The deadline to extend federal unemployment benefits (UI) is rapidly approaching, but it is still not clear when Congress will get around to addressing this extremely critical issue. Meanwhile, some Members of Congress have indicated that they would vote against a bill to extend UI unless it changes the funding structure to let states use more money on non-benefit spending , meaning that money that should be dedicated to paying benefits can be used for paying back deficits, cutting employer taxes, and for other purposes.
That’s bad enough, but the justification offered for seeking this change in the UI funding structure is even more frustrating: The current structure, in the words of Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), “[is] discouraging people who can go back to work from going to work … [T]he program needs to be reformed to encourage people to get off it instead of encouraging them to stay on it.” It doesn’t take much to get what Senator DeMint is implying – that UI recipients are lazy, unmotivated, and would rather depend on government benefits for as long as possible than go back to work. As Senator Franken (D-MN) put it at today’s Senate hearing on long-term unemployment, this characterization is “offensive.”
Recent research has shown that claims that unemployment benefits discourage recipients from seeking jobs are exaggerated and that UI recipients are more proactive than non-recipients in looking for work. If that isn’t enough to debunk claims like Senator DeMint’s, the testimony at today’s hearing of Donna Stebbins, a long-term unemployed worker from Phoenix, really puts the lie to the notion that recipients of unemployment benefits are unmotivated:
Donna began her working life at age fourteen, when she began working summer jobs to earn spending money. Since that time, she and her husband Rick have done everything right. They paid their mortgage, put money away for retirement in a 401(k), and provided for their daughters. In April 2010 Donna was laid off and has been unable to find work. Rick was laid off from his construction job shortly thereafter; he has been able to find work again, but at a much lower salary than his previous job. While very modest UI benefits helped them make ends meet, they have been unable to afford the premium on Rick’s employer-sponsored health plan and, as a result, they have largely forgone going to the doctor, despite health problems. They have also had to take money out of their 401(k) to keep up with their bills, and Donna has had to ask for rides to job interviews because she can’t afford gas for her car.
During her period of unemployment, Donna has been the opposite of lazy. She has applied for 200 jobs, but has run into barriers preventing her from successfully getting any of them. With available jobs already scarce, Donna is having trouble getting the jobs that do exist because she is older, unemployed, and is overqualified for most of the available work. (By the way, the American Jobs Act would prevent employers from discriminating against the unemployed, which some have done openly, but the Senate blocked the bill). At 58 years old, Donna has been asked why someone of her age would want to work in a young women’s clothing store. She said that she’s still young at heart and with twenty-something daughters, she understands what’s going on with young people. She was not offered that job. She has applied for minimum wage jobs and been asked many times why she would want minimum wage work with her experience. She responded that minimum wage work is what is out there. She did not get offered any of those jobs. She has been asked, based on her unemployed status, whether she has been looking for work. She replied that being in the interview is proof that she has been looking. She hasn’t been offered those jobs. In the face of such obstacles over which Donna has no control, her diligent search has not turned up any work.
Donna’s story doesn’t sound like that of someone gladly taking unemployment benefits and then sitting around watching TV and drinking wine, as she put it. It’s the story of so many long-term unemployed Americans struggling every day to find work that just isn’t there in this economy. Donna finds the implication that she and the millions of Americans like her are not hardworking, motivated individuals to be insulting. She should be insulted, and Congress owes her better than that.