With unemployment levels nationwide hovering at just below double digits for more than a year now, the focus on unemployment insurance (UI) benefits has never been more intense.
One of the items at the top of the to-do list when Congress returns for its lame duck session later this month will be consideration of another extension of federal-state UI benefits. Supporters say an extension is necessary because unemployment levels have been so high for so long. Opponents argue that cutting off UI benefits will push the unemployed to find a job, any job. One candidate for the U.S. Senate in Nevada told the Los Angeles Times, “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that doesn’t pay so much but is an honest job.”
Let’s be clear: unemployment insurance benefits are not lottery winnings. A UI check is an earned benefit from a trust fund that both workers and employers pay into to protect workers when they are unemployed. UI benefits equal 60 percent of a worker’s previous wages up to a maximum weekly payment that varies by state.
In 2009, nationally, UI benefits kept 3.3 million people, including 1 million children, out of poverty. In New Jersey, 414,600 workers are currently receiving benefits. Unemployed workers receive up to 26 weeks of state unemployment payments and then may be eligible to collect federal unemployment benefits for another 90 weeks or more.
According to the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the maximum UI benefit in 2010 in New Jersey is $600 a week but the average benefit is $397 per week. Twelfth District congressional candidate Scott Sipprelle has publicly suggested that benefits are too high and should be lower than minimum wage-about $290 a week for 40 hours of work. At $15,080 a year, that is about $6,000 below what the federal government estimates a family of four needs to live in New Jersey.
The UI benefit was created in 1935 in response to the Great Depression, a time when up to 25 percent of the workforce was unemployed; when people were regularly losing their homes to foreclosures; when Americans were migrating across the country looking for work and shanty towns, called Hoovervilles. Hungry and homeless unemployed people were forced to rely on charities, churches, good-hearted neighbors and strangers to survive.
The circumstances preceding the creation of UI are described In the US Department of Labor’s, Beginning the Unemployment Insurance Program – An Oral History: 1935-1985: “In the welfare field the States and local governments, which had been handling the unemployed as well as welfare cases, didn’t have any unemployment insurance. There wasn’t any kind of help for these people; a lot of them were absolutely helpless. They stayed in their homes; couldn’t pay rent. Housing went to pot. The whole economy just went to a disaster. What happened then is that the local authorities began to come to Washington and say, ‘Can’t you do something down here to help us.'”
In his book, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Studs Terkel reported Roosevelt official Gardiner Means’ 1933 account of how UI reflected a change in thinking brought about by the extreme economic crisis faced by millions in the country: “People agreed that old things didn’t work. What ran through the whole New Deal was finding a way to make things work. Before that, Hoover would loan money to farmers to keep their mules alive, but wouldn’t loan money to keep their children alive. This was perfectly right within the framework of classical thinking. If an individual couldn’t get enough to eat, it was because he wasn’t on the ball. It was his responsibility. The New Deal said: Anybody who is unemployed isn’t necessarily unemployed because he’s shiftless.”
The present day equivalent of bread lines and shanty towns are homeless shelters and community food banks. The Star-Ledger reported earlier in October that New Jersey food banks are seeing a 46 percent increase in demand.
Unemployment insurance is a vital safety net that supports families and allows them to meet their basic needs. In good times New Jersey and many other states used the program’s funds to balance the state budget. These diversions started in 1993 and mostly ended by 2006, but by then much damage had been done. In March 2009, the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services said the state’s UI fund was completely depleted. Restoring the funds solvency required the state to either increase contribution rates or borrow from the federal government. New Jersey chose to borrow.
These funding maneuvers have led to a ballot question which tomorrow will allow voters to express their opinion about these practices. Ballot Question #1 asks whether the state constitution should be amended to prohibit the state from using any employee benefits funds (including UI, paid family leave, temporary disability and workers compensation) for purposes other than paying benefits to workers. Both unions and businesses recommend voting “yes”on the question. Voting in favor of the question will provide constitutional protection for these funds but will add further complexity to the constitution and tie public officials’ hands in the future. It’s a complicated question with no easy answer. Tomorrow voters will provide an answer.