For many, the title of this post might seem rather straightforward, just a given fact that you already knew about, but for me, as a Dutch person, it was a mind-boggling realisation. I’ve always known that welfare benefits in the US were at a depressingly low level, but to think that people who remain unemployed for a long time don’t even get a penny… that’s just unimaginable. Yet still, as I have by now learned, there is a decent majority in the US government in favour of this situation, which just makes me wonder… What happened to empathy?
Being able to imagine what other people are going through is a very important human trait, one that is often lacking. Just think of the way customer support representatives are often dealt with: through their ignorance, people fail to realise that these people are just doing their job, and that they had no influence whatsoever on the fact that your dishwasher broke down or that your phone bill was overcharged. As awful as that sort of ignorance is, though, in some ways it can be understood: people are angry about something and they want someone to blame. It’s wrong to blame an innocent customer support representative, but then again, people are fallible. Being wrong is what we’re best at. Welfare benefits, on the other hand, are things people are supposed to think about, so if after all that thinking they still cannot imagine what these unemployed people are going through, then something is seriously wrong.
A depressingly large amount of US citizens seem to be under the impression that being unemployed for longer than 26 weeks is somehow your own fault, but do they not see what unemployment can do to you? Do they not understand that it can lead to all sorts of mental illnesses, or that the average US citizen needs 35 weeks to find a new job because the job market isn’t as rosy as right-wing ideology makes it out to be? Sure, if they are perfect employees, they will easily get a job within 6 months. But are only perfect people allowed to live a half-decent life?
Just try imagining it for a while. You become redundant at the job you worked at for 20 years of your life. It was hard work and badly paid, but it was work nonetheless, and after 20 years, working there made you feel secure. Suddenly you lose that security, you become one of the “unemployed” (which definitely doesn’t have a very positive image in the US), and there you go, spiralling right down into a depression because all the changes are too much. You try to get by on 1166 dollars a month for about half a year (yeah, $1166, imagine that… It’s equal to about €850 and £700), and after that, you end up with nothing. You send out job applications, but it’s no use. In times of high unemployment, nobody wants a depressed 45 year old who only knows how to flip burgers. Big surprise, right?
It’s a desperate situation in which you end up losing everything. How do you feed a family if you lived your life on the already pathetically low minimum wage if suddenly all your income disappears? You never had the money to save up for things like these, so before you know it, you lose your house. Or you might have been a well-educated hard worker who ends up having to sell his/her car, making it impossible to find a job at your former level because you can’t get there. Instead, you’ll have to content with a minimum wage job for the rest of your life despite those long years of education. If that doesn’t spiral you right down into a depression, what does?
Unemployment is not a straight forward thing. Of course, there are lazy people out there who benefit from a welfare system without deserving it, but is punishing these people truly worth ruining the lives of people who do work hard? And it’s not like guaranteed minimum income systems are impossible. France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Belgium and many more… they all have it, and they are all doing just fine. Their unemployment rate isn’t any higher than in the US, regardless of what right-wing ideologies might tell us.
Ultimately, it’s about time we start thinking about these things rather than sticking to outdated ideologies. Yes, sure, Milton Friedman said we should do it like this, but Milton Friedman is no longer alive. We can start thinking for ourselves now, using accurate, modern data to back up our views rather than coming up with the same arguments as half a century ago, that unemployment benefits are harmful, that they discourage people to go back to work… All that can be handled if only the system is adjusted in the right way, like it is in all those European countries. Maybe some lazy people will benefit from it, but that cannot ever be an excuse to ruin the lives of those who do work hard. Not ever.
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