Texas Workforce Commissioner Tom Pauken has the germ of a good idea here. Unfortunately, he’s incapable of seeing what it is, and so goes off a cliff with it.
“Even in good economic times, there were people in Texas who saw the unemployment system as simply another entitlement program, which it’s not,” Pauken, who served in the Reagan administration, told me. “Obviously there are a tremendous number of people — they’ve lost their job through no fault of their own. They’re doing everything they can to try to find work. How do you distinguish between those who are really out trying to find work and those who simply want to draw an unemployment check as long as they can?”
Pauken suggests setting a wage of, say, $10 an hour and having people who get extended federal benefits work enough hours to cover their unemployment payment — “rather than it continue to be a drain on the taxpayer dollars.”
The appointee of GOP Gov.Rick Perry said this would weed out people “who may be gaming the system,” provide a worthwhile task for those trying their best and possibly open job opportunities.
Pauken “has it all wrong — hard-working Texans should not be required to take a low-paying job that has no relationship to their skills and background using their limited unemployment benefits to subsidize their wages,” saidMaurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project. “Unemployment benefits were created as an insurance program to help people get back on their feet, not to add insult to injury by blaming workers and their families for the devastating economic mess we’re in thanks to Wall Street.”
The Texas AFL-CIO’sRick Levy called the idea “a perversion of the unemployment system … Really what he’s proposing is a public jobs program, but instead of paying people a living wage, we would make them work for their unemployment benefits.
“In many ways, it’s an insult to working families that are doing everything they can to scrape by right now,” Levy said. “Basically, it would be putting people to work but eliminating things like minimum-wage and safety and health protections that only attach if you’re part of the workforce.”
To address Pauken’s points, there are people who believe that fluoridation of the water supply is a Communist plot to brainwash the American public. We’re not required to take that viewpoint seriously, and we’re under no compunction to do the same with those who think that unemployment insurance is a scam for lazy people, either. I’m sure there are a few folks gaming the system out there, working hard to get a meager one-third of their former salary instead of finding a job that might pay a real wage, just as there are those who commit other kinds of fraud. The marginal benefit we’d likely get from trying to root them out in this fashion is minimal, especially when weighed against the indignity and inconvenience of those who are working diligently to find employment while receiving this insurance. Putting the insult aside, what’s the point? Pauken doesn’t even suggest a pulled-from-his-ear figure of how much his silly idea might save if it were to be implemented, which is a sure sign of its half-baked-ness.
Having said that, I’m all in favor of a program to get unemployed people back to work, which we clearly need. It’s called another federal stimulus package, this one containing enough money for cities and states to eliminate the many large anti-stimulus packages that have greatly harmed the economic recovery. There’s still a gazillion infrastructure projects that can and should go forward, not to mention a lot of beach cleanup – I like the idea of making BP put up a couple billion dollars to pay for workers to clean the beaches – and of course we’ll need a lot of job skills retraining for folks who’ve been unemployed long term. That’d do the trick a lot more effectively than what Pauken proposes, and it would be a long-term winner for the federal deficit as well as all those underfunded states. You want people working, Tom, there’s your answer.