Unemployment Benefits and the Real Value of Work

Unemployment Benefits and the Real Value of Work
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

It started with my mother. She was the first person I heard express concern about the supplementary COVID-19 unemployment benefits. As a child of the Depression with a high school diploma and someone who worked more than full-time into her 80s running her own business, she has an instinctive distrust of unemployment insurance that looks too generous. The standard state benefits plus $600 a week from the federal government meets her “too much” test. My mom understands money and is the most dedicated and tireless worker I’ve ever known; when she talks about things like this, I listen.

A number of Republicans, and a few Democrats, have been channeling mom’s concerns in the debates on COVID-19 relief legislation. Their argument is that by paying people more on unemployment than they were receiving in wages, we will cause people to choose the dole over work. But are people—and especially American workers—truly homo economicus, a conception of the human person as one who works only for money and will easily substitute welfare for work? If they are, you wouldn’t notice it by their attitudes and behavior. Americans like and esteem work. We reflexively and relentlessly punish idleness. Given the choice, the overwhelming majority of the citizenry will choose work over welfare every time.

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