News articles attributed a drop in the stock market last week to a rise in initial claims for unemployment benefits, and there's no doubt that, compared to the past 20 years or so, the unemployment numbers are grim.
For all that, though, it's worth remembering, as a corrective, that not every one of the tens of millions of unemployed Americans has a case as bleak as the press, or, for that matter, President Obama's Republican critics (or Democrats who criticize Republicans for not extending unemployment benefits), might have you believe. Here are seven types of jobless Americans that you may not see on television or in the newspapers regularly, but who nonetheless are out there. Among those collecting unemployment:
Substitute public school teachers in New Canaan, Connecticut, who aren't needed. A local newspaper quotes a school administrator questioning the policy: "People agree to be a substitute knowing it's not going to be work every day, and then turn around and ask for unemployment….We struggle with the idea that substitutes can collect unemployment at all. This is why it's called a 'substitute' -- because you're there when a teacher is absent. They aren't the same thing."
Substitute public school teachers in Hawaii, who, under, a federal court decision, can reportedly collect unemployment during summer school vacation.
People who have spouses who are working. In 2009, the most recent year for which the Census's Current Population Survey has released data, "Among married-couple families with an unemployed member in 2009, 79.9 percent had an employed member." For the uninitiated, the concept that you can collect unemployment even if your spouse is employed — and potentially at a high-income job — seems hard to fathom, at least to judge by the frequency with which the question pops up in online forums.
"Bong heads and boarders" who reportedly "do the US Forest Service fire fighter, ski lift operator cycle year after year. They build up just enough hours of unemployment credit at these slacker jobs to ride out spring and fall living off of the man while faking their job search records."
Part time community college teachers who follow the advice of this union representative to file for unemployment "any time between terms, even over winter holiday break."
The "funemployed." According to the Los Angeles Times, "These happily jobless tend to be single and in their 20s and 30s. Some were laid off. Some quit voluntarily, lured by generous buyouts. Buoyed by severance, savings, unemployment checks or their parents, the funemployed do not spend their days poring over job listings. They travel on the cheap for weeks. They head back to school or volunteer at the neighborhood soup kitchen. … Never heard of funemployment? Here's Urban Dictionary's definition: "The condition of a person who takes advantage of being out of a job to have the time of their life. I spent all day Tuesday at the pool; funemployment rocks!"
People who got really big lump-sum severance payments when they left their last job, and have lots of assets because they were doing really well before they became unemployed. Some of the unemployed, before they became unemployed, may well have met President Obama's definition of "rich." The lump sum severance payment may be more than an average American makes in four years, or in ten years. Or, as this chart puts it, they are "wondering how to make the $2 million severance from the brokerage last through March." I haven't found any good data on prior-year income of the unemployed, but it would be interesting to see.
As Keith Hennessey notes, there are a variety of ideas out there for adjusting incentives. "In 2003 President Bush proposed personal reemployment accounts as a substitute for expanded unemployment insurance benefits. The program would have spent $3.6 B to provide 1.2 million unemployed people who are least likely to quickly find a job with a $3,000 account. That person could make regular incremental withdrawals from the account for reemployment services: job training, search services, transportation costs, child care, or even getting a suit cleaned for interviews. If the person started a new job within 13 weeks of receiving his first UI payment, he could keep any balance in the account as a cash reemployment bonus. …In the 1980s experiments were conducted in Washington, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Workers were provided with reemployment bonuses of between $300 and $1,000 if they found a job before their UI benefits expired. These bonuses reduced the amount of time workers remained unemployed by about a week, and the new jobs they took were comparable to those who did not get bonuses."
A lot of people may think that a few ski lift operators or community college teachers gaming or milking the system is a small price to pay for a safety net that is, after all, for the most part, a social insurance system that relies on premiums paid in by those who eventually receive benefits. On the other hand, if you are a self-employed entrepreneur who isn't eligible for unemployment if your own business fails, yet you are watching as your tax dollars are being spent to subsidize extensions of unemployment benefits for others, you may take a different view of it.
Thanks to reader-participant-watchdog-community member-content co-creator E. for raising the question.