I have been thinking about unemployment insurance a lot lately. With the questionable future of my current work location, some of my coworkers who have never had occasion to receive unemployment benefits are contemplating what would be a first for them.
In the short term, I think unemployment insurance constitutes sound economic logic. Capitalism assumes that most people will work for a living and use their income to support themselves. This cycle of earning and spending is what makes our economic system go ‘round. The social contract posits that when a break in this cycle occurs because an individual becomes unemployed due to no fault of her/his own, she or he is entitled to dip into common weal for a brief period of time during which efforts to become re-employed occur. In other words, the taxes of those who are working help to support those who, temporarily, are not.
The idea is that those who are laid off due to economic factors beyond their control (bankruptcy of the employer or a recession, for example) should not be punished. On the contrary, they should be rewarded for their past labors while they find their way toward resuming their roles as productive members of society and contributors to the economy.
Implicit in this provision of the social contract is that the unemployed person will return to the work force as soon as possible. This implied condition is made explicit by state unemployment laws that limit benefits to a prescribed number of months.
Remaining unemployed rather resuming work at the earliest opportunity is discouraged by a twofold maneuver. First, unemployment benefits are calculated on a schedule that assures that individuals receive a relatively small percentage of the income earned while working. Hopefully, the receipt of unemployment benefits will provide the out of work with a modicum of support for their families (on an austerity budget, to be sure) sufficient to prevent hunger and homelessness. Second, unemployment benefits end after a specified amount of time. This provision is designed to light a fire under the unemployed, creating a sense of urgency fueled by the prospect of destitution should benefits end before re-employment is secured.
Where this neat little system falls apart, of course, is when this threat morphs from theory into reality. Recent statistics suggest that the unemployment rate in the United States is falling, an indicator of increasing economic health. As with any financial measure, however, the accuracy of one’s numbers depends on how you count. The apparent decrease in the unemployment rate is, at least in part, a product of fewer individuals receiving unemployment benefits. It is well known that a reduction in the unemployment rolls does not necessarily mean that more people are gainfully employed. It may well reflect the thousands of people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, thus falling off the charts even though they are still out of work. These are our neighbors who fly under the radar, neither employed nor on unemployment benefits, and thus nonexistent as far as our tunnel vision economic figures are concerned. The long-term unemployed become invisible.
Let’s spend a moment thinking about what happens to those who find themselves in this predicament — out of benefit weeks and still out of a job. Out of luck. As a society, we are simply abandoning these people, leaving them to their own devices. After all, they need to be punished because they failed to follow the rules by finding work within the prescribed period of time.
But what if their failure to find work is no fault of their own, just as the reason that they became unemployed in the first place was no fault of their own? What if a person has diligently sought employment to no avail? This can happen for any number of reasons. In this age of microchips, there is the ever-present threat of technological obsolescence (otherwise known as “I’ve been replaced by a robot.”) I can appreciate this one, having personally performed two different types of jobs that have virtually gone out of existence in this country.
Perhaps the plant has moved out of state or overseas, where operating costs are so much lower. Perhaps there is no similar work available in the unemployed person’s geographic area. Perhaps he or she is not at liberty to move due to family commitments or health challenges. As it is, we have become a very mobile society, rolling stones who miss out on yesteryear’s advantage of strong community roots. We acknowledge this as far as not denying unemployment benefits to those who decline to move hundreds of miles away to the nearest available job. But then we shrug it off when the benefit period runs out. If you really want to work, move far away from your support system and work! If not, starve. Let the support system to which you are so attached take care of you.
Whoa, stop right there. When a person loses her job, we don’t throw her on the mercy of her family. We recognize this person as a valued member of society who has fallen on hard times, and we provide her with some measure of support. After a time, however, we say “okay, we’ve done enough, now it’s your family’s turn.” What is wrong with this picture?
There are those who long for the good old days when members of extended families took care of each other. No unemployment benefits needed, or as Archie and Edith Bunker cheekily sang every week during the opening of TV’s All in the Family, “didn’t need no welfare state (everybody pulled his weight).” If one member of the family was unable to earn a paycheck, that individual could contribute in other ways, including child care, elder care and household maintenance. Then, of course, there was also a thriving underground economy (in our inner cities, there still is — and not all of it has to do with selling drugs, either). People grew gardens and raised chickens, both for their own consumption and to help feed their neighbors. Payment was not always in cash; barter thrived. Although Craig’s List and the TV show Barter Kings suggest that we may be returning to this model, it is still a drop in the economic bucket.
You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: The extended family who we expect to support the long-term unemployed has ceased to exist, at least among the middle class (leaving people out on the street and scavenging in dumpsters). As if the post-World War II transition from the extended family model to the nuclear family were not bad enough, the cancer of family breakdown has now advanced to the point where even the nuclear family has crumbled into dust. Fathers have become marginalized as single mothers raise their children and young adults choose to remain single for longer and longer periods of time. There is no longer any shame or stigma attached to “personal choices” from abortion to childlessness to refusal to provide financial and emotional support to aging parents. Meanwhile, the middle class, who have failed miserably in their attempt to glorify the nuclear family, continue to look down their noses at the poor who are forced by economic circumstances to crowd many people into small dwellings, whether urban apartments or rural cottages.
But I am hopeful. Perhaps the vagaries of the economy and the evanescence of unemployment benefits will have the unintended effect of encouraging the resurgence of the extended family. Perhaps the day will come when it will again become common for grandparents, uncles, cousins and friends to share a residence, each one contributing his or her special talents to the communal well-being of the family unit. Perhaps contiguous family units (in old-fashioned lingo, these were called “neighbors”) will again check on each other’s welfare and engage in random acts of sharing. Perhaps we will shake off our jaded ways and decide that community is still important. Perhaps we will once again decide that we need each other, that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers.
As John Donne wrote more than four hundred years ago:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.