When I first saw Michael Moore’s film “Roger and Me”, my primary reaction was not what Mr. Moore intended. “Roger and Me” was a documentary on how the closing of the GM plant in Flint, Michigan several years before devastated the city. The running joke in the movie was Moore’s continuous failed attempts to talk to Roger Smith, the president of General Motors. This was laced around various stories of local residents whose lives were turned upside down. I am sure Moore meant to make people sympathize with the town residents and hate General Motors. While I did sympathize somewhat with the residents, my main reaction was wondering why these people all stayed in Flint rather than move to someplace with better opportunities?
This question is relevant now as the president and congress debate over extending unemployment benefits yet one more time. The president wants us to feel sympathy for the long-term unemployed and he wants to paint anybody who opposes the extension as being heartless and cruel. Unemployment insurance was designed to be a short-term program, to help people get back on their feet after they lose their job. The big question is does extending unemployment benefits indefinitely contribute to unemployment?
North Dakota has about a 2% unemployment rate. Why do people stay where jobs are scarce instead of moving to North Dakota where jobs are plentiful? There are many reasons. People have friends and family where they are and they don’t want to move. Their former job may have been specialized and not available in North Dakota. North Dakota is not usually on anybody’s 10 most fun places to live list. At some point though, when people get desperate enough, they might just move and follow the opportunity and move to North Dakota. Maybe if the person gets desperate enough, he/she will stop waiting for the high paying job like he/she used to have and will take an assistant manager job at McDonalds. Sometimes desperation is what makes people do what is necessary to move on in life, to make the difficult choices. Extending unemployment insurance delays the need to make the difficult choices.
The most common argument against this is that people don’t choose to be unemployed. Unemployment is not pleasant. I am not claiming that is is pleasant. I am claiming that by reducing the unpleasantness of long-term employment, we are making it less unpleasant than alternatives such as relocation or taking less desirable jobs. In the short-term it makes sense to give people time to re-group and re-plan. At some point though, it becomes obvious that what people are doing isn’t working. By enabling it, we reinforce it. We are rewarding people for making the bad choice of continuing down a failing path.
Is that compassion? I don’t think so.
People may own a house where they were working. Hard to move w/o promise of a job when you already have built equity in your house. People may not have the resources to move. Maybe they are just able to make ends meet where they are already living. They might be afraid to risk relocation w/o some promise of employment. What they were doing may be specialized, and moving to North Dakota does not seem very promising. Maybe they can’t afford to work at McDonald’s. They own a house and cars. Maybe at low-wage jobs they cannot afford child care and they need to stick to their current location to be close to grandma. Maybe one spouse or family member is currently employed and if they relocate they risk having two people out of work.
I am not claiming that every unemployed person should move to North Dakota. There are lots of reasons people don’t want to move, often very good reasons. If a person is long-term unemployed doing what they are doing though, despite all of the very good reasons, something needs to change. The difficulties in moving from Michigan to North Dakota in 2014 are infinitesimally small compared to the difficulties of moving from Russia to the United States in 1890, but that didn’t stop my great grandparents and many, many others from making this move to improve their lives. By all means people should try to get employment where they are doing what they like to do, but at some point, they need to come up with something else. If we want a policy to help people, rather than extending unemployment benefits then we might consider alternatives such as subsidizing relocation expenses. Let’s reward the solution, not the problem.