Work Only Brings Dignity When It Pays Enough

Republicans want to end the supplemental $300 per week unemployment benefits. Democrats say it’s not what’s keeping workers from going back to a job. I think they’re both wrong.

In Wisconsin, the maximum $370 per-week benefit plus the additional Federal money brings the payment to $670 a week. That’s the equivalent of $16.75 an hour or about $35,000 a year.

Let’s think about that for a minute. If the Republicans are right, then the equivalent of $35,000 a year is enough to keep people from working. Ever try to survive on your own, much less raise a family, on 35k a year?

My own view is that the Republicans are right, but this is a different kind of problem than the one they identify. It seems more than plausible to me that relatively generous unemployment benefits are, in fact, keeping a lot of people from looking for a job. But what does it say about a society where near-poverty UI payments compete favorably against near-poverty wages?

We should live in a society where workers are eager to get back to the job because the job pays enough to get ahead. Photo by Tim Douglas on

I am a strong supporter of a higher minimum wage, but even $15 an hour wouldn’t equal the current bolstered unemployment payments, which hardly support an extravagant lifestyle. And that $15 is a dead issue in Congress right now anyway.

I know. I know. Even the Congressional Budget Office says that a $15 minimum wage would cost 1.5 million jobs in the short-run, though it could be less depending on how it was phased in. And, there’s reason to hope that a hot economy and an overall labor shortage would make even that number way too pessimistic.

What I believe fundamentally is that we should live in a society where anybody who works full-time can create a decent life — afford a house, healthy food and health care, and save for retirement and for their kids’ education. Republicans used to like to talk about the “dignity of work” back when they cared about policy as opposed to whacked-out conspiracy theories. They were right. Work should earn a person dignity, but that can only come with a pay check sufficient to support a middle-class lifestyle. It’s not just a job; it’s a family-supporting job. Right now, Republicans just seem to want to support the first half of the equation.

I don’t want to live in a society where people need to be forced back to work in jobs that pay only enough to barely survive. I want to live in a society where people are eager to get back to work because they know that working will earn them an ever better life.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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