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Do unemployment benefits "spoil" Americans for real work?

That's the topic of this week's column with Ben Boychuk for Scripps Howard News Service -- inspired by Sharron Angle's comments in Nevada. My take:
Let's forget political philosophy for a moment and focus only on math: At the moment, there is exactly one open job in America for every five people trying to find work. Even if every available spot were filled, 80 percent of the unemployed -- millions of Americans -- would still be unemployed. That's not because they're spoiled or lazy or intentionally unproductive. They're just unlucky.

Today's critics of unemployment insurance suggest the system takes money from productive citizens and gives it to the unproductive.

Perhaps. But those "productive" citizens should understand that they're not just throwing money down a rat hole -- they're buying civilization.

Look back at the origins of unemployment insurance. The Great Depression hit America in 1929, and unemployment rates soared far beyond the current crisis. In 1932, a "Bonus Army" of 17,000 unemployed World War I veterans marched on Washington D.C. -- and were dispersed with deadly force. Capitalism and the American system stood at the brink.

The Social Security Act of 1935 -- which created our modern unemployment insurance system -- helped change that. Workers and their families suddenly had breathing room when work disappeared. They were able to pay their mortgages, buy food and keep participating in the economy. That made them less inclined to act desperately -- and the "trickle up" effect helped keep other merchants in business.

Capitalism survived and thrived.

Our 21st-century economy isn't quite as dire, but the lessons from that era are still true. And it's reprehensible that Republicans like Sharron Angle treat hard-luck Americans like they're parasites.

Full disclosure: I've been collecting unemployment benefits while seeking a full-time job. I've also found part-time work and freelance writing gigs to supplement that income. So I certainly don't feel spoiled or lazy. I have, however, learned the value of a strong safety net.
I wasn't thrilled to disclose my job status in the column -- the thing gets printed around the nation and even, on occasion, internationally -- but I felt duty-bound to share that I have a personal stake in this debate. I assure you, though, that my opinions would've been the same either way.


KhabaLox said…
You have a good point that there are many fewer jobs than there are unemployed people. However, my step-mother did more to convince me of merits of the conservative argument than all my debates with Ben, Jim (Lakely) et al when she said, "Why should I get a job [paying minimum wage or close to it] when I make more on unemployment?"

Sadly, I think there is a not insignificant portion of the unemployed who are spoiled for real work.
Joel said…
Well, K, I don't know your MIL's circumstances otherwise -- but it's possible that instead of being spoiled she's being economically rational.

Remember, too, that the same conservatives who argue against robust unemployment insurance are, generally, the same folks who fight against every increase in the minimum wage.
brendancalling said…
ben's comments sound like something written by someone who's never experienced unemployment before. So, as someone who's experienced it more than once, I'll take this opportunity to call bullshit.

But first a quick response to Khabaloz's MIL. "Why should I get a job [paying minimum wage or close to it] when I make more on unemployment?" When you have kids to feed and a mortgage to pay you absolutely SHOULD hold out for the better job and continue to collect the benefits that you're ENTITLED to.

Now to ben, who doesn't seem to grasp the fact that THERE ARE NO JOBS. So when ben argues for cutting off unemployment benefits, he's really arguing for kids to go without food, for more houses to go into foreclosure, for more domestic violence and substance abuse (both tied to long bouts of unemployment).

ben doesn't seem to get that unemployment checks are always far LESS than what you got as a wage-earner. It's not a reward. It's not income that allows you to put up your feet and relax. everyone i know who has ever been on unemployment, including me, has struggled as hard as possible to find new work.

I've been on unemployment, and it sucks. You spend most of your days feeling useless or worse, as you send out applications and resumes that never garner a response, that you're constantly stressed out because you can't afford anything anymore, that you go through periods of depression and terror that you'll end up on the street. I'm not surprised that ben doesn't understand this: he is, after all, a conservative and by definition lacks empathy (conservatives see this as a weakness) and foresight (conservatives oppose any given human service until they need help, and then it's OK: see George Will's support for programs for the retarded, Arlen Specter's support for medical marijuana, Dick Cheney's support for gay marriage).

But the fact remains: there are no jobs. Minimum wage does not pay the mortgage or feed the kids. Unemployment allows people to survive through incredibly bad times (where conservatives embrace social darwinism).
namefromthepast said…
Which came first the chicken or the egg?

A powerful micro point is that you can't plan for the future when you can't take care of the present, such as someone who is unemployed or underemployed. Therefore unemployment benefits extended for a long time is a good thing.

One macro point is an employer is less likely to add employees when unemployment insurance has gone up drastically over the past 2 yrs.

Political and legal instability in heath, liability insurance, tax code, regulations, potential energy costs relating to pending cap and trade, etc, make this economic recovery a "jobless" recovery. I feel in large part due to our helpful gov't.

There are too many variables outside business's influence(in addition to unemployment benefits)to determine whether to risk expansion.

Nobody cares for theory when they are out of work, but repeatedly extending benefits long term is unfair to the employed and unemployed.

Sharing your work situation lends credibility to your stance, in my humble opinion.

Best of luck Joel!
Peggy said…
I read both your pieces on unemployment benefits today and feel the need to comment. I am 61+ years old, have worked till I was laid off last September (never used it before in all those years) and have used the initial 26 weeks and am in need of an extension. First, as a Real Estate Paralegal, and jobs are not there and to use my 30+ years of prior Banking experience is fruitless also. Few jobs available and they will not hire me with all my experience and although they will not admit it my age is a deterent. Even low wages jobs are not offered me because of obvious education and experience and age. I do not feel the benefits should extend past the 99 current weeks but I think they should be open to extending anyone who has exhausted the original 26 weeks. Congess should fund the extension to 99 weeks (max) for unemployed and not extend it any further for those that have been on the rolls for 99 weeks already. I do not want welfare just a fair shake for the years I have paid into it and worked to pay others their benefits when unemployed.
Joel said…
Peggy, thanks for your comments.
Jackie said…
you are sooooo wrong. my daughter is an unemployed single mother and there are no jobs for her!!!! she is out everyday looking. even mcdonalds is not hiring!!!!!!! she stands in line for a job taking hundreds of applications for two positions!!!!!! people like my daughter need the unemployment beneifts not the lazy people. so how do we determine who needs it and who is being lazy?????

We have exhausted our savings helping our daughter and granddaughter out.

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