Friday, December 3, 2010

Sound Off: Unemployment Benefits Foster Good Values

The now infamous Juan Williams, who recently was fired by National Public Radio for saying that seeing Muslim-looking people on airplanes makes him nervous, has something far more wrong and offensive to say. Appearing on his newly-embraced home, FOX News, Mr. Williams said that extended unemployment benefits foster the wrong values. He said that good values include showing up and dressing well. "You lose your work ethic" when you're out of work for an extended period of time, he said. Thus, he said, it's time to cut off unemployment benefits to give people the incentive they need to go back to work.

Setting aside how factually stupid these remarks are -- setting aside the fact that most people want to work, that there simply aren't jobs for everybody who's unemployed right now -- it seems to me that there is a competing set of values that we hold dear in America, and that's charity, compassion.

The unavailability of jobs is well documented. The unemployment rate actually rose in November. The fact that so many people are out of work is not the result of disincentives to work. While there may -- may -- be some people who, as the FOX News host speaking to Mr. Williams reported, are not looking for jobs because they get more money from unemployment than they could get from a job, this is not the majority. Of course, the way unemployment works, you cannot possibly be collecting more in unemployment than you were earning when you had a job. So the argument must be that you should give up unemployment benefits that are calculated based on what you were earning when you lost your job to take a job that pays far less money. But if you are faced with a mortgage to pay, a health insurance premium, and children to feed and clothe, should you be required to give up unemployment to take a minimum wage job -- assuming you can find one -- that would leave you and your family homeless and hungry? Is that what Mr. Williams is advocating?

The problem is not that people don't want to work; the problem is that there are not enough jobs. What are the GOP-ers planning to do about that other than give tax breaks to millionaires which they continue to claim -- despite forty years of evidence to the contrary -- will trickle down to create jobs for the middle class?

No, if I have to choose between the values of compassion and charity on the one hand and the values implicit in the work ethic -- showing up and dressing well, according to Mr. Williams -- I have no problem choosing. I'll take compassion and charity any day. We should be helping those who've lost their jobs. We should be ensuring that their families don't go cold and hungry and sick. We should give. Because everything you give comes back 100 fold. That is a core American value that I personally hold above most anything else.

So, Mr. Williams, I wish for you a lump of coal for Christmas. I wish that the gifts under your tree could be converted to jobs, homes, food, health care and given to those who need them. I wish that you could imagine what it's like not to have the option of taking a job, of showing up and dressing well.

It seems to me that the value you are lacking is a little bit of humility. Jennifer

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