Ross: The double-edged sword of pandemic unemployment benefits

May 19, 2021, 7:01 AM | Updated: 10:48 am
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Yesterday, I invited anyone who was getting extra unemployment benefits – and deliberately not taking available jobs – to explain why.

I got five responses, all very well-written, but only one came from someone actually taking the money and holding out for something better.

Here are a few excerpts from what Michael wrote:

“In my case, my old job isn’t waiting. I’m waiting for a job,” he said. “I was laid off in 2019 because of Trump’s tariff wars with China impacting U.S. manufacturers like my employer.”

Michael feels the tariffs did nothing to punish China — they just punished people like him.

He goes on:

“I was hopeful going into the Spring of 2020 — until COVID-19 froze hiring plans,” he continued. “Since then I have had only a few interviews per month, and no offers.”

He says he applied for unemployment immediately, and is grateful for the checks he’s been getting. And because of that income, he focused on applying for jobs like the one he lost in design management – jobs that would pay over $100,000 a year – instead of taking the $15-an-hour jobs that kept popping up. That’s the upside, he says: He could afford to hold out.

But he also admitted there’s a downside.

“Without those benefits, perhaps I would have spent less effort applying for jobs and preparing for interviews each week, and more reflection on what else of value I could do with my time and talents,” he noted.

He seems to be saying that the benefits left him free to chase his old life, which would seem to be a good thing, but that it might have been better for him to reassess his career and try something different.

I thought that was a remarkable insight – that in some cases, trying to protect people from adversity ends up limiting them. And that’s coming from someone who supports the program.

So does this mean the government should stop trying to help people?

No, but it reminds us that there’s another option: If you think a government program is more likely to suffocate you than help you – you are free not to sign up, and you might even end up better off.

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Ross: The double-edged sword of pandemic unemployment benefits