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Quit taking it out on the unemployed

Calls for Wisconsin to drop the federal $300 unemployment supplement are pointless and short-sighted.

Illustration made with the first Wisconsin unemployment check, original image via Wisconsin Historical Society.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to reshape the public conversation about unemployment benefits in the United States. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people signed up for benefits for the first time ever in the past 14 months, and that means more people now know somebody who’s been on unemployment. With any luck, this will make it a little harder for austerity-minded politicians to muddy the waters about how public benefits work and what people on those benefits actually get. It makes it harder for even right-wing voters to buy into the myth of lazy people becoming “dependent” on a profligate welfare state. Of course, well-meaning people who want a robust social safety net still get tripped up in debates over amounts and cutoffs and requirements and who’s worthy and who’s not. This is also a good chance for those folks to challenge their own thinking. 

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And where better to reflect on this shift than in Wisconsin, a state that pioneered unemployment insurance?

This opportunity is a bit lost on the Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial board, which declared this week that the state should end a supplemental $300 benefit paid weekly to unemployment recipients. The supplement is already set to expire this fall, but the State Journal argues that Governor Tony Evers “should phase it out sooner if the economy continues to improve.” Even while acknowledging that unemployment insurance isn’t the main obstacle in the country’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Wednesday’s editorial argued that Republicans targeting the benefit “have a point.” It does not explain what this point actually is, or indeed how such a thoroughly useless group of people could conceivably have a point about working and earning. The editorial does offer some reasonable big-picture observations about demographic trends and economic infrastructure in Wisconsin, namely the fact that our population as a whole is aging, that undocumented people should have a path to citizenship, and that we need to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas. The editorial also boldly calls for raising the state’s minimum wage—to $10. 

Cutting the $300 unemployment boost is a more solemn matter, of course, than ending the minor encumbrance of mask requirements, which the very serious folks at Madison’s largest newspaper greeted last week with cries of “Smile!” “Hallelujah!” and “Yahoo!” But if we’re talking about bigger structural issues holding back Wisconsin’s economy, why call for ending a modest, federally funded benefit that doesn’t cost Wisconsin anything? The State Journal cites Republican complaints that “a recipient can receive the equivalent of a $16.75-and-hour (sic) job for not working.” In other words, the argument is that the unemployment boost is not the culprit, but probably one of the culprits. 

The problem is that this framing lends credibility to the idea that unemployment benefits give people a long-term incentive to not work. Anyone who’s worked a low-paying job and/or received unemployment payments knows that this is absurd. In Wisconsin, the base rate for unemployment benefits tops out at $370 per week. The amount a specific person gets depends on their former work earnings, so it’s often less than that. During the pandemic, federal relief funds have added $600 and later $300 to that base rate. So, at the height of these benefits, a person on unemployment in Wisconsin could receive $970 per week, or $24.25 per hour. That’s assuming that your claim doesn’t hit a snag and that payments show up promptly. After a disastrous year for the state’s unemployment system—for which Evers’ administration truly shares blame with the legislature—people who need help know that’s not always a safe assumption. They are well aware that they’re going to need some other source of income before long. Wisconsin’s state legislators have pulled a full-time salary equaling about $24.50 an hour to do basically nothing but make things worse for the past 14 months, on top of scuttling massive win-win opportunities and dicking around at the US-Mexico border. They’ve got job security, at least until we get fair legislative maps. 

If anyone should be sympathetic to the unemployed, by the way, it’s people who work in the media world. Especially at a newspaper where everyone had to take furloughs or a pay cut during the pandemic! Including, logic would seem to dictate, the very people who wrote the editorial I’m complaining about! Journalists in this day and age have very little job security and usually work long hours for lousy pay. They worry constantly about how their publications’ owners will screw them over next, including by selling to even worse owners. And as precarious as the industry is, it still generates wealth. Executives at the State Journal‘s publicly traded parent company, Lee Enterprises, took a pay cut during the pandemic as well, but SEC filings show that CEO Kevin Mowbray still made a total of $1,187,428 in 2020. I’m sure reporters making three or four percent of that appreciate Mowbray’s sacrifice. The average working journalist, including at the State Journal, is a classic example of someone doing really valuable work under garbage conditions—sometimes downright dangerous conditions, especially when covering riots and fascist rallies—while someone else reaps most of the benefits. They need a functioning social safety net too! Perhaps it’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re getting paid to write an endless string of tedious and repetitive bromides about State Street.

Everyone else needs to find real jobs on the double. Starting this week, people receiving unemployment money in Wisconsin have to meet work-search requirements again—something the editorial doesn’t mention. With or without the $300 top-up, people will be incentivized to look for work and take it if they get an offer. People receiving unemployment benefits can also work reduced hours and still get those benefits, up to a point, so this isn’t a strictly either-or deal in the first place. Even people who get decently paying new jobs could use the padding as they get back into the workforce—that gap between starting a new job and getting your first paycheck can be a real strain too. While we’re touching on the basic factual framing so often missing from the discourse about public benefits, these unemployment payments are subject to state and federal income taxes. While people often call unemployment benefits an “entitlement,” this is in fact a form of insurance. 

If you weren’t making all that much money before the pandemic, temporary payments of up to $970 and then $670 per week, pre-tax, still add up to a temporary lifeline. This money will at least help people catch up a little on bills and back rent, and at best give them room to breathe during a monumentally dangerous and stressful ordeal, and during a period in history where wages are stagnating but the basic costs of living keep going up. Heaven for-fucking-fend, you might get frisky once in a while and order some nice takeout from a local restaurant that employs people, throwing in a generous tip for service workers who’ve been through all kinds of hell. Granted, if I were the kind of person who became outraged at the idea of poor people getting apartments with nice views, this scenario might piss me off too. Who knows. As much as the State Journal‘s editors opine, their thinking remains a queasy fart-clouded enigma. 

Why is it so hard to conceive of being temporarily generous to people who’ve been working and paying taxes into the unemployment system for years, while rarely getting a fair cut of the world’s most productive economy, and by and large never tapping into unemployment funds until they slammed into a global economic crisis? I don’t expect the WSJ‘s editorial board to share my view that everyone should just be guaranteed a decent standard of living, no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s just that whatever your ideological perspective is on all this, giving people some extra help right now is constructive, and the downside is minimal to imaginary. 

We are still up against the reality that too many people can’t live on what their employers pay, which the WSJ kind of acknowledges while pushing for an also-unlivable $10 minimum wage. Indeed, so much more is needed. If you’re complaining about unfilled jobs but not addressing these long-festering conditions, then what you’re going to end up doing is just coercing people back to work. We need our commentators to stick up to the powerful, not to provide muscle for the crappy bosses of the world. The authors of the State Journal editorial correctly point out some bigger structural problems that go beyond pay and unemployment. They also know full well that politicians who fail to solve these problems are largely insulated from consequences. People relying on unemployment benefits, though, will suffer immediate hardship as the money dries up.

The real problem here is not that unemployed folks are entitled to money, but that employers are effectively entitled to labor. The real shortage is not one of workers, but of good opportunities that offer livable pay, rewarding work, valuable experience, and opportunities for advancement. Cutting off unemployment benefits that are already temporary will not fix this. Wisconsinites are trying to recover from an absolutely dreadful year. Being kind to them literally doesn’t cost that much.

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