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).