We are a generous society. Americans donated over $300 billion in charitable contributions in 2012. But in today’s political climate, the government “giving” our tax dollars in the form of welfare has created tension, causing us to question our values.
When we sit back and look at how we give, there is a responsibility to consider why we give and what result we are seeking. Would we continue to give even if we knew it didn’t help others make better lives for themselves? After all a recent Harvard study concluded that social welfare programs have failed to improve our economic mobility, income inequality, the structure of our families, and our educational standards. Is there a point when we stop giving to others? Does the receiver have an obligation to use the offering in a positive way?
Unemployment Insurance is a way we give to help the people who are laid off. It is supposed to give people enough pay to get by as they search for a new job. When unemployment rapidly rose in 2008 and beyond, unemployment insurance was extended for a total of 99 possible weeks. Now that the extension has expired, there is another push to extend the benefit. With long term unemployment remaining high, many people are asking the government to step in yet again.
Whether it is the role of government or not, people still feel a need to help others in society. When people find their friend or family out of work, the natural tendency is to offer a hand. Sometimes the help is purely financial. Sometimes it is offering a place to stay while they find work. At some point, however, you expect your friend to get off of your couch. Why would you expect less from a stranger you are trying to help?
There is a duality to giving. Sometimes giving help to a person is actually hurting them. While most people do not realize it, as you give help to people you are also taking something from them. You are taking their pride, and their ability to help themselves. When they fail, some of the fault must also fall on the person who is enabling their bad habits.
People adapt because they have to. The most persuasive teacher in life is pain. By removing pain, you are removing the incentive to adapt. If there were no Unemployment Insurance, then you can bet that people would find some way to find a stop gap job. They would be forced to. It isn’t that people want to sit on unemployment. It is that when you know you have six months, a year, or 99 weeks, the urgency is gone. A person who would take a lower paying job now doesn’t want to lose their higher Unemployment Insurance payment. The problem compounds itself.
What people don’t actively consider, however, is the price of job atrophy. As the hole in your resume gets longer, your ability to get a job decreases. It is not as immediate a need as putting food on the table, so it does not provide the same sharp pain as you would experience without any unemployment benefits. It is like quicksand. Before you know it, it has sucked you down into the long-term unemployable.
That does not suggest that generosity should be done away with. It means that generosity is a delicate balance, with no easy answer. The goal is to provide just enough help. Try to make it so the person will still be uncomfortable enough to need to help their self. Yes, you should provide a bed to a friend in need. Just make sure it is a hard bed, with a lot of lumps.
Harvard University: The Equal Opportunity Project
Gallup: Most Americans Practice Charitable Giving, Volunteerism
Giving USA: Charitable Donations Grew in 2012, but Slowly, Like the Economy
WSJ Survey: End Emergency Jobless Benefits, Don't Raise Minimum Wage