The problem of treating unemployment payments as an entitlement

Is an unemployment check “welfare” or an “entitlement”? The discussion matters, as other observers have noted.

Cheryl Strauss Einhorn examines the distinction in greater detail for the latest Commentary. (There’s a subscriber link here.)

With the Obama administration’s historic extension of unemployment benefits to two years, fully 50 percent longer in duration than the prior record in the 1970s, the matter of the program’s true nature demands clarity. The unprecedented extension of benefits, combined with today’s dramatically high national unemployment, pushes the program out of the realm of political compromise and into the uncharted territory of grand social experimentation.

Our current unemployment compensation system, in fact, matches the Oxford Dictionary definition of welfare: “Financial support given to those who are unemployed or otherwise in need.” … Our government promotes unemployment benefits not as welfare but as an entitlement. An entitlement is something someone deserves because he has earned it; whereas welfare is government charity, given to those who are needy. By calling unemployment insurance an entitlement, the government hopes to shed the stigma that would come attached to charitable handouts.

Sensitivities aside, the extended benefit program that pays healthy people direct government distributions bears a strong resemblance to welfare, as we commonly understand the concept. The five specific requirements for collecting unemployment are that the person is able to work, is involuntarily jobless, wants a job, is available to work, and is actively looking for work. The Department of Labor’s stated goal for unemployment compensation is to provide payments to ensure “that at least a significant proportion of the necessities of life, most notably food, shelter, and clothing, can be met on a week-to-week basis while a search for work takes place.” Like all of our country’s social insurance policies, it aims ultimately to improve Americans’ health, happiness, and well-being.

Sadly, the current sample size for this social experiment is enormous.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

Reader Comments