Sunday, Tom DeLay (R-TX), former Majority Leader, claimed, “there is an argument to be made that these extensions of these unemployment benefits keeps people from going and finding jobs.”
Delay is not alone in pushing this nonsense. Last week, Jon Kyl (R-AZ) similarly accused the unemployed of being unemployed out of choice, “because [the unemployed] are being paid even though they’re not working.”
Delay and Kyl are conflating what would likely occur if the United States were at full employment and raised the generosity of benefits accorded to the unemployed. In this scenario, all those people that would like to find jobs are able to do so, but those whose jobs at the low end of the wage scale are easily substituted for by increased unemployment benefits. Those individuals then leave the work force. The theory is reasonable enough—when the unemployment rate is around 3% and benefits are increased not extended.
But we do not find ourselves in a situation with 3% unemployment, nor have unemployment benefits been increased. Unemployment benefits have merely been extended, making current unemployment benefits no more competitive with wages than they were 30 days ago, or 90 days before that. Instead, with real unemployment around 17%, it is ridiculous to suggest that, absent substantial employment benefit increases, the 12% of the work force that has lost its jobs due to the Great Recession have not done so voluntarily, in favor of the lavish insurance provided for the government.
Callousness and wrong economics aside, the most pernicious aspect of the Delay-Kyl line is that it suggests, not so gently, that the unemployed are to fault both for the individual failure to find new jobs and the larger economy’s failure to recover. Effectively, Delay and Kyl suggest that if Congress were to revoke unemployment benefits—if unemployment weren’t so comfortable—the suddenly uncomfortable, lazy jobless would be driven by economic pressure to create new jobs for themselves or fill the many jobs that are just waiting to be filled.
Of course, even if that were the case, even if there were hundreds of thousands of jobs waiting to be filled if only workers could be coaxed off the dole, wouldn’t that economic pressure simply drive wages up, making unemployment less attractive, filling those empty jobs? This is just simply not a phenomenon we are witnessing. The millions of Americans unemployed did not abandon their jobs in favor of unemployment insurance. They do not remain unemployed because they prefer visiting the unemployment office weekly. They will go back to work when there are jobs again. Taking away the unemployment safety net will simply drive people into poverty.