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OPINION - Who's doing the work?

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) – Here’s the proposal: you can retire immediately on half your pay. Would you do it?

Another proposal: you can take a two year sabbatical from your job. During that time you’d live on $363 a week. Interested?

Those deals are being offered to Wisconsin workers every day. The first proposal is the offer for someone who is approved for disability benefits. The second is for someone who’s on unemployment.

Personally, I couldn’t take either proposal. After rent, utilities, supporting my children, food, etc, my ends wouldn’t meet. But there are other people who can. Suppose you’re a woman who receives child support. That second stream of income plus unemployment might allow her to stay home if she wishes. Suppose you’re a man who’s already paid off his mortgage. Not having a monthly housing expense could allow some people to file a disability claim and not have to work.

To me, this would be a depressing existence. When I go to work each day I imagine that I’m working towards something better. A promotion, a raise, a profitable employer, even transferring to a different company could all improve my personal bottom line. I expect my finances to be improving from one year to the next. But someone who’s permanently disabled or takes long-term unemployment benefits guarantees that their money situation will be tighter and tighter each year. These benefits almost never increase, and are certain not to keep up with inflation. Scraping by on less and less doesn’t seem like a formula for happiness, yet the number of people who’d rather be idle on a minimum amount of money is a larger and larger slice of our population. This is more than just bad for individuals. How can our consumer-spending-driven economy grow if a larger and larger chunk of our adults can’t grow their income?

Qualifying for a disability benefit used to be almost impossible. Now claims are approved even for nebulous claims like hypertension, asthma, and diabetes. 9-million Americans are now classified as permanently disabled, double from 1999. Unemployment, which used to be limited to a hard-and-fast 24 weeks, now runs for up to 99 weeks depending on your state. If your job is adjudged to have been lost because of foreign competition, you’d qualify for a higher weekly payout.

All of this is can be seen in our workforce participation rate, which is a better measure of the labor market than the month-to-month unemployment numbers. WPR is 62.8%. It’s an amazing number… almost one-third of working age adults in the U.S. stay at home and try to piece together a subsistence-level income stream. That’s a baseline change in our psyche. Work used to be virtuous. Hard work to get ahead in life used to be our default adult mindset. Now far too many of us are scheming for a way to stay home. This used to be called laziness. Now, sadly, it’s the new American way.

Chris Conley
1.10.14