Topeka U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Topeka, said some people "are happy" to stay unemployed to collect benefits rather than work.
Jenkins' Democratic opponent, Tobias Schlingensiepen, criticized her remark.
Jenkins statement about the unemployed came during a meeting on Wednesday in Columbus, which is in Cherokee County in southeast Kansas.
According to The Joplin Globe, Lori Johnson, chairwoman of the Cherokee County Republican Party, said some residents remain on unemployment rather than taking a low-paying job, then they claim a deduction on their taxes.
The Globe reported that Jenkins responded, saying, "Right now we have people who are happy to collect unemployment and not work. We have a problem with people working the system."
Schlingensiepen said Jenkins' comment was insulting.
"Congresswoman Jenkins sounds like she has spent so much time in Washington she has forgotten what real life is like," Schlingensiepen said.
"Nobody is happy to be unemployed. To offer a catchphrase instead of a solution is insulting. When I go to Washington, I'll work with both parties to create jobs for the people of Cherokee County, not criticize them," he said.
Southeast Kansas has among the highest unemployment rates in the state. Cherokee County, which borders both Missouri and Oklahoma, had an 8.6 percent jobless rate in July compared with 6.7 percent statewide. Cherokee County also has a higher rate of people living below the poverty line — 17.5 percent compared with 12.4 percent statewide, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Bill Roe, who is campaign manager for Jenkins, said that Jenkins recently met with a small businessman who said that when he tried to make a hire, the applicant said he couldn't start for a few weeks because that is when his unemployment ran out.
"It's precisely this type of abuse of the system that is siphoning money away from folks who legitimately need it," Roe said. "Unlike Tobias Schlingensiepen, Congresswoman Jenkins has no intention of standing by silently while thieves steal money from individuals in need," he said.
Schlingensiepen said Roe's comment represented more of the same insulting.
"In two days time, Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins and her campaign have called the people of Cherokee County thieves and happy to be unemployed," he said. "Besides the obvious insult to people who are trying hard to get jobs, it’s that kind of tone that is never going to solve problems for the people of the 2nd District," he added.
Jenkins is seeking a third two-year term to represent the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Lawrence and much of eastern Kansas. Schlingensiepen, a Topeka pastor, is making his first run for elective office. Libertarian Dennis Hawver of Ozawkie is also on the ballot.