I regularly check the competition, and “The Ethicist,” Ariel Kaminer, has been solid lately. This past week, she avoided falling into a trap that I am certain her predecessor, Randy Cohen, would have charged into.
The questioner asked Kaminer whether it was unethical “for a relatively wealthy person” to receive unemployment checks, even if he or she met the requirements. Moreover, “Is the answer different in times like the present, when government resources are extremely strained?”
If I had been asked the question, I would want to know what “relatively wealthy” is supposed to mean. Relative to whom? “Relatively wealthy” people who lose jobs with big paychecks usually have big bills to pay. Maybe they have savings and maybe they don’t, but who in their right mind, not knowing how long they would be unemployed, would exhaust savings before applying for unemployment assistance?
Kaminer agreed with an economics professor who said applying for unemployment would be “unseemly.” I don’t believe that. Unemployment funds don’t run out; a citizen with resources isn’t taking money away from someone who needs it more. Nor is a recently-sacked individual who has accumulated wealth uniquely obligated to forgo government assistance he has a right to receive in order to help balance the government’s books. Here Kaminer’s response was sound:
“We operate from a basic societal consensus that it isn’t the responsibility of individual citizens to balance the government’s budget. If you pay your taxes, you are free to avail yourselves of what they buy. There is no logical reason that permission should exclude the relatively small portion of government benefits that happen to come in the form of a check. Someone of means could choose to forgo her benefit checks as an act of conscience, a personal donation to the worthy and all-too-needy cause of her state’s economy. That would be generous. Just not necessarily effective.“
Relatively wealthy individuals have the same rights to government benefits and services as anyone else; after all, they pay more of what they cost than the relatively less wealthy. For someone in this category who doesn’t need unemployment assistance or Social Security to voluntarily waive a cash benefit as a matter of principle and civic responsibility is a fine thing to do.
But nobody should try to make anyone who takes money they are entitled to* feel guilty, greedy, or less than ethical.
* NOTE: This description should exclude individuals like Leroy Fick, whose name is used on Ethics Alarms, and, I fervently hope, elsewhere, to describe someone who revels in unethical conduct that is technically legal. Fick is a lottery jackpot winner who, due to a loophole in state unemployment insurance regulations, can continue to receive an unemployment check that isn’t offset by his lottery income, which is in the millions. No doubt about it: Fick is unethical to take the money. I am presuming, as was Ariel, that her inquirer meant someone who had lost a genuine job and wasn’t receiving substantial income from other sources, who was wealthy enough that he or she didn’t need an unemployment check to survive. Thanks to Rick Jones for reminding me of the original fick.