With only days remaining for Congress to avert the year-end expiration of extended unemployment benefits, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made news by telling Fox News Sunday that extending benefits would be “a disservice” to the more than a million Americans about to be cut off. The same morning, Paul’s colleague Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos his party so far wasn’t taking a “take it or leave it” approach to including unemployment extension in talks over a short-term budget deal. “I have to say, it sounds like the spirit of Nelson Mandela is taking hold,” Stephanopoulos concluded after asking Durbin and Senate Republican Rob Portman about those budget talks. “This is a very reasonable discussion this morning. Sounds like we’re going to reach a deal this week.”
For a different take on the impact and importance of unemployment benefits, Salon called up Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst for the progressive National Employment Law Project. A condensed version of our conversation follows.
Rand Paul this weekend said he’s against further unemployment extension because it would be “a disservice to these workers,” in that “When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy." What does your research suggest about that kind of claim?
Well, we do know that people have a harder time finding work the longer they’ve been unemployed, particularly when they’ve hit their six-month mark. Benefits aren’t 99 weeks anymore. But in this recession, when we had record job loss, and record long-term unemployment, and the numbers were up to six unemployed workers for every job opening … you’re not going to not look for work because you’re getting a check that averages $300 a week. I mean, nobody can really live on that, you know.
So these benefits are not super-generous. They’re not something that’s going to put a family on easy street. They’re really just sort of barely enough to cover basic needs. And you saw in our research brief what the average family spends; these don’t even come close to covering that.
Rand Paul also argued a few years ago that “you get out of a recession by encouraging employment, not encouraging unemployment.” Do you think that’s accurate, to suggest that unemployment benefits encourage unemployment?
No, they absolutely don’t. I mean, there have been lots of studies done that actually looked at this issue in this recession. And what they found is: There might be a small increase in the unemployment rate because of unemployment insurance benefits, but that’s not because people are sitting around and lazy and don’t want to return to work. It’s actually because they stay in the labor force and keep looking for work [and thus are counted] …
Long-term federal extension benefits keep people in the workforce, they keep people trying. They don’t give up. Because a requirement of receiving those benefits is that you continue to look for work.
So the truth and the data and the research studies couldn’t be further from what’s being said.
A premise of the critiques of unemployment [benefits] often seems to be that it would always be a bad thing for workers, or for the economy, if receiving unemployment benefits led someone to pass up an unattractive job, or to hold out for a better job. Do you think that’s always true?
I don’t think that’s always true. I think it really depends on what the job market looks like where you are …
It’s better for the economy if people who have skills are actually using those skills. In a similar way that workers find it hard to find work when they have been unemployed, it can be hard for them to get back to their prior level of earnings, it can be hard for them to get back to their prior profession, if they took a job that’s very far beneath them.
States look at the employment that you apply for, and it needs to be suitable, meaning there is a consideration of “Is this job a good fit for you based on what you had before”… As time goes on, the state expects you to take a job at a lower paycheck …
But I would say that by and large, people that we’ve seen that are long-term unemployed are not holding out for what they made before. And lots of them, when they do get back to work, they do go back in at a much lower salary. And they’ve accepted that …
I’m sure you’ve seen the news coverage of a while back, where employers were putting in their ads, “must be currently employed” -- and basically unemployed people’s résumés were being thrown in the trash. So they can’t even get an interview. They can’t even get their information reviewed for the position. And so to say that they’re unwilling to take a lower-paying job, it’s just – it’s wrong.
And the other big piece that I repeatedly heard from unemployed workers is that they tried to apply for these jobs that are beneath them, but they are told, “You’re overqualified … I’m not going to waste my time hiring you and having to deal with the turnover …” And you know, it’s so much easier for a person to look for work if they have a roof over their head …
So these benefits are really vital for just keeping people in the labor market, and keeping them looking.
Gordon Lafer, in his review of right-wing proposals on unemployment, noted that at the state level legislators have gone as far as suggesting that people on unemployment be required to work for free for companies, as a condition of continuing to receive unemployment. What do you think the impact of that kind of proposal would be?
If you’re an employer and you can get work for free, why would you hire someone? … It sort of would be shooting ourselves in the foot in terms of trying to get people employed …
You qualify for the benefits because you already have a work history, and that proves that you are someone who will work. And so to make people work for free when they’ve already worked, I mean it makes no sense and it seems counterproductive … Employers would probably, because of the financial savings, use the free labor before they would actually hire.
When you weaken unemployment benefits, does that strengthen the hand of employers who might threaten to fire people for workplace activity?
… I don’t know that they would necessarily use it to threaten people. But when the labor market is tight and there’s not a lot of hiring going on, workers are more willing -- I think the research has shown -- to work longer hours, and to do more tasks, and to take on, say, a job and a half and to not complain -- because the job market is so awful. And research has shown that when labor markets get better, people start to change jobs …
We have seen, in this recession, productivity go up, and I think it is because workers are being asked to do more and with less people, and they are reluctant to complain or anything of those things.
What is the impact of unemployment benefits on the children of people who are unemployed?
Last year, even though there were state and federal cutbacks to the program, it kept almost half a million children out of poverty … Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to drop out of high school, they’re more likely to not have stable employment history when they’re adults, to have poor health … There’s a social cost and there’s a cost in our social programs when children grow up and aren’t productive.
So it’s really, really important, not just for right now, and not just for the 1.3 million workers who would lose their benefits right after Christmas, and the 2 million that would lose benefits in the first half of next year, but it’s really important for their children, and to the future of our country. You know, there’s all of this talk about a skills gap, and how we really have to step it up in America. But leaving all these children in poverty and destitution and economic hardship really does affect our future economy that we’re trying to build.