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Long-Term Unemployed Aren't Lazy: I Was Once One of Them

Shortly before the holidays, Opposing Views reported on the situation still unfolding in Congress over the federal extension of unemployment benefits that has been in place since 2008 when the economy took a nosedive and sent the world into a panic. Since then, the arguments made in Congress (mostly from Republicans), in the media (mostly from conservatives), and even by our own readers have suggested that those who need more than the 26-weeks of unemployment are either lazy or milking the system.

Democratic Senator from Illinois Dick Durbin told CBS News that the GOP sees those “who need a helping hand as ‘lazy.’” The quantitative data used to analyze the unemployment situation in the country is incapable of making that determination, so the evidence used to back up the “lazy” claim is anecdotal. In the comments of the article linked to above, there are a number of people who claim to personally know someone who draws benefits and then seeks work at companies they know aren’t hiring. Perhaps they do.

Still, I’d like to provide a little anecdotal evidence making the other side of the argument. For almost two years (from 2008-2009), I drew unemployment benefits after being terminated from my sales position for a prominent for-profit education management company. And it wasn’t the first time I had drawn on those benefits.

The first time I availed myself of unemployment benefits was when I returned home from Iraq in 2006. I had been gone since September of 2004. As we were being discharged, we were advised to apply for unemployment, and spend six months “adjusting” to life after war. I used the time to apply to colleges since I had yet to finish my Bachelor’s degree. This was before the Post-9/11 GI Bill and, since I was technically a reservist, I was ineligible for help with tuition.

So, I took a job as a night manager at a local chain of gas stations that also prepared short-order food. It was hellacious, but during the day I would apply to better positions, hoping to find a company that provided some sort of tuition help. A few months later, I ended up working for a for-profit college in a sales position dressed up as admissions.

Shortly before my two-year anniversary at the company, I was ready to move on. My plan was to hold onto the job, while seeking other opportunities and backing up my income by writing freelance. I’ve been writing for publication since I was a teenager, but was always advised to never consider it more than a (slightly) profitable hobby. However, after two straight quarters of sub-par enrollment, I was fired. At the time—and I have no evidence to back this up, which is why I am not naming the company—they were in the middle of a massive hiring spree, bringing in admissions reps for half the salaries they paid when I was hired. It was a concentrated effort to cull all but the most successful older staff to make way for the newer hires.

Despite that, I was stunned to have been fired. I got on well with all of my superiors and my drop-out rate was very low (not tracked by the company, something only myself and a few other reps monitored on our own). With no option on the horizon for tuition assistance, I also worried that I would never be able to finish my college education. Thankfully, the company didn’t contest my unemployment application, and I had a financial cushion while I tried to figure out what to do next.

Right before being fired, I booked my first writing gig in years for an online magazine. I took advantage of my newly-free days and spent the next month working on that. It was an involved piece that took hours and hours of research and reporting, but only paid $150. If not for unemployment, I would have never been able to swing it. Still, I sent it off and eagerly awaited its publication in their August 2008 issue. Of course, before then the economy went to hell.

I had always known that I could apply for any sales job and most likely get it. However, after the crash, the interview rooms became more and more crowded. I didn’t even have a college degree and my competition for these positions had Master’s degrees in business. I had no chance, and the jobs I was going for paid less than what I was making at the college anyway.

This is one of the greatest misconceptions about how unemployment benefits work. People believe that simply because the local fast-food joint or mega-store is always hiring, there’s no excuse to stay on the benefits for longer than it takes to file an application. Yet, if one was working for a company making $45,000 per year and loses that position, a $7.25 per hour job wouldn’t even pay them enough to be broke. For people in more specialized fields than sales, this can also involve travelling for interviews and (eventually) moving expenses.

When the news broke that the Obama Administration had passed a federal extension of unemployment benefits (4 tiers totaling 99 weeks), I changed my strategy. I no longer applied for jobs I didn’t want simply because I felt the pressure of a ticking clock. When people file for the weekly benefits, they would have to include the name and contact info of at least two places where one has sought work. What most people don’t realize, however, is that if one lands a job this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of benefits.

At the time if I earned around $200, I would still receive my full amount of weekly benefits. If I earned anything more than that, it would be subtracted from my benefits for that week. It was not a “use it or lose it” deal, either. Thereby, when I earned money from one writing job or another, I was essentially extending the time I could use unemployment. Each tier had a finite amount of money that had to be exhausted before one could move on to the next tier. If at the end of my 20 weeks on Tier 2 I still had money left, it was used for the next week.

This allowed me the time necessary to build up my CV, gain publishing credits, and transition into steady work. Thanks to the extended benefits, I was able to transition careers all the while not starving or falling even deeper into debt. According to The Blaze, Newt Gingrich pointed out that all unemployment benefits should be tied to some kind of training program, noting that one could earn an Associates degree in 99 weeks. He’s right.

For many of the long-term unemployed they didn’t just lose their jobs or careers, but entire industries. The period of extended unemployment allows simply more time for people to figure out what their next step is going to be. Some do go to school, others (like myself) use the time to train in different fields, often taking unpaid internships or apprenticeships in order to learn the skills needed for the new position. They could maybe even start their own business. As the selfsame Republicans who are blocking the extension of benefits in the Senate love to point out: the job market has not nearly recovered from the Great Recession.

Many reading this (especially those who find little wisdom in my work) may be upset with the way I used my unemployment benefits. They’ll ask why should the taxpayers have subsidized my on-the-job training as a writer? Most likely, these are the same folks who are quick to call the long-term unemployed lazy, assuming the worst of the majority of them. To those readers I would say that this is why we leave this policy-making up to our elected officials and not direct democracy.

There is no way to please everyone when it comes to something like unemployment benefits. Thus, our representatives in government can only make sure that the program is as fair as possible and does the best job it can to help each individual get by long enough to find a place from which to contribute to the larger economy. People suggest that benefits like these are Socialist or Communist, but in fact they are perfectly American. The government gives an individual some money and says, “Here, now go make something of yourself.” It’s a benefit—one the unemployed paid for when they were working—that can allow people one last shot at the American Dream.

The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the author and do not represent the opinions of Opposing Views


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