Why the Conservatives are Wrong about Unemployment


The conservatives in Congress (I wanted to write “Republicans,” but some Democrats have been taken in by this fallacy as well) are sufficiently ambivalent about the plight of the long-term unemployed that they were willing to allow federal unemployment benefit extensions to expire last Saturday while they went off to enjoy their weeklong New Year’s vacation.

Coddling the Slackers

Yesterday, I quoted Sen. Rand Paul’s statement that extending unemployment insurance beyond the 26 weeks of benefits provided by the states does a “disservice” to those who are out of work and creates a “perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”  This viewpoint reminds me of the conservative argument for welfare reform back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Why would anyone work if they are paid to sit their lazy asses on the couch at home all day?

There are two primary ways that conservatives express this position (and probably many types of variations):

  • “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”  Also known as “blaming the victim.”  Popular among those who long for the “good old days” when, as Archie and Edith Bunker used to sing, “everybody pulled his weight.”  Who cares that you were laid off due to no fault of your own and now you can’t find another job due to the state of the economy?  Lift yourself up by your bootstraps, Horatio Alger!
  • “We don’t want to be enablers.”  Extending unemployment benefits over a lengthy period of time will create a “culture of entitlement.”  The government doesn’t owe you anything!

If the Box is Marked with an X

Among the facts conveniently omitted by conservatives in Congress is that those receiving extended unemployment benefits are required to look for work.  Once a laid-off employee exhausts his or her initial state claim, the federal extension forms that must be completed on a biweekly basis require the benefit recipient to look for work and to document his or her work search.  In California, a little X appears in a box that requires the claimant to list a variety of specific information regarding employers applied to within the past two weeks:  Name and address of business, position applied for, name and title of contact, etc.

Thus, extended benefits do not encourage “laziness” among the unemployed.  On the contrary, receiving benefits requires increased industriousness on the part of the claimant.  Failure to adequately document one’s job search results in no check being sent out.

There are those who would counter the facts by alleging that claimants regularly lie about their job searches on these forms.  The truth, however, is that most claimants apply for many more jobs than the few that they are required to list.  It is no secret that unemployment checks, which typically replace only a small portion of the previous income of a jobless person, don’t last forever.  Conservatives who wish to eliminate all federal unemployment extensions like to argue that stopping the flow of money will light a fire under the unemployed and encourage them to do whatever is necessary to rejoin the workforce post haste.  But we are not children.  We can count the weeks, and most of us know exactly when our unemployment benefits will stop.  Our fondest goal is to become employed before D-Day.

None of us want to reach the point at which we lose everything and must choose between finding a family member to take us in, prevailing upon the mercies of an overcrowded homeless shelter or living under a bridge or in a box over a heating grate.

If the conservatives in Congress truly believe that those unemployed for more than 26 weeks are so lazy and unmotivated that we are willing to endure fates such as these for the privilege of not working, then they are even more deluded that I had heretofore imagined.

One thought on “Why the Conservatives are Wrong about Unemployment

  1. I am a young, healthy 56 year old that has worked for the last 40 years, 35 years at the same facility. I am a hospital professional layed off due to hospital closure. I have sent in numerous applications, gone on 3 interviews. I have only been able to get a PRN position, which entails working maybe 1 shift every 4-6 weeks. I am not lazy, I worked full-time and raised 3 kids, getting up at 3:30AM every morning, working a 12 hour shift, then driving an hour to get home. I know no different, than to be working. The small amount of money received is a fraction of what I’m used to, however, it’s enough to keep our heads above water. I have exhausted my savings, my 401B. My benefits ran out December 28. I don’t live above my means, my car is a 7 year old minivan. How much longer can people survive with nothing left and everything they worked hard for crumbling around them. Unemployment is not welfare, you must work to receive it. Please extend unemployment benefits, the working middle-class, so to be existant.. We are becoming 2 classes in society, the rich and poor!

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