Economic Human Rights (29): Unemployment Benefits in the U.S. and Elsewhere

Strange as it may seem to some, unemployment benefits are a human right, and rightly so in my opinion. Poverty makes rights impossible, and unemployment benefits save many from poverty, especially during a recession in which unemployment isn’t just a phase between two jobs. Read for instance art. 22, 23 and 25 of the Universal Declaration:

Article 22: Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security.

Article 23: Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 25: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Three times! They must have meant it.

Compared to many other industrialized countries, the U.S. usually adopts a very critical attitude towards social and economic rights in general, and hence also to the right to unemployment benefits. Which is apparent from its relatively stingy system.

At just under $300, the average weekly benefit is less than half the average private-sector wage. Mississippi’s maximum benefit of $230 is not much more than the federal poverty threshold of $200 for an individual. (source)

And it’s not just the total amounts of the benefits:

Compared with the systems in other industrialised countries, the American unemployment-insurance (UI) scheme pays lower benefits for less time and to a smaller share of the unemployed. … States often require beneficiaries to have worked or earned an amount that disqualifies many part-time and low-wage workers. They also disqualify people seeking only part-time work – even though many people now work part-time for family reasons. Benefits typically last for only six months, more than enough time to find a new job in normal times but not in recessions. (source)

This isn’t only a human rights issue. Especially in a recession it can mean making things worse. When people lose their jobs, you don’t want them to lose a large part of their purchasing power since economic recessions are made worse by falling consumer spending.

However, making the system of unemployment benefits more generous would almost certainly require higher taxes. And although the U.S. is a low-tax country (compared to other industrialized countries) that seems pretty utopian right now (given the already hysterical fears about the fiscal consequences of the healthcare proposals).

5 thoughts on “Economic Human Rights (29): Unemployment Benefits in the U.S. and Elsewhere”

  1. I love the caption on the last picture. It really can put it into perspective. If you assume that both of the boys have legos, and that it’s only the kids of slackers that don’t have legos, then the poster makes sense. But while I do think that for some people, subsidizing their lack of work only incentivizes them to not work, and that this is a bad thing, I also think that allowing inherited wealth does the same thing, and both extreme poverty and extreme wealth seem to lead to a disregard for laws. It is notable that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet both support estate taxes, and I think they both know something about money and work.

    What should be done, then, is not to avoid redistribution, but to find a way to redistribute while teaching those with poor work habits to work.


  2. As for the caption on the last picture, I think there is a significant difference between voluntarily sharing or even charity and having your property taken from you through the use of force and coercion.


    1. True, the joke (of course it is a joke) seems to confound the two. I personally would much prefer a world were charity solves all problems, but that would mean assuming a paradise-like society in which probably the problems that need to be solved by charity wouldn’t exist in the first place. Hence, forceful redistribution through taxation will probably be necessary for the foreseeable future. The only discussion then is the level of redistribution. Too little and you create hardship; too much and you end up with welfare queens et al. I think the redistribution system should be modular and take into account recessions and depressions. I’m convinced that the current redistribution system in the US is insufficient to deal with the recession and the unemployment that will linger on long after the recession is said to be “finished”.


  3. Found an interesting article here, about “benefit exhaustion”:

    Quote: On both humanitarian and economic grounds it makes sense to provide longer duration benefits to laid-off workers when the unemployment rate is high. Because unemployed workers need more time to find work in weak labor markets, there is a compelling equity argument for offering insurance over longer spells of job search. In addition, the counter-cyclical effectiveness of unemployment compensation is reduced when a large percentage of laid-off workers is dropped from the rolls as a result of benefit exhaustion.


  4. What a gruesome stretching of the concept of rights. You’ve extended the language and characteristics of common and naturally held faculties to uncommon and acquired ones. That is to say, when you are born you have the ability to do many things without concession or infringement from or upon any other human. All humans possess these abilities commonly. The only means by which we may withhold from you your naturally possessed faculties and abilities is through violence, which we’ve recognized as antithetical to human cooperation. This principle of non-aggression can be consistently applied to all human beings, at all places and at all times. These are, of course, negative rights.

    When you assign the characteristics of negative rights to things not commonly and naturally held by humans you are projecting onto them characteristics which cannot apply to all people at all places and at all times. Simply assign rights status upon the things you list in the article and see if you can think of a scenario in which they break down and/or violate our primary, or negative rights to not have violence done to us.

    I submit to you that you have walked down the wrong path to your vision of an ideal society. Sweden and Denmark may have hight taxes and generous welfare benefits but they do so by taking advantage of many pre-existing conditions which do not exist in the United States. They possessed centuries of unbridled capital formation and wealth expansion. Their society was already wealthy, homogenous, educated and in possession of values which precluded taking advantage of welfare benefits. They do not allow immigration from countries whose people do not share these values. Most importantly, their citizens want to be a part of this system and nobody takes advantage of it. If the US was to attempt to copy the success of Sweden by instituting identical policies, it would invariably arrive at a different outcome and at a great cost.

    Even Sweden is a panacea because their wealth expansion and standards of living were improving at a better pace prior to their adoption of welfare state policies, and are by some indicators beginning to come down. They are currently in the process of reforming and rolling back some of their tax policies and welfare benefits.

    For a lasting and peaceful march toward shared prosperity let us cooperate voluntarily, with perhaps minimal and popular government to achieve common and public functions that cannot be achieved otherwise. Let us re-form the voluntary welfare arrangements we had prior to government monopolization and let us grow wealthy by meeting needs that are demonstrated, not projected.


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