When Congress came back into session in the new year, yet another extension of federal unemployment benefits was the among first issues addressed. A bipartisan coalition put forth a proposal to extend benefits for 1.3 million jobless Americans, which was being hotly debated in the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called a vote to cut off debate and move to a vote, but failed to gain enough support on Tuesday, effectively killing the legislation. That's a good thing.
Amidst the left/right bickering over whether beneficiaries are lazy or truly in need, I’m brought back to my own personal experience with federal unemployment benefits. Many argue against unemployment benefits and other kinds of welfare by claiming they pervert incentives. If the government is propping people up, they ask, what motivation do people have to find a job?
Most people intuitively and empathetically understand that the much-heard stories of people riding the welfare system, enjoying a kind of government-funded vacation, sipping cocktails, watching TV and enjoying their lives while the rest of us work are the exception, not the rule. But that doesn't make them a good thing.
The truth about perverse incentives is, well, much more perverse. I know because I’ve witnessed it firsthand as my father drifted in and out of employment throughout most of my adolescence. I watched, helplessly, as benefits extensions enabled him to avoid dealing with his mental and emotional problems. And those problems eventually rotted away the man I knew and loved until he became someone I couldn’t speak to anymore.
Things weren’t going well for my father, even before the recession. A talented mechanic and electrician, he worked as an HVAC technician as long as I could remember. He had never even contemplated going to college, and he was trying to work in manual labor as his body aged underneath him. His battle with obesity had him struggling to crawl under homes and into attics to access air conditioners, and his work history was riddled with knee injuries — aggravations from a basketball injury he’d suffered in high school.
In the South, heaters aren’t needed quite as much as air conditioners, so winters in our home were financially strained almost to the point of breaking every year. Still, he found a place and was hoping to move into management at the company he had been with for five years. In 2003, a manager with whom he had disagreed picked him for termination during a round of layoffs.
A middle-aged, obese man with a history of knee injury does not find a technician job easily. HVAC technicians aren’t paid well generally, so we had very little cushion to fall back on. Dad went through his entire savings that year. He pulled out his 401(k) funds to feed us. That Christmas, I used the holiday money I had received from relatives to pay our rent. Grocery carts went unfilled. My brother and I were placed on state medical insurance. To this day, I still don’t know who told our school that we needed aid, but when we received it, Dad thought my older brother had done it, and that is the only time I ever heard them yell at each other.
Toward the end of 2004, we got lucky, and Dad finally got another job. For the next three years, we tried to piece our lives back together and start again, hopeful that this time it would work out for the best. Then, my senior year of high school, the worst happened yet again, and in the span of a few short months, my dad lost me to college and his job to the recession — the main things he had left to live for.
That was the last job he had — a little over six years ago. If a middle-aged obese man with a history of knee injury has a hard time finding work when times are good, he is next to unemployable during a recession. Dad filed for every single unemployment benefit extension that he could — and he qualified for most of them, until only a couple of years ago.
My father was a man of integrity. He worked hard and loved to work. But when he didn’t have employment, I barely recognized him. He felt worthless. I could see it on his face every time I came home from school. He sat on the couch all day watching TV, not because he was lazy, but because drowning himself in something was the only way to escape his own self-loathing. Being able to provide for his family was his identity, and without that, he had nothing. My father had been battling depression ever since his divorce, but without a job, that depression consumed him. He went for weeks without bathing. He slept through his days. His mind withered from inactivity. Sometimes it seemed that all he say out loud was, “If I had done this, things would be better.”
He took out his pain on me. Ignoring me for days or sometimes weeks at a time, verbally lashing out as I pushed to get him to talk to me, only to go back to ignoring me again. As I got older, I tried to help him the best I could. But his pattern continued, and our relationship is now so mangled that I have not spoken to him in over a year.
Six years of government unemployment benefits did not help my father. It enabled the depression eating away at his mind. It made his life comfortable so that he could escape his pain instead of confronting it. Unemployment benefits kept the status quo instead of letting the challenges of life spur him into new action and purpose. My father has sat and stewed in his own feelings of worthlessness for so long that he was no longer capable of seeing his own merit — and as far as I know, he still can’t. Dad needs help for his mental, emotional and physical problems. He doesn’t need the government to enable him to keep doing what he’s already been doing: slowly dying.
The case for unemployment insurance is clear. Sometimes people need help. But the issue is that federal employment benefits were intended to be a temporary relief when they were enacted six years ago. Unemployment is steadily declining (down to 7% from a high of 10%), and the number of unemployed people per job opening is down by half. Meanwhile, those who are unemployed tend to be so, on average, about nine months. Plenty of time for depression and hopelessness to set in. Arguably appropriate for a time of emergency, federal unemployment benefits are no longer necessary in a slowly rebounding economy. They only serve to create perverse incentives now.
My dad’s story is not everyone’s, but it could be anyone’s. This is a story of what perverted incentives looks like. It’s not a lazy person sitting on a couch with a cocktail on the taxpayer’s dime. It's a person battling with depression, hopelessness and despair who cannot crawl out of that hole when the path of least resistance is to stay in it. It’s a person who needs help, but help that they will only give themselves when they absolutely have to do it. In this situation, years of unemployment benefits are the opposite of that help.
If you care about these people, tend to their mental health. Encourage them to stay active. Help them make rent. Buy them food. But do not let the government cripple them, because that is exactly what extended unemployment benefits do.