Jobless workers dispute claim that unemployment benefits foster complacency
It’s an old theory that’s gaining new political currency: By cushioning the blow of unemployment for nearly two years, jobless benefits discourage recipients from looking for work.
The claim, most frequently advanced by conservative pundits and politicians aligned with the conservative “tea party” movement, is seen as a fresh insult by the nation’s suffering unemployed workers.
Nevada Republican U.S. Senate candidate and tea party favorite Sharron Angle, who is vying for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s seat, put it this way this summer: “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but doesn’t pay as much. We’ve put so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.”
In July, as Congress debated extending emergency jobless benefits, an economist from the conservative Heritage Foundation said on PBS’ “NewsHour” that increasing unemployment insurance payments to 99 weeks — the maximum now available — had “created a bit of a problem.” Giving help for extended periods, said William Beach, “changes the behavior of the people who are unemployed. They don’t look for work as much as they otherwise would.”
In an opinion piece on the Fox News website, economist John Lott wrote that the unprecedented length of today’s unemployment benefits “is almost like a drug addiction.”
Advocates for workers, and the unemployed themselves, are pushing back. Last week, a Facebook group called Extend Unemployment Benefits, with nearly 4,000 members, received a flurry of attention. It is devoted to lobbying for a bill introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that would create a new tier of jobless benefits for those who have exhausted their unemployment insurance.
Pointedly called the Americans Who Want to Work Act, the bill would provide an additional 20 weeks of financial assistance. Unemployment compensation is funded by taxes paid by employers, not by workers. The average weekly check is about $300.
Dave Yocom, a 60-year-old college graduate, has been unemployed since 2008. After recovering from a stroke at 54 that wiped out his savings, he left the high- stress restaurant business and went to work for a construction company that repaired residential fire and water damage. He said he is insulted by the idea that receiving about $400 a week in unemployment diminished his desire to find work, or that it was comparable to drug addiction.
Critics of unemployment, he said, “are either incredibly naive or they … have quite the opinion of themselves if they think it can’t happen to them.”
Since losing his job, Yocom estimated, he has sent out 50 resumes a week. He said he has received no job offers. He believes that his age is his biggest impediment. That and his ruined credit score, which prospective employers often check.
His 99 weeks of unemployment insurance ran out in April. He receives food stamps and lives in his sister’s home in suburban Chicago. His sister, unemployed as well, will receive jobless benefits through November. After that, Yocom said, he’s not sure how they will make ends meet.
James Sherk, senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that workers like Yocom are in terrible straits, but said that such suffering does not change the fact that unemployment benefits lead recipients to have unrealistic expectations — particularly in hard-hit industries such as construction or automobile manufacturing.
“Encouraging someone to look for a job that is not going to return is not ultimately helpful to them,” Sherk said. “If you have two years of benefits, it’s natural to spend the first six months looking for the same job you had. Some will find jobs, but the vast majority won’t, and they have become less productive employees because their job skills are deteriorating.”
But Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocate for workers and the unemployed, said the point of unemployment insurance is to provide a cushion that might protect against downward mobility.
“There’s nothing wrong with the idea that unemployment benefits would actually enable someone to spend a little more time looking for an appropriate job — or, for that matter, spending time in job training,” Owens said. “You want people to improve their skills and find a better job.”
In the current job market, there are nearly five unemployed people for every job, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank. That alone, Owens said, means that most unemployed workers are out of luck, no matter how much they yearn for a paycheck.
She cited a recent Rutgers University survey that found 73% of Americans have been “directly affected” by the current recession, meaning they had lost a job or had either a family member or a friend who lost a job.
“We find Americans have great sympathy and empathy for the plight of the unemployed,” wrote the survey’s coauthor, Cliff Zukin of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers. “The unemployed are seen as wanting to work and trying hard to get jobs.”
Last year, stories popped up about younger workers looking on the bright side of layoffs. They were usually single and unencumbered by mortgages and children — like Alexis Mansinne, 27, who lost her job at a magazine and began a blog called Funemployment.
Mansinne, now a graduate student in counseling at Cal State Long Beach, said she used the term to make a scary situation less daunting, not to convey frivolity. Even while on unemployment, she spent many hours a week looking for work. But not everyone was as diligent. “I watched many of my peers take advantage of what’s intended to be a temporary solution,” Mansinne said.
Unemployed older workers often don’t have the luxury of relaxing. Susan Velcich Rodway, 52, said she’s looked for work constantly since losing her medical office job in May 2008. “Every time you go to apply for a job, the line is a mile long,” said Rodway, who lives in Des Plaines, Ill. “You’ve got 1,000 people applying for five or 10 positions.”
Her family cars have been repossessed. She and her husband, an unemployed forklift operator, downsized apartments, lowering their rent from $900 to $775.
Both are taking online college courses. Rodway is studying medical transcription; her husband is studying information technology. When they finish, she estimated, they will have $30,000 in added debt.
Each week, she gets $192 and her husband gets $314 in unemployment benefits.
“It’s easy for people who have jobs, insurance and fancy cars to pass judgment,” Rodway said. "… But you know what? Let ‘em walk a mile in our shoes.”