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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden argued that Friday's disappointing employment numbers are evidence Congress should pass his $4 trillion infrastructure and jobs package to jumpstart the economy — and are not a byproduct of his policies as Republicans contended.
Biden said the economy is still reeling from the pandemic and that help is needed for the millions of Americans who continue to suffer.
Republicans, who have been arguing for months that boosted unemployment benefits are stalling job growth and that more government spending could spur inflation, pointed to the slow job growth as evidence that Biden's request would hurt, not help, the nation.
Biden also noted that much of the $2 trillion in the Covid-19 relief bill approved in March is still being distributed, including a $29 billion fund for restaurants that the administration started taking applications for this week.
"We have to build back better, that's why we need the American Jobs Plan I proposed to put us in a position where we can build back better, to reclaim our position as the leading and most innovative nation in the world," Biden said.
The U.S. economy gained 266,000 jobs last month, far short of the more than 1 million economic analysts predicted. Economists attributed the lackluster numbers to a range of issues, including parents being unable to work because of a lack of child care, concerns over health and safety in the workplace, and workers disincentivized from returning to the job market because of expanded unemployment benefits.
Some of Biden’s spending proposals are intended to tackle those issues. Biden wants Congress to pass a $2.3 trillion spending bill that would fund everything from new bridges and electric vehicle charging stations to helping families pay for elder care. He’s also asking Congress to fund a second $2 trillion package that would provide free pre-K education, extend a child tax credit and help defray child care costs.
"My laser focus is on growing the nation's economy and creating jobs," Biden said. "My laser focus is on vaccinating our nation, and we're making continued progress. My laser focus is on one more thing, making sure working people in this country, hard working people are no longer left out in the cold. They're going to get to share the benefits of a rising economy. It's been a long time since that happened."
Biden will meet with six Republican senators, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, next Thursday to continue negotiations on the president's economic legislation, a White House official told NBC News on Friday.
Republicans, with Capito playing point, have proposed a slimmer $568 billion infrastructure package.
Economists had expected to see the jobs market power back in April as millions of recently vaccinated Americans started returning to activities like traveling and dining out.
“This is a mixed bag for the White House, there's some things that really, they believe, will help especially female labor force participation,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, said on MSNBC. But he added that “this isn't like a slam dunk that the things they are proposing are going to solve the problem.”
But some economists say employers, particularly in the restaurant and entertainment industry, have been struggling to find workers because Biden's relief package which included extended pandemic benefits for the unemployed, is deterring some workers from returning to their old job or seeking out a new position.
Bank of America estimates that for those who were earning less than $32,000 a year before the pandemic, unemployment pays more than their former job. And, the bank estimates, that could keep 1 million people out of the workforce.
After the jobs report, the Chamber of Commerce called for an end to the extra $300 in federal unemployment benefits, saying it's keeping people from returning to work.
Earlier this week Montana’s Republican governor said his state would no longer participate in the federal pandemic-related benefits program. Instead, it will use the money from the American Rescue Plan to pay people $1,200 if they take a job.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen pushed back on the idea that Americans are not working because of the unemployment benefits saying she isn't seeing that being reflected in the economic data.
"I really don’t think the major factor is the extra unemployment," she said Friday.
Rather, Yellen said hiring was being slowed by child care issues as some schools remain closed, fears about Covid exposure and bottlenecks in the supply chain. She said she expects the country to return to full employment next year.
Republicans blamed the Biden administration’s policies for the weak jobs report Friday, with many arguing that now is not the time for Congress and the president to raise taxes.
“Joe Biden is squandering the economic recovery he inherited from President Trump and Republicans. The numbers don’t lie – this is the biggest miss on a jobs report in more than two decades and Biden’s failed policies are to blame,” Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said in a statement that the report was “disappointing but not surprising.” Scalise and other GOP lawmakers suggested that it’s partially the result of people relying on unemployment benefits that the federal government has boosted.
A person who works 40 hours a week in Scalie's state at the minimum wage would make less than the $300 federal unemployment benefits.
“We need to end the wasteful government practice of paying people more money to stay at home than going back to work,” Scalise said. “Manufacturing jobs actually declined in April. We are seeing alarming signs of inflation, fears of a massive tax increases, and muddled messages from the White House about returning to normal life.”