Unemployment insurance is needed, but it can be a drag too…

As I post this, I see that it looks like the Democrats are going to be able to overcome Republican resistance to an extension in unemployment benefits — and yes I know, the conservatives claim they are not against the extension, they just want it paid for — that is what they say.

There was a time when you were out of work, when your usual occupation dried up, you went to doing something else — most anything. Of course, most anything did not necessarily pay enough to keep you and yours in the lifestyle to which you had grown accustomed — but that was the way it was. Then federal and state-run unemployment insurance came into being. You still did not make the money you made at your regular job but you did not have the expense and trouble of trying to work at something that did not pay enough and kept you from getting back into your regular line of work — and sometimes there really was, or in the present tense, really is no work.

Most of the time, a requirement to draw unemployment insurance is that you actively conduct a search for work. There are exceptions to this. Over the years it became a practice by seasonal workers to apply for unemployment benefits out of season. That, on the face of it, seems kind of strange in that one knows from the get go whether an occupation is seasonal and so should not expect to get paid for being out of work when he or she knew that would be the case.

(I need to insert here that a lot of people I have heard justify being on unemployment with the comment “I paid into it.” As far as I understand it, though, such is not the case. Employees do not pay into the government unemployment programs, but employers do.)

But in any case, unemployment officials have accepted the practice of paying out benefits to seasonal workers and not requiring them to seek employment, but instead wait till the season starts up again. This is of course amounts to a government subsidy for seasonal employment.

I don’t know all the details of unemployment insurance, but from time to time, over the years, congress has voted to give the program extensions so people on unemployment can receive payments beyond the normal time limit.

Republicans, possibly more out of politics than real concern, or maybe not, are balking at an unemployment extension, with some being so bold as to charge that it simply discourages people from looking for work. Others say they would be willing to vote for the extension if corresponding cuts can be made in other programs to offset the increased cost to avoid piling on to the already astronomical national debt with more borrowing. And that’s not a bad argument. However, one wonders if those same people thought about cutting government programs in order to justify the Bush tax cuts for the rich. A well known political tactic of the neo-conservative movement is to fight social programs by simply “starving the beast” via tax cuts, rather than risk political capital by opposing popular programs, socialist though they may be.

Personally, I wonder why we do not have a slightly less arcane system of unemployment insurance that simply pays you decent compensation, albeit not your normal salary, for a long period of time, but with the requirement that you conduct an active work search in everything and anything you may be qualified or capable of doing. In addition, it might be appropriate to allow, but not require, an employee contribution to unemployment insurance that would qualify the unemployed worker for additional coverage.

And those who insist that cuts in other areas of spending are needed for extending jobless benefits may well be correct, but they ought to have the guts to suggest where they would cut.

Unemployment insurance is needed for stability in society and the economy. I’m not at all sure that having the government subsidize seasonal employment via unemployment insurance is such a great idea, though. Seasonal workers should plan to work at something else in the off season. Many long years ago I worked for a time in a wood re- manufacturing plant and in the winter some of the log truck drivers would work in the mill. I don’t know if they were required to by the employer and/or unemployment officials.

There is a segment in the business community that has nothing but disdain for unemployment insurance, and don’t even mention minimum wage. They want to see workers have to accept whatever they are given and be happy with it. I don’t agree with that hard approach, but it does seem that it would be somewhat more practical for people to accept that there is a certain supply and demand rule going in labor and sometimes there is an over supply and an under demand and that can mean lower wages for a time. And sometimes one has to move on to something new. To some extent unemployment payments create an artificial system that seems to encourage people to be idle rather than to move on. Eventually most have to move on and the delay does not help them.

In addition it is not fair for part of society to constantly have to carry the other part, and a large idle population puts a crimp on the overall economy.

Mixed in with all of this is the supply of illegal foreign labor that depresses wages and working conditions and competes with citizens in need of work.

I don’t know if I have ever brought this up, but one of my bright ideas has been to create a government labor pool made up of those who cannot find work in the private sector. This labor pool would be available for various public works projects, such as litter cleanup, park projects, and various things that do not usually get done due to budget constraints or priorities. A labor pool would provide the unemployed with something productive to do and at the same time might be an encouragement to go out and find a better job or become an entrepreneur. Okay, I admit, that is probably basically what FDR did — maybe I just mean an updated version of something like the 1930s  CCC that might be a permanent part of the system.

To those who do not need unemployment insurance because they are skillful in something that is in demand and because they have made wise life decisions, I say go ahead and pat yourself on the back and encourage a young person to do the same, that is get skillful and make wise life decisions. At the same time, don’t be too smug — financial calamities can happen to anyone (can you say CANCER?).

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