A Response To "Addicted to Unemployment"
I'm writing this to respond to your piece about people "addicted to unemployment." I'm hoping to show you that we as a nation are facing a problem most of us have never faced before - one that demands a set of responses we wouldn't normally have to consider.
I want to try to keep it as politically neutral as possible, and I hope you'll call me out if I stray from that ideal.
First off, here's a picture of what we're facing. The 2007 recession cut deeper into jobs and is likely to last longer than anything we've experienced in the post-WWII era:
Here's what it looked like back in January. The red line is the number of unemployed and the blue line is the number of job openings:
source: Federal Reserve Economic Data
Here's the equation:
|unemployed||job openings||left behind|
I think you'd agree that things are pretty grim out there. Historically grim. The chasm between the number of people out of work and the number of job openings available to them has never been so wide.
That brings us to the 99ers. The name is kind of a misnomer, because not every unemployed person has access to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits: the number varies based on state-by-state unemployment rates.
You can call them "99ers." You can call them "exhaustees." Whatever you call them, their numbers are large and growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics uses responses from the Current Population Survey to analyse the employment situation on a monthly basis. Here's what they're looking at:
|Date||Unemployed Workers||60-98 Weeks||99 weeks and over|
That's over 1.7 million men and women who are still looking for work, but who have exhausted 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. Add to that another 1.1 million men and women who, depending where they live, might be in exactly the same situation: looking for work but out of benefits. The numbers have been checked by the Congressional Research Service - they came up with a total of 1.4 million 99ers in October 2010. The Council of Economic Advisers, in a report they published in December, estimated that their numbers would grow by an additional 4 million this year.
The 99ers face some pretty long odds. Beyond the scarcity of jobs, there's the issue of unemployment discrimination: employers and recruiters have been posting help wanted ads with language like "unemployed need not apply." Because people are applying to every opening they can, being overqualified is a factor. Age discrimination may be playing a part, too - many of the 99ers are in their 50s and 60s: too young to retire, but too old to rehire.
Lee, you said that you "don't judge people who lose their job and have to get public assistance."
Let me ask: would you judge a family who lose their home to a fire and have to get assistance from the fire department? Or a family who lose their possessions to burglars and have to get assistance from the police?
That's the right way to frame the question.
Unemployment insurance is there exactly for times like these, when people need help. There's precedent for extending these benefits when unemployment rates are high - here's the list of times when we have:
We've never cut people off from unemployment benefits in the past when rates have been this high.
Are these benefits becoming counter-productive? No. Not if you look at the analysis from Mark Zandi, who puts the multiplier we get back from spending on benefits at 1.61 - that is, for every dollar we spend on unemployment benefits, we get back over $1.60 in GDP. And not if you look at the CBO's analysis, which puts the multiplier between 0.70 and 1.90
Are unemployment benefits a disincentive to find work? Again, no. They act as an automatic stabilizer, a way of cushioning the blow so that people who lose their jobs don't find themselves with zero income.
Will they encourage the unemployed to stay home instead of looking for work? No - to receive unemployment benefits, you have to be actively looking for work.
Do unemployment benefits make unemployment worse? Yes, they do. Studies show they may extend the length of unemployment by between 1.5 and 3 weeks. That's not a bad thing, though: the benefits give people who have lost their jobs the time to find another suitable position. That way, out-of-work professionals aren't immediately forced to take entry-level jobs, which would hurt both the worker as well as the economy as a whole. We want engineers to engineer things, not to ask us if we want fries with that.
You echoed a frequently-heard comment: that 99 weeks should be enough for anyone to find a new job. Go back up to the very first chart. Take another look at the 2007 recession curve. It bottomed out after 26 months: that's 104 weeks. The people who lost their jobs at the start of the recession were trying to find work at the same time the job market was getting worse, not better. Does it make sense to cut off benefits at 99 weeks when the problem kept getting worse for 104 weeks? And that's just the bottom of the curve - we're nowhere back to where we were before the recession hit.
You mentioned Twitter: social media presents an opportunity for people with common interests to come together, and that's no different for the 99ers. We're active on Twitter, Facebook and a number of blogs, including this one. If you like the way the page you're reading looks, thank the people who designed easy-to-use blog templates. We "have" a hashtag in the same way that anyone on Twitter can suggest any hashtag they want. We don't "own" it in any meaningful sense. We're not a union, but there is one site that's looking to organize the jobless using a union metaphor. Everyone acknowledges that there's strength in numbers. The 99ers have the numbers, but lack the skills in organizing and political advocacy.
If you're arguing that identifying and organizing as a 99er would lead to a state of permanent victimhood or to the creation of a permanent underclass, I could not disagree with you more. I have never seen anyone who's content to be one of us. We're looking to advocate effectively for two things: first, for jobs and second, for access to the same financial lifeline that every other jobless worker has.
Are there people who would be happy enough to game the system for as long as they could? I'm sure there are. Are those people a significant part of the 99er community? I really, really doubt it. Unemployment benefits replace about $292 of weekly income, on average. That's less than $1,200 per month. That's "barely get by" money, not "live high off the hog" money. And remember, the 99ers don't see a dime of even that.
The 99ers aren't looking for permanent benefits. We are looking for a lifeline that will last as long as the crisis does. We don't expect firefighters to limit themselves to 99 gallons of water when they're putting out a blaze. We don't expect a bridge to go 99% of the way across a river gorge.
Lee, I don't doubt your compassion for one moment. I think that your advice to take "full and complete responsibility for your own life and circumstances." is the right suggestion to make - no one wants to see anyone fall into victimhood.
On the other hand, there are times when people are forced to say "a little help, please?" That's not being irresponsible or passive.
If you understand what it's like to struggle, and I have no doubt that you do, then you can understand that there's a strain of fear, anger and desperation that runs through the 99ers. It's estimated that suicide rates increase in direct proportion to unemployment: a 1% rise in suicide rates follows a 1% rise in unemployment. The longer people are unemployed, the greater their risk. So, when you were confronted with someone on Twitter who suggested people block you for negativity towards the 99ers, I hope you can see where she was coming from. How many times can someone reasonably expect to hear "no" (in job searches, in requests for assistance) before they see it as a personal attack?
I read the interview with Jon Morrow - he's an amazing guy with an indomitable will and an entrepreneurial spirit. I took particular notice of this quote:
"The key to success for him, he says, and anyone else for that matter, is discovering what’s really important to you, deciding that you’re willing to pay the price, and then fighting for your ideas."
Lee, that's exactly what I'm doing. That's what most of the 99ers are doing, too. Sure, we could use the occasional cold water to the face, and your article is a great help there, but I hope that you've gotten a deeper insight into the nature of the problem we're facing here.
Thanks for reading.