June 23, 2009

Yep, it's grim trying to get by in the states that give decent unemployment benefits. Imagine if you lose your job, and have the bad luck to live in one of the states that pays a pittance. Meanwhile, the Republicans scream about the "nanny state" and "being on the dole," even mocking job retraining programs:

Fred Wright and Tyrone Gatson live about 55 miles apart and worked as technicians for poultry producer Pilgrim's Pride Corp. until they were laid off last month.

But Mr. Wright, who lives and worked in Arkansas, is eligible for nearly twice as much in unemployment benefits as Mr. Gatson, who lives in Louisiana and worked at a different Pilgrim's Pride plant in that state, just over the border from Mr. Wright. Under Arkansas's more generous system, Mr. Wright can get $431 in weekly benefits, compared to Mr. Gatson's $284. He is also eligible to receive benefits for three more months than Mr. Gatson.

The differences highlight the inequities of the U.S. unemployment-insurance system, a complex patchwork of government programs guided by Washington but administered principally by the states. [See interactive map here.]

Economists say jobless benefits soften the blow of recessions by offering laid-off workers money for necessities like food and housing while they seek new jobs. The programs also prop up consumer spending, reducing the spread of layoffs in hard-hit areas. As the recession drags on, more Americans are relying on unemployment checks -- 6.7 million in the week ended June 6 -- than at any time since the Department of Labor began collecting the data in 1967.

Unemployment benefits are financed by state and federal taxes on employers; in general, employers pay higher taxes as more of their former workers tap benefits. States set most of the rules based on their own fiscal and policy choices, creating a maze of regulations to determine who qualifies for jobless benefits, how much money they get, and for how long.

Some students of the system say the inconsistencies weaken the safety net and allow many women, low-wage earners and part-timers to slip through. "Too many states are very stingy about paying out adequate unemployment benefits," says Maurice Emsellem, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project, a research and employee-advocacy group. "Sometimes there's no rhyme or reason to it."

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