Unemployment and Motivation: A Case Study

So, if you’ve been watching the US Senate, lately, you’re probably well aware of the latest drama, with Jim Bunning attempting a one-man filibuster to stop the payment of unemployment benefits.  Although he recently backed down, the reaction to his stand brought out some interesting discussions about politics, budgets, and spending.

Another issue that was brought to surface by this debate is whether unemployment benefits are even good for society as a whole.  The benefits are that it provides a safety net for those who find themselves out of work, enabling them to take time to find another job of their choice, usually in the same field for about the same rate of pay.

Unemployment benefits seek to keep us out of here...
Unemployment benefits seek to keep us out of here...

The downside, though, is that such benefits may actually aggravate the level of unemployment.  If you don’t have to work to get money, after all, aren’t you going to be less motivated to do so?  Nina Easton, among others, notes that studies have found that the unemployed people tend to stay unemployed as long as the benefits keep coming, using the benefits as an excuse to put off taking lower paying jobs to survive.

So, who’s right?  It’s hard to say exactly how unemployed people are affected by having unemployment benefits available; there are currently millions of people out of work, and as with any group, different people will react in different ways.  Luckily (or unluckily, I suppose) I happen to have a perfect subject to gauge just how unemployment benefits can distort incentives right here: me.

A Case Study in Myself

Yes, in the past year or so, I’ve found myself out of work on two separate occasions.  (Technically, three, although the third was for a brief period after I ended a temp position but before I started another one, so I didn’t take unemployment benefits, and thus, I’m not counting that.)  As a result, I’ve been collecting unemployment benefits for much of the last year, so much so that I’ve actually exhausted the normal amount of benefits available to me and am only still receiving unemployment due to the many extensions that have been passed over the past few years.  (Just like the one Jim Bunning was filibustering against, to tie everything back in.)

So, how did unemployment benefits affect me and my desire to gain a job?  Well, the critics of unemployment do have a point; I HAVE been pickier about possible jobs than I might be otherwise.  Since my most recent job loss in November, I’ve been focused more on trying to regain a job at my previous level of employment, rather than ‘settling’ for a lower income job as I might have been forced to without unemployment.  From an economic stand point, the existence of unemployment has demotivated me in my job search, exactly what critics fear would happen.

HOWEVER, that’s not the whole story.  While it’s true that I haven’t been working in a paid position during that time, I haven’t exactly been idle during this period, either.  In addition to continuing to search for a job in my field of study, I’ve also taken the GRE in preparation for going to grad school, continued the work on this very blog, and looked into other possibilities for making money outside a typical nine-to-five position.  What is often left out of the debate over unemployment benefits is exactly this kind of transformation; having a period of time after losing your job to re-evaluate your life and make changes for the better (without needing to take any job that will have you just to put a check in your account and food on the table) is one of the greatest advantages of unemployment as it currently exists.

(While we’re on the subject, I’m a little leery of the argument that society as a whole is better off if I take a low-paying job, at least in the short run.  Yes, in the long run, my work will help the company to expand, provide money for me to spend or invest, and generally help the economy to keep growing; far be it from me to argue with any of that.  However, in the short run, I’m shorting myself of time to building my skills or work on an entrepreneurial endeavor, taking a job that could be filled by someone else, and causing the company I’m working for to spend money training someone who’ll leave at the first opportunity that presents itself.)

Even with the possible demotivational effects, I tend to think that the pros of unemployment benefits far outweigh the cons.  Yes, they might have the adverse effect of keeping unemployment higher that it might be otherwise, but the advantages offered to the unemployed more than make up for that fact.  At least, they do in the case of this one guy I know…

What do you think about unemployment benefits?  Are the cons enough to outweigh the pros?  Is it better to encourage people to take a job, any job?  Do you think that employment status makes it hard to think about this issue objectively?  (I.E., I’m currently unemployed and like the unemployment system.)

56 Responses to Unemployment and Motivation: A Case Study

  1. “having a period of time after losing your job to re-evaluate your life and make changes for the better (without needing to take any job that will have you just to put a check in your account and food on the table) is one of the greatest advantages of unemployment as it currently exists”

    But that wasn’t the point of Unemployment when it started. It was meant for a figuring out time, it was meant to be a, make sure your family doesn’t starve time.

    While I agree I think the pros outweight the cons, I just think it is a little nutty that you can collect it for 99 weeks (or at least that was a some headline I read). At some point you have a responsibility (in my humble opinion) to just TAKE A JOB…ANY JOB…for your family.

    Also that whole long run vs short run thought process is an interesting topic, but what if it was due to structural changes in the economy where your job just doesn’t exist anymore. Then in the long run wouldn’t it be better for you to get on to learning something new?
    .-= Evan´s last blog ..Experiences with Auto Refinancing – HELP ME! =-.

    • Very true; my experience with unemployment as a ‘remake my life’ period is not the intended purpose of unemployment. (Of course, if we start documenting the unintended effects of government programs, it’s going to fill up several blog entries on its own.) And yes, it is starting to get a little absurd; 99 weeks (five weeks short of two full years) is a little bit nuts. At that point, you’re well into the territory of encouraging people to take no action until their skills are out of date and their connections are worthless.

      As to the possibility of your skills being overtaken by events, that is a good point (and one I didn’t really include; my skills still seem to be in demand (not that it’s doing me much good), so that hasn’t been part of my experience yet). Of course, that might be another argument in favor of unemployment, even long-term unemployment; having many months of benefits gives you the chance to develop knowledge and more skills (perhaps going back to school or using other methods to build up your repertoire) without having to spend your days flipping hamburgers with high school students.

      In the end, I think it comes down to how you use the time you receive unemployment; if you’re building skills and knowledge, you’re using the time well (if not exactly how unemployment was first intended.

  2. Rog, this is a very insightful post which readers and myself really appreciate.

    First of all, anybody who has never been unemployed should tread carefully with criticism. I’ve never experienced unemployment, and hence there’s no way I can be consciously critical of anybody accepting U benefits.

    Secondly, Rog, this is YOUR MONEY to begin with! The time you work, you and your employer pays for unemployment benefits out of your paycheck! You are simply getting back what you paid in!

    Sure, after a certain point, you start getting more than you paid in, but that takes a while.

    It’s your money Rog!

    Best, Sam
    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..Treat Your Job As If You Won The Lottery =-.

  3. Well, this is a timely post for me. I finished up a project, and now am unemployed *sigh*.

    It is a blessing and a curse. I thought about picking up a side job like delivering pizzas, until I realized I make more money unemployed. I’m better off financially just waiting for the next project to come along. Now emotionally it can get draining, but I’m trying to keep myself busy.

    99 weeks is nuts. There has to be a point where you get cut off. I wonder the percentage of people who have been unemployed for two years who are ACTIVELY searching for work? It’s just not healthy.

    I’d feel the same way if I had won a big insurance settlement or the lottery – too much idle time is no good for a Dude, when your identity is typically wrapped up in your profession.
    .-= Jason @ MyMoneyMinute´s last blog ..Wine On A Budget: Oak Creek =-.

  4. More good comments; it’s always nice when I can get people talking 😀

    @FS: Thanks for the compliments; it’s always nice to produce a post that strikes a chord with people. Your first point is one I’ve thought about quite a bit, particularly when reading an article from Nina Easton or something similar; while I can understand and agree with it intellectually, it’s still a bit galling to be lectured about the evils of unemployment by someone who is currently employed. As to your second point, this is true, it is a return of your money (at least at first; with my long unemployment and short time working beforehand, I think I’ve exhausted what I originally put in already). Anyway, thanks again for the comments, Sam!

    @Jason: Sorry to hear that you’re in the same boat. Yes, in a smartly designed system, there’s no disincentive to take part time work, although as with so many government programs, unemployment systems aren’t always smartly designed. I do agree completely that you have to keep busy; if I didn’t have my blog and other things like studying for the GRE to do, I’d have gone completely insane a while ago. Good luck finding your next project!

    @Investor Junkie: Indeed, 99 weeks seems a bit insane. Three months, certainly, six months, maybe, but even one year is stretching things a bit. If you do wait until your benefits are about to run out, your skills are going to be rusty and you’re going to be way out of date, even in a relatively slow moving industry. You make some excellent points, as well, both about the need to save more if you don’t have unemployment as an option, and about how the public pays for unemployment benefits somehow. It does put things in a different light.

  5. Things must have changed since my one experience with unemployment nearly 20 years ago. What I was getting didn’t hardly cover my rent and gas. I was literally eating the “beans and rice” while trying to survive. For me it was motivating to get a job.

    I’ve also worked in a state that had the highest per capita rates of entitlement payees. Several worked for me. What I found is that most on the government roll fell into two camps. About 15% wanted to rise above it and do better. The other 85% balked at working more hours and earning more money for fear of losing various benefits.

    There should be a safety net, but that’s it, a net. Not a cushy bed.
    .-= LeanLifeCoach´s last blog ..Ban Antibiotics and Save Money =-.

  6. As someone currently unemployed, I am very thankful for unemployment benefits! Although I honestly don’t know how it would be possible to LIVE on unemployment.
    I am currently getting $184 per week. This is enough to buy groceries, and put some gas in my tank, but not enough to pay rent. Thankfully, I have the option of living with my parents or my boyfriend’s parents right now, and my boyfriend and I are using his dad’s car so we only have to pay for gas and some groceries. I’m able to save most of my money which is definitely a luxury. I don’t know how anyone with a family to support or rent to pay could survive on what I get though!
    As far as motivation, I’m in a tough spot. I’d be willing to work a somewhat crummy job, but will move wherever my boyfriend finds work (he’s an accountant, also unemployed, but he should be able to make some decent $$ if he can find something). It seems pointless to me to start a job, give up my unemployment, quit the job in a couple weeks to move, and not be able to collect unemployment because I quit a job. And even crummy jobs are few and far between right now. It’s just not worth it.
    That doesn’t mean I’m not looking for work. I do look, and I do apply for decent jobs. There’s just not a lot out there right now!
    I think if my boyfriend and I HAD to pay rent and had car payments and insurance and everything we’d be less likely to draw unemployment and more likely to take anything that gives us more than $184 a week. We definitely are fortunate. But I don’t feel too guilty (maybe a little) for collecting unemployment. I paid into it, I’m saving at least 80% of it, and I don’t intend to be on it forever. It’s nice to have, and maybe people shouldn’t be able to collect it for as long as some of them are, but hey, it lets me save enough to put some money toward a car (so can get to my future job) or rent, or whatever.
    I think, long rambling post made short, that unemployment is a great benefit to have, although it varies greatly from individual to individual whether it decreases or increases their motivation. For me, it doesn’t really do either, but I’m happy to still be able put money aside for the future. =]

  7. @LeanLifeCoach: I think how much you get in unemployment benefits depends a lot on what state you live in. I’ve had friends in ‘Right to Work’ states that have said they would get a few hundred dollars per week (if that) on unemployment and had a tough time getting on employment initially, while I’m getting close to half my previous pay. Combine the (relatively) high benefits with my generally frugal lifestyle, and I’m doing alright. As for those who let fear of losing unemployment benefits keep them from taking higher paying jobs or otherwise improving their lot in life, I think that’s partially due to the way that many unemployment benefit programs are set up. If they make it hard to work (at least, full-time) while still getting some unemployment, then of course, you’re going to provide a disincentive to getting employment during the unemployment period.

    @eef: Don’t worry about the long, rambling reponse; I love it when people feel inspired by my posts enough to really open up. Personally, I think you’re doing everything right; applying to good jobs when they become available, trying to save money from unemployment if things continue to look down, and living as frugally as possible. I’ve noticed that unemployment benefits seem to vary widely from state to state. I’m lucky that Pennsylvania is on the high end of the scale (or at least, that I’m getting much more than many people if it’s not), so the question of whether to get a job is more a matter of keeping my skills fresh and my resume full, and less a matter of getting enough money to survive. Your sentiments on the subject seem to echo most that I’ve heard: nobody’s talking about getting rid of unemployment, although many think it’s getting a bit out of hand with how long you can collect it. Glad to see that it’s not really decreasing your (or your boyfriend’s) desire to get a job. Here’s hoping both of you find new employment soon!

    • @Darwin & FS: I’m simply in shock; even with my (rapidly) rising Alexa score and all, I still thought I was well outside the line of sight of major corporate blogs/websites like MSN Money. Still, it is very sweet, and here’s hoping it marks a whole new chapter in the life of my blog.

  8. I have been unemployed since the beginning of november 2009 I have been going to interviews and applying at Walmart and Kmart I have been looking for anything that I could do no matter what it pays. I am thankful for unemployment but am very thankful my husband is working because I would not be able to live on unemployment.

  9. From one unemployed Roger to another…

    Great minds do think alike…especially when they share the same name!

    Great Work! You really hit the road running on this one. UIB should keep us on a positive track; yes, it is our money and we should graciously accept it, however collecting these benefits will allow us to think introspectively about ourselves to determine our true meaning and value in the workplace. Be creative–precisely what you are doing! Go beyond what we had because the economy is so bad that most of the positions we held will not return forcing us to look elsewhere for revenue. How can we take our experiences, skills and expertise and make our value work for us, not necessarily another company, most of which are at critical crossroads?

    Never take a job for the sake of employment; correct, Roger, all you’ll do is continue looking which won’t help either party. Find your value and broadcast it; strive to do better, not the same and while we’re looking, be creative in our job search!

    Awesome Work!

  10. Unemployment benefits gives folks a little pride of having money to buy goods.If you have no unemployment money and no job after searching you heart out how do you feed your kids or pay rent? I hate this bull about people are sorry and dont want to work. Unemployment money is taxed and goods are bought to help create jobs. How can that be all bad?
    I served my country in the military and times was hard serving this country in some cases. I served my country with pride for a reason. I wanted a country that made a better life for folks. If the normal people are going to be over looked when times are hard (out of work)and the Bankers, Corp. Management and the War folks are the only ones that will be taken care of with my tax money this country is no better than China or Mexico. I should have went Awol.

  11. I think it is disgraceful that those in government with huge salaries, unlimited health care benefits and a guaranteed income for life (for most in office) to complain and try to block benefits for the average person. I have worked HARD all my life. I worked full time raising two kids as a single parent, while going to school over 15 years to get my BA degree. I also took part time work, went to all my kid’s activities and motivated both to go to college and get degrees for a better future. In my late 50’s I went back to school and got my teaching credential with hopes of teaching until they kicked me out. Well, I have only been able to find part time teaching jobs and teaching ESL nights for over 4 years, most of the time still working full time during the day. Then I was laid off my full time job in finance two years ago and then was able to work part time (25 hours a week) teaching ESL to adults in California. Last fall California had a budget crisis and cut most of the ESL programs in California (actually they gave the local school districts the ability to use the funds, since they are financially strapped also!), so I lost my wonderful job, that I thought I could keep during my semi-retirement years. I was laid off with half the teachers at our school. I have been collecting unemployment ever since, working less hours as a part time tutor. Without unemployment, I would have lost my condo and not been able to make all my other payments, etc. I would not even be collecting unemployment if I could find a good job in education, but once again California has chosen not to value education. So, here I am in my mid 60’s wondering how I can reinvent myself again! I think the politicians need to remember there are many like me, hard working, willing to work and wanting to contribute to society. As you might surmise, I am a little irked!! But, I am lucky to have a wonderful family that helps out when needed. I just hope the economy improves quickly!!

  12. @Sharon Horn:
    I am sorry you lost your job, it really is unfortunate. Unfortunately there are no guarantees in life, and life at times it’s not fair. My question to you is at what point should unemployment benefits run out then? (serious question) Why not increase it to 208 weeks (or 4 years?) Let’s make it 10? Seriously almost 2 years is a long time. What do you think the government should be doing?

    This is not a good time economically and what I’m seeing we are far over from it. At least in my opinion this type of “stimulus” does nothing of the sort and as you are seeing it is only delaying the inevitable. An argument could even be said it’s prolonging this “Great Recession”. What we need are jobs created. The government is not doing anything to assist small business owners such as myself to offer incentives to expand and hire. If anything, the policies are doing the exact opposite. All of these massive uncertain government policies and tax increases. Health care, cap-n-trade, end of Bush tax incentives, etc. etc. etc.

    Fact is we (collectively) are not entitled to anything. At least my position what the government grants, it can also take away (as you seen at anytime!). Being reliant on the government is a big part of the issue we currently have. With state deficits such as your state is seeing should be a huge wake up call. This unfortunately isn’t going to end nicely.
    .-= Investor Junkie´s last blog ..Ginnie Mae Investing =-.

    • Amazing how a feature on a huge corporate website can breath new life into a blog post.

      @fran: I understand the feeling; the only reason I haven’t applied to the local Walmart yet myself is that they’ve been fully staffed after the Christmas rush. It’s only lately that they seem to have any openings.

      @Roger: Thanks for the perceptive comment; I should expect no less from another Roger! Yes, I do think that using the time you collect unemployment for introspection is the best policy. If you use it as the opportunity to improve your skills and improve yourself, it can become a good thing for you and your future career.

      @Duane: First, thank you for your service to the country. I don’t think we (that is, Americans in general) don’t thank our veterans nearly enough, so once again, my thanks to you. As for unemployment benefits helping the economy, you’re absolutely right. In times like these, when the country’s economy is suffering so much, having a little bit more money to grease the wheels of the market can be a good thing.

      @Sharon: I honestly do not know what, if anything, I should say. You have indeed worked hard your entire life, and it sounds like you have raised two great children as well. You have my greatest hopes that you will find something more permanent and substantial soon. As for politicians, they are definitely in their own world; not only are they largely drawn from the wealthiest Americans to begin with, but several decades in DC is usually enough to deaden any connection they have to the common man. Here’s hoping we get some new blood on the hill soon (on both sides of the aisle).

      @Investor Junkie: In answer to your question (although it’s not directed at me), I honestly don’t know how long it should last. I do think that we should have a more holistic method of determining how long unemployment should last; I would much rather expand the length of unemployment benefits because economic research indicates it’s the best policy for the country, not because a group of politicians keeps arbitrarily bumping up the length of time. As for the stimulus and other, broader economic issues, I’m sure there’s plenty of (highly politicized) research, both maintaining that the stimulus was a boon to the economy and that it did nothing to help and in fact prolongs the downturn. Unfortunately, until we develop a way to see into alternate universes to see how different decisions played out, we can’t say definitely whether it was a plus or a minus to the recovery.

  13. Love this post. Over from Financial Samurai who highlighted it in his wrap. How’s the job search going, and are you planning on going to grad school still?

    • @RC: Glad that FS decided to feature this post again, and it’s good to see you. Unfortunately, my job search isn’t yielding many good results (I had mentioned a possible job opportunity in a later post, but that fell through), but yes, I am still planning to go onto grad school, either in the fall or next spring.

  14. As someone in similar straits, it was nice to see this topic being sanely discussed.

    Over the last 5 years, I’ve lost 4 jobs to companies “restructuring” and moving out of the country, specifically to India, Canada even the UK.
    This technology based occupation is no longer performed on a wide scale in America, if at all. It has been farmed out in a span of 5 years, much like the textile industry was.
    This field however, is technological. The last bastion of the evolved country.

    The corporations that leave our shores will indeed make a lot more in the short term with governmental subsidies in their new locations.

    However, over these years, the very same “American” corporations also realized that it is in fact less costly to hire locals of the new country. Many in fact stating such as a requirement in their employment listings.

    As the last of the large corporations make plans to leave the country, its very telling to see the red herring of “unemployment benefits” brought to front and center.
    The truth of the matter is that American workers are now and will be forced to follow the jobs overseas as well. I’ve done it and will more than likely be forced to leave my family and home yet again. I’m gone each time for longer periods. Each time in hopes of a few weeks work in the United States on return, in a “w2” position that will put me back on unemployment, in hopes of staying in my own country for the little time that buys me.
    Someone is and has made a lot of money off this arrangement. I understand that the supreme court has officially made this entity a person with the unilateral name of “corporation”.
    Nothing to do with an immigrant or unemployment in fact.

    Cheers friends, sending post cards from the next shore…

  15. @DW: I’m glad my post appealed to a fellow unemployed person (even though, since writing this, I got a part time job at Wal-Mart, so I’m not *technically* unemployed anymore, just underemployed). It does seem as if I’d have an easier time finding a job if I ‘outsourced’ myself, but alas, family and other connections keep me where I’m currently located. I hope you find a position that enables you to spend more time in the US with your family.

  16. I agree, unemployment benefits do make unemployment worse. I don’t think the gov should have anything to do with it. Unemployment insurance should be totally private and people should be able to choose if they want it.
    Stephen´s last blog post ..How to Survive an Economic Collapse

    • @Stephen: I think you might have skipped over some portion of my post; I argued that unemployment benefits are a net benefit for society. As for private unemployment insurance, while it sounds like a good plan, I’m not sure how well it would work in practice. There would seem to be too much risk that unscrupulous employees could get themselves fired just to collect unemployment benefits, or on the other hand, that any company offering unemployment insurance would drop people with legitimate claims on such payments. The government’s not perfect, but sometimes, they are the best people for the job.

  17. @Roger: What is stopping employees from doing the same right now with gov unemployment benefits?

    Also, why would the insurance have to be offered through the employer? Why couldn’t it be totally independent from the employer? Auto and home owner’s insurance are not tied to employment. Why should health or any other insurance depend on where you work?

    Government not being perfect might be the biggest understatement I’ve ever read. The state, unfortunately, is often the cause of many problems in society. It’s inherent violence, I believe, is a scourge on civilized society.

    I know it can be difficult to see how things would work differently in a free society but I think if you use your imagination you’ll see that freedom can indeed work.
    Stephen´s last blog post ..Economic Collapse Warning Signs

    • @Stephen: Admittedly, there are more than a few unscrupulous people that take advantage of unemployment benefits in the current form, but I’m fairly certain that the government has more ways of dealing with such unscrupulous employees than a private company.

      Here’s my problem with privately run unemployment insurance, either from the same company or from a different company: it would be paying out the most when the economy is the worst, as it would recently. This is not exactly an economic model for fantastic success, and as companies lack the ability to tax citizens to make up the difference, it seems nigh impossible for them to stay in business. (I don’t recall any private companies even attempting to offer unemployment insurance, even in a supplementary fashion.) Given this issue, you’d probably see much of the same sort of problems you see with private health care (which is a whole other bag of worms): companies only insuring people who are at the least risk of losing their jobs (leaving the ones who need such insurance the most out in the cold), companies dropping people when they need to use their insurance, companies having so many restrictions and limitations that the insurance is rendered almost useless, etc.

      I do agree with you that things like health insurance shouldn’t depend on where you work (and probably wouldn’t were it not for WWII limits on income, but I digress), but I imagine my solution to that issue (nation-wide single payer insurance run by the government) is almost exactly the opposite of your solution.

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