at the new Amazon facility here — one that got millions of dollars in state incentives to move to South Carolina.

Evans said the agency that hired him led him to think it would become a full-time job. He says he worked his heart out to make that happen. But he and dozens of other workers got laid off days before Christmas.

That’s when Evans learned he’d just been hired to help out for the holidays.

Evans keeps looking for full-time work. He says he won’t be asking for help from South Carolina. He’s a believer in tough love, too.

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