Whenever I visit a small business around Idaho, I ask them, “What is the greatest challenge you face?”
For years, the most common response was the IRS or burdensome government regulations. Last year, business owners cited the pandemic. Now almost unanimously, the response is, “We cannot find enough people to work.”
This will come as no surprise to anyone in Idaho. You need only walk down the street of any city or town to see “Help Wanted” signs in nearly every shopfront window. In Kellogg, a regional employer is short 50 workers. In Boise, a fast-food chain is down 300 employees and forced to close their doors several days each week. Across the state, businesses — particularly small businesses — are running out of incentives to get employees back.
Employers have increased wages. They’ve offered signing bonuses or “show up on your first day of work” bonuses. But as the owner of a popular diner told a Boise news station after raising hourly wages anywhere from $13 to $20, “You have a price point to where you can only charge so much for an omelet or a cheeseburger.”
For close to half of Idaho’s workforce, there was more money available on federally enhanced unemployment than by earning a paycheck. When combined with stimulus payments and child income tax credits, there was no incentive to get back on the job, even as COVID-19 vaccines became available and job postings grew abundant.
The idea that a paycheck is earned is a foundational American value. Our country was built by people who responsibly worked hard to make a living to care for their families and communities. Their work ethic formed the bedrock of American enterprise and innovation that we enjoy to this day. But the Biden administration has done more than any in our history to separate the connection between work and money, treating them as unrelated concepts instead of instilling those core values in the next generation. That decoupling poses an existential threat to America’s economic future.
Immediately preceding the pandemic, the U.S. was in the middle of the longest economic expansion in our history. We had record low unemployment and consistent job and wage growth at all income levels. In spite of the disruption caused by the pandemic, that strong economic foundation still exists, and all Americans deserve solutions that put us back on the path to recapturing that incredible economic momentum.
In that regard, Idaho is leading the pack. Under Governor Brad Little’s conservative leadership, Idaho ended its fiscal year with a surplus of nearly $900 million, adding to the largest surplus in state history. In addition, Idaho earned a top five rank for strongest state economies and a top 10 rank for employment. When Governor Little announced in May that Idaho would end participation in the enhanced federal unemployment benefits program, employers across the Gem State reported a jump in job applicants. Since enhanced unemployment payments ended on June 19, scores more workers have re-entered the workforce. In the two weeks that followed June 19, the Boise diner owner who was offering upwards of $20 per hour hired eight new employees.
Our free-market system is what made the U.S. the most successful country on earth. When the government wades too far in, market incentives get warped and the market stops being so effective. While there’s no silver bullet for the labor market problem, we must do all we can to help people get off government assistance and become gainfully employed. That begins with ending enhanced unemployment benefits, opposing wasteful federal spending and making it easier for people to get back on the job.
Hard work and personal responsibility — not the federal government — are what strengthen the fabric of Idaho’s communities. That’s what we need to stay focused on. If we keep our eye on the ball and work to get people back on the job, we can have the strongest economy in history.
— Jim Risch represents Idaho in the U.S. Senate.