August 19, 2022

Economix: Are Jobless Benefits Keeping the Unemployed Complacent (and Invisible)?

In an article on Sunday, I wrote about why our unemployment crisis has been largely ignored by Washington. Among the major factors I cited were that unemployed workers are less likely to vote than their employed counterparts. Additionally, the jobless are not as politically organized as they once were because they are more geographically dispersed and because the institutions that organized them have become weaker.CATHERINE RAMPELL


Dollars to doughnuts.

Several readers wrote to me emphasizing another factor that I had nodded to only briefly in the article: that many unemployed people are still receiving benefits nearly two years into their unemployment spell, whereas in the past benefits typically lasted a few months. While jobless workers today may not be living comfortably, they are at least able to get by, meaning that they have less need to resort to more radical organizing.

Some of the community organizers I spoke with for the article agreed with this argument.

“I’ve been involved with the unemployed since the mid-’70s, and this is the least amount of organization we’ve seen,” said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. “In every other recession it was a major struggle to extend unemployment benefits. This recession came on as we went into the 2008 elections, and everybody was bending over backwards to help the unemployed and offer benefits.”

That sentiment has obviously changed, of course. Today much of the conversation about unemployment benefits is focused on whether they discourage workers from getting jobs. In some states politicians have decided not to receive additional federal money for benefits because they believe benefits are turning the unemployed into complacent, lazy couch potatoes, thereby delaying job growth. (See my colleague Motoko Rich’s article today on how the exhaustion of jobless benefits may actually hurt, rather than help, hiring growth.)

There has been so much skepticism about the utility of jobless benefits that last year Senator Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, even suggested drug-testing people before giving them benefits.

Over the coming months, millions more unemployed Americans will start losing benefits, partly because states are cutting back the number of weeks people can receive checks, and partly because many people have been unemployed so long that they’re no longer eligible for even the maximum duration of benefits.

If people like Mr. Dodds are right, this mass benefit exhaustion may become a tipping point into greater political organization and radicalization of the unemployed, along the lines of what was seen during the Great Depression. As the bread and circuses run out, workers become more desperate, and desperation may lead to more political instability.

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