Why A Civil Society Extends Unemployment Benefits

Ken AshfordEconomy & Jobs & Deficit1 Comment

Throughout this entire recession, I've heard the same thing repeated over and over again by conservatives.  It used to be a mantra that you only heard from the ignorant fringe; now it is as mainstream conservative as apple pie.  It's this:

If you give unemployment benefits to the unemployed, they won't look for work.

…or some variation on this.

This sentiment goes back to the Reagan era (and probably before).  I remember Reagan talking to the nation about some black Chicago welfare mom who would drive around in her Cadillac while collecting unemployment checks.

Great story, makes his point, but total bullshit.  It's now often cited for the proposition that conservatives often conform facts to their beliefs, even if they have to fabricate the facts in their own head.

Anyway, the notion that unemployment benefits prevent unemployed people from looking for work, is also bullshit.  Oh, sure, I'm sure that somewhere in this country, there are examples of that, but the truth is that most people who are unemployed are quite unhappy being unemployed.  Plus, looking for work is a pre-condition of receiving unemployment benefits.

But that doesn't stop even mainstream conservatives from perpetuating the myth.

Which is why I am glad Robert Reich gave a little pushback, on both the moral and factual fronts:

Tonight it was Harvard Professor Robert Barro, who opined in today's Wall Street Journal that America's high rate of long-term unemployment is the consequence rather than the cause of today's extended unemployment insurance benefits.

In theory, Barro is correct. If people who lose their jobs receive generous unemployment benefits they might stay unemployed longer than if they got nothing. But that's hardly a reason to jettison unemployment benefits or turn our backs on millions of Americans who through no fault of their own remain jobless in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Yet moral hazard lurks in every conservative brain. It's also true that if we got rid of lifeguards and let more swimmers drown, fewer people would venture into the water. And if we got rid of fire departments and more houses burnt to the ground, fewer people would use stoves. A civil society is not based on the principle of tough love.

In point of fact, most states provide unemployment benefits that are only a fraction of the wages and benefits people lost when their jobs disappeared. Indeed, fewer than 40 percent of the unemployed in most states are even eligible for benefits, because states require applicants have been in full-time jobs for at least three to five years. This often rules out a majority of those who are jobless – because they've moved from job to job, or have held a number of part-time jobs.

So it's hard to make the case that many of the unemployed have chosen to remain jobless and collect unemployment benefits rather than work.