March 7, 2010 by D Stack
During and after Jim Bunning’s odd filibuster against extending unemployment benefits an odd narrative emerged. It would be good to end unemployment benefits. The narrative goes something along the lines of it doesn’t do any good for the economy and receiving unemployment makes people lazy and not want to find a job.
As far as the first argument goes, unemployment insurance tends to prevent a massive snowball form people losing their jobs. Some amount of income allows them to continue patronizing stores and obtain needed services, allowing other people to stay employed. The estimate is every dollar spent on unemployment puts about $1.61 into the economy.
The second argument suggests that there exists a large number of people that will happily take 50% or less of their salary for an indefinite amount of time to do nothing but loaf around. Now I don’t need to look far for examples of this. I’ve had friends tell me of relatives who have done this and I’ve known at least one person who figured with all the money put into unemployment over years of employment it made sense to get full return. So I know the number of people who do this is non-zero. However, this option is just not even a possibility for most people. When I was unemployed after the birth of my first child, between the need to pay for health insurance, the mortgage, utilities, food, and countless doctor visits, we were well into tapping savings. For reference, I took a look at what the rate would be to pick up COBRA through my employer – approximately $1400.00 per month to cover my entire family. In Massachusetts I’d be maxing out at about $675 per week, so we’d be looking at over half of unemployment money going immediately to health care. The remainder would need to be split between mortgage, utilities, and frivolous stuff like food. And then there’s daycare… Drop it right away? Keep it in hopes of getting a new job quickly?
Thankfully, these are not choices I have had to make since 2002 – and I pray not to need to make them in the near future. But they are brutal choices that many families find themselves faced with. To suggest these people are loafing around seems both offensive and indicative of being woefully out of touch. Not to say there are not some who try to game the system. Just like at any job there are people who give the appearance of being busy, at universities there are always some who find a way to do well with minimal effort. Abuses should of course be identified where possible, but the fact those abuses exist is not reason to further degrade and humiliate the vast majority of people. In today’s economy it is estimated that, on average for every job opening, there are five candidates. I do not believe that even the hardest amount of work can change the mathematics of that.
Beyond that this is indicative of a greater trend in American life. We celebrate the rugged individual, the one who makes his own way, who “lifts himself by his bootstraps” (I have a hard time picturing just what that means). We see stories about people like Bill Gates who form find a need and become mega-gazillionaires. And those people do exist. And the opportunity for advancement in our nation certainly does exist and something we have cause to be proud of. But for the vast majority of people where you start is a good estimation of where you’ll finish. Just like the vast majority of start-ups, new business ventures, independent restaurants, etc. will all fail. And even if you do everything right, there is always the chance that something totally outside your control will strike. A cancerous cell that spreads. A car accident that leaves you or a loved one crippled. We’d like to believe that people fail because they were lazy. Because they made poor decisions. But that is often not the case. And even if it is, what then? Even if we as a society would gladly consign such a person to the streets, does such a person’s dependents deserve such a fate as well?
I’ve seen signs at “tea parties” with slogans like “redistribute my work ethic”. But I’ve known countless workaholics who get laid off. At a start-up I was at back in 2001 I recall one incident when I worked several hours after “quitting time” with another engineer untangling a particularly troublesome technical problem. This was typical for him, such was his dedication. The next day he was unemployed, hit by a layoff.
Life is unpredictable. Government cannot insure every single person succeeds. But it certainly seems appropriate to prevent people from falling into poverty through no fault of their own. A social safety net. One that seems under assault even as more and more people find themselves needing it.