On unemployment benefits


About four years ago, I wrote a column about wage stagnation. I wrote that the increase in wages over the last few decades had been incommensurate with inflation, meaning that when adjusted for inflation, most people were taking home less money for the same work than they were in the 1970s.

I also wrote that I was growing weary of hearing people say that “no one is willing to work anymore” and “no one can pass a drug test.” People are willing to work, I said then; the problem is that it’s hard to find people who are enthusiastic about their work when they’re not making enough money to cover the bare necessities. And while I didn’t say it then, I’ll say it now: if someone is making minimum wage in a thankless, soul-crushing job, you probably shouldn’t drug test them, because you might end up detecting the one thing that allows them to show up to work each day with a smile on their face.

The day after that column ran I received a phone call from a local business owner. She informed me that I was wrong. The problem, she said, is that this generation just doesn’t want to work. They want to lay around and collect welfare and smoke drugs and get participation trophies. They would rather be a drain on the system than show up on time and receive a fair wage. She had seen it with her own two eyes, she said.

And then, before I could even ask the “gotcha” question, she volunteered the answer: “Of course,” she said, “with the economy being what it is, we can only afford to pay about $9 an hour.”

Because I am a polite person, I did not reply, “Well, with the economy being what it is, you apparently can’t afford to operate your business.” I simply thanked her for her input and got back to work.

I realize my assessment sounds harsh, but here’s the thing: the only people I know who claim that $9 or $10 an hour is a good wage are people who haven’t made $10 an hour for at least six presidential administrations, back when it WAS a good wage. If they were making that much now, they would be forced to sell their home(s) and live in their BMW i8.

I speak from experience. I’ve had jobs where I made $10 an hour. I’ve had jobs where I made even less.

I spent a year at a job where I made minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. I ended up having to leave that job after the price of gas spiked and my one and a half hour one-way commute meant that I was clearing about forty bucks a week after taxes.

One time at that job, I was griping with my 75-year-old coworker about how little we were paid.

“You know Ben,” he said, “I used to make $16 an hour. Most money I’ve ever made in my life.”

“Wow!” I said. “What were you doing?”

“Loading fruit trucks in Florida,” he said. “In 1965.”

I mention all of this as a 500-word preamble to the actual point of this column, which is unemployment benefits.

In March of this year, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. One of the elements of this $2.2 trillion dollar stimulus bill was FPUC, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provided an additional $600 per week for folks receiving unemployment benefits.

I’ll admit that this was not the perfect solution, just as the stimulus check was not a perfect solution. It was a bit of a one-size-fits-all approach. If you live in southwest Virginia, a $1,200 stimulus check or an additional $600 a week will get you pretty far; if you live somewhere like New York City or San Francisco, it probably just means that you can afford another month’s rent on the broom closet you share with five strangers.

Once the CARES Act passed, it was about a week before I began hearing the inevitable complaint: people on unemployment are getting paid way too much, and we need to cut that amount down to size. After all, why should someone get paid more to not work than they got paid to work?

Obviously, if you’re busting your hump working 40-plus hours a week, it’s going to stick in your craw if your ne’er-do-well cousin who spends all day sitting on the couch watching reruns of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. makes more money than you do. I understand that completely.

But realistically speaking, the problem isn’t your deadbeat cousin; the problem is a system that pays the working class so little that it disincentivizes hard work. The problem is an economic system that continually and shamelessly consolidates the nation’s wealth at the very top — or more accurately, in the non-taxable offshore accounts owned by the people at the very top — rather than fairly compensating the hard-working folks who actually earned that wealth.

Consider Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted last month that “Another government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people, imo (in my opinion).”

This coming from a man whose company has received billions in government subsidies and had, in that same month, received a $64 million tax break on a factory in Austin, Texas. This coming from a man with a net worth of $75.6 billion. You would be able to see Elon Musk’s hypocrisy from one of his SpaceX rockets leaving the Earth’s solar system.

But Musk probably realizes what so many billionaires have begun to realize as the Coronavirus pandemic has hamstrung our economy. He probably realizes that his vast wealth doesn’t come from himself; it comes from his thousands of employees, the people who clock in every day and do the hard work. And if those folks aren’t forced to come back to work out of fear of destitution, the wheels could fall off the money train.

We have a wage problem in this country, and it isn’t going to be solved overnight. It will require legislation to prevent issues like wage theft and consolidation of wealth in untraceable accounts. And, yes, it will require an increase in the minimum wage.

But in the meantime, we need to remember that the problem isn’t the guy collecting unemployment; the problem is the billionaire who’s picking your pocket while pointing to the guy on unemployment.


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