is unemployment insurance the new welfare?

If you listen to the US Congress, unemployment insurance is becoming the new welfare.

Orrin Hatch today dropped an amendment that would require states to test applicants for cash assistance (TANF) and unemployment insurance for illegal drugs before they could be approved for benefits.  We’re used to dealing with this sort of stupidity in the TANF program, but I have to admit that I was surprised to see this applied to unemployment insurance as well.  At least Hatch is honest enough to admit that testing all these people would cost far more than the value of any benefits it might save — when this comes up at the state level, legislators are constantly surprised to learn that it doesn’t save money.

This proposal isn’t likely to go anywhere, but meanwhile the Senate is dropping the COBRA subsidy for health insurance for the unemployed as well as the $25 a week additional federal benefits from the UI extension bill.  And almost no one is talking about continuing benefits for the “99-ers” those who have exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment insurance.

My theory is that people are terrified by the notion that you could do nothing wrong, be  a good worker, lose your job, search hard for another one, and still be unemployed after two years.  They don’t want to believe that they live in a country where it could happen, and they don’t want to believe that it could happen to them, or to their friends or family.  And we’ve got this really weird dynamic of unemployment right now, where unemployment is really high but no longer climbing,  nearly half of the unemployed have been out of work  for more than 27 weeks, but at this point if you’ve got a job, your odds of being laid off are pretty low.

So people are  convincing themselves that the long-term unemployed  must have done something wrong.    They must not really be looking, or they’re too picky, or they’re not willing to move to where the jobs are, or something.  And so it’s ok to cut them off, because they deserve it.

Update: Nancy Folbre just said almost the exact same thing in the New York Times today, except she’s an economist, so she used bigger words.

6 Responses to “is unemployment insurance the new welfare?”

  1. Laura Says:

    Knowing a couple of people who were (are) out of work for a long time, my sense is that the reasons have to do with living in a place with few options and a lack of skills to change careers. My sister-in-law applied for many, many jobs, but because she’d worked in one industry her whole life, she was looked over for most jobs outside of that industry even though as a salesperson, her skills were applicable across many industries. She did finally get a job in her industry, but she was out of work for nearly a year.

    People who’ve been out of work for more than 6 months tend to not be picky. Even though I was unemployed by choice, I was starting to consider taking a job as a museum guide just to be employed. 🙂

  2. Jody Says:

    You know, my dad has been unemployed multiple times because of the volatility of his field (computer programming) and because he has a unique knack for hiring on with a company 18 months before it gets bought up by a competitor, and after his last layoff, he’s never gone back to work. Probably there was a small element of age discrimination and definitely there was an element of “all those jobs are being done in India now” and then, after he’d been unemployed long enough for the clinical depression to set in, he gained some bad habits and ended up with a serious health problem and it’s looking like he’s done working for good at the ripe old age of 60. Which definitely wasn’t what he wanted.

    And (a) he lives someplace with a pretty robust job market and (b) he did more than one set of job-training programs over the years, including after his last lay-off, and (c) he was in his fifties when he was last fired and has refused to give up the field in which he’d been working for 25 years, which did seem a little too picky to me but is also pretty understandable. He attended networking events and monthly luncheons for people in his field and endured really endless humiliating attempts to find work, and it didn’t happen.

    There’s a kind of unemployment that happens when your work disappears, and it’s been happening for forty years now at least, and we still don’t know what to do about it. It’s pretty much awful to see it play out in my own family.

  3. carosgram Says:

    I have great sympathy for the unemployed and know that many are without work due to no fault of their own. However, having talked with many people looking for a job I have been surprised at some of the attitudes and beliefs I have heard. Some seem to believe that they are entitled to a certain kind of job – one that is ‘at my level’ and ‘pays what I am worth’. “You really can’t expect me to take a job at McDonald’s. I’m not that kind of person.” I actually heard a person on the radio this week say that ‘yes, there are jobs in my field but I would have to move and that’s not fair.” Life isn’t fair. I worked a job for 33 years that I never loved but the hours worked with my being a single mom and it paid a living wage. I was able to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. I had to make lots of choices that didn’t make me feel fulfilled but were the best for my family. I moved many times and my children don’t really have a ‘hometown’ but they went to college, have married and have children. They are establishing a ‘hometown’ for their children. While some people really can’t find work, there is a substantial number who are waiting for the ‘right job’ in the right location. And my tax dollars are paying for that and I don’t think that is ‘fair’.

  4. Judy Conti Says:

    Well said Elizabeth. Thanks for doing this.

  5. Gwen Rubinstein Says:

    So glad I don't have to spend any time explaining to anyone why this is such a bad idea and probably unconstitutional.

  6. Judy Conti Says:

    Hey E — can we post this on

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