Unemployment Check Ethics: “The Ethicist” Gets It Right

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.

7 thoughts on “Unemployment Check Ethics: “The Ethicist” Gets It Right

  1. I think we need to tease out that relativity argument, especially if we’re going to talk about “money they are entitled to.” Mitt Romney’s bad joke a few months ago about being unemployed sort of gets to the issue. It would be not merely politically suicidal, not merely problematic, but downright tacky for Mr. Romney to have extended that line of thinking into attempting to receive unemployment benefits. (Ot at least so I think.) But someone “relatively wealthy” shouldn’t be constrained. OK, I’m with you. But if legal right is all that matters, we’re in Fickville.

    • I thought of Leroy; glad you mentioned him. I don’t think the questioner was talking about the independently wealthy, or lottery-winning recipients do you? I was trying to imagine a Romney-type who would qualify for unemployment insurance—I”m assuming the individual also makes a good faith effort to find replacement income elsewhere. At a certain point it’s impossible not to be able to make enough to offset or exceed unemployment insurance in Romney’s position. Yes, I agree…a genuine, cash rich individual accepting unemployment benefits, even if he has a right to them, would be a Fick, and that includes Leroy, who is exploiting a loophole to take money not intended for someone receiving lottery income.

      • Something I just thought about with Fick.

        The one thing most lottery winners have in common is that they eventually go broke. And then, he’ll sure appreciate the bare minimum welfare money he scrounges up to pay for gas, by golly.

  2. This question reminds me of a situation that happened to my father years ago. After 35 years of continuous employment, he was laid off. When he went to apply for unemployment benefits, he was told that they weren’t for people like him. Since he had skills and a long, good job history, he would find another job. The State of Michigan’s position was that unemployment ‘insurance’ was really just another pot of money they could use as welfare benefits for the chronically unemployed who played the “I’ll get a job for 3 months and get fired so I can get unemployment again” game.

    I think people could be forgiven for thinking this is the way it should be since it is the way many states treat unemployment and how schoolchildren are taught it should work by state schoolteachers. It is, however unethical and causes several problems.

    -It drains unemployment funds, resulting in shortfalls when there is a real unemployment problem
    -It leaves working members of society without the safety net they paid for through unemployment “insurance”
    -It makes people sceptical of all government benefits programs.

    My father did finally get his benefits after going to the office several times and probably displaying a belligerence that would warrant a Homeland Security response today.

  3. But please remember that employers PAY for those unemployment benefits, and unemployment taxes have gone up significantly as a result. So the relatively wealthy person may have earned those benefits, yes, but taking them may be hindering employers from creating and filling jobs. I work for a staffing / workforce solutions company, and increased unemployment taxes and increased numbers of people on unemployment have great affected us.

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