Welfare recipients. Social Security recipients. Unemployment recipients. The word recipients inaccurately frames the people involved as passive supplicants.
The truth is that Americans participate in these and many other social insurance and assistance programs and should be acknowledged as participants. For example, the program today known as “welfare,” TANF, requires most participants to get and keep a job, go to college, or to participate in a job-training program. Far from being a handout, it’s hard work.
We pay Social Security premiums all our working lives, and when the checks start coming, that money is the benefit we have earned. And should we need unemployment insurance, we have earned that benefit by working for our employers. Furthermore, those receiving unemployment insurance checks generally are required to document applying for jobs each week.
We should recognize people’s participation and avoid calling them “recipients.” They are TANF participants, Social Security participants (or beneficiaries), and unemployment insurance participants (or beneficiaries).
For Social Security and unemployment insurance, the term beneficiaries also is appropriate because those are insurance programs.
But what do you think? Am I splitting hairs, or does the distinction matter?
In media reports that I’ve heard, defenders of unemployment insurance have emphasized the economic importance of continuing long-term unemployment insurance. While this fact matters, unemployment insurance requires defense on moral grounds also.
Here’s an attempt:
America is a nation composed not only of individuals but also of families, communities, cities, and states. Americans care about each other, and our wellbeing and suffering affect us all. Understanding this, during the Great Depression, the government wisely responded to mass unemployment, the collapse of the middle class, and rising poverty in part by establishing social insurance such Social Security and unemployment insurance.
In unemployment insurance, employers pay into state insurance trusts that pay benefits when workers lose their jobs, typically due to termination or layoff. It’s right that employers should pay the premiums because they decide who is fired and laid off and therefore are responsible for the worker’s unemployment.
Unemployed workers deserve our support not only because they need it to support their families while finding their next job but also because America is a country that values hard work and the people who do it. America is the Land of Opportunity and wants unemployment to be an opportunity for new work. We don’t accept that an employer’s decision to let someone go should mean that family should starve. We want to help make that next opportunity possible.
When Congress cancels long-term unemployment insurance, it sends the opposite message. That’s wrong.
What do you think the moral case for unemployment insurance should be?
With federal unemployment insurance currently cancelled for unemployed Americans, it’s important to talk about the topic carefully. As insurance, it pays benefit checks when Americans file eligible claims. Therefore, these checks are unemployment insurance benefits.
While this phrase is accurate, journalists and others sometimes abbreviate it to unemployment benefits or jobless benefits. This sounds as if the checks were a benefit of unemployment instead of a benefit of unemployment insurance. It therefore unconsciously and misleadingly advances the conservative view that cash benefits discourage individual initiative and employment. Unemployment benefits and jobless benefits should be avoided.
The truth is that the checks are benefits of insurance for which their employers have paid taxes while the beneficiaries were employed. The amounts paid are typically far less than people earned while working but provide critical support to families in crisis. The unemployment insurance program typically also requires beneficiaries to apply for jobs every week.
I’ve also sometimes (e.g. this NPR story) heard beneficiaries of unemployment insurance called recipients. This word connotes welfare instead of insurance and should be avoided–even for those in a welfare program.
I think progressives should use the phrase unemployment insurance beneficiaries or Americans seeking to end their unemployment.
What do you think?