WASHINGTON -- Do unemployment benefits make people lazy?
Since long-term federal benefits expired in December, some congressional Republicans have opposed reauthorizing the aid by arguing that former recipients will be more encouraged to find work without the help.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), for instance, said in January that giving the jobless overgenerous benefits "actually discourages some people from seeking employment.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said long-term benefits provide "a disincentive to work."
But some of the over two million Americans who've missed out on compensation vehemently disagree with that characterization, saying that their motivation to get a job was never tied to the amount of government assistance they received.
"It's an effing joke that I feel energized to go find more work," said Russ Holton, 44, of Mason, Ohio. "More like panicked. I still owe my family and friends $2000, that hasn't gone away."
Instead, Holton and others have expanded their searches, looking for work outside the fields that fit their skills the best. They often settle for jobs that pay significantly less, if they find them at all.
"I have changed my approach to a finding a job," said David Torian, 49, a former chief of staff to a member of Congress who has been unemployed for over a year. "While I am still seeking positions and salaries that fit my background and experience, I am looking outside of Washington, D.C., more regularly and have broadened my scope."
"But these changes are not because my UI has been cut off," he added. "Nor do I feel more energized because my UI has stopped. The thought of obtaining permanent full-time work energizes me. I made these changes because I want a full-time job."
The Huffington Post caught up with former unemployment insurance recipients to see how they have adjusted their job search since Congress allowed the program to lapse.
Bruce Hirshfield's typified the bunch. The Bethany, Conn., native remains unemployed 16 months after losing his high-paying job in the banking industry. He was initially looking for work in sectors that matched his skills. When he stopped receiving $600 per week in unemployment insurance, however, he was forced to cut back, in order to help support his daughter in college and prepare for a stepson to attend college as well.
Hirshfield, 54, has since considered starting his own company, explored franchise opportunities that don't require a big capital investment and looked into getting certified as a divorce mediator. He's also applied for a business and marketing instructor position at a local community college.
He didn't broaden his job search because his unemployment insurance lapsed, he said. He did so because he realized his age and experience weren't helping him in the current climate.
"I wouldn't describe a change in my ongoing efforts as a causal effect of the now lapsed UI benefits," he said. "While I am very grateful to have been a recipient of a relatively small amount of money from a government agency, it certainly didn't affect my motivation to work while receiving it nor [has it] since its end. Long-term unemployment stings and has cut into the psyche of who I am or, worse yet, who I was."
As Hirshfield waits, the House of Representatives dithers. The Democratic-controlled Senate recently passed a bill reauthorizing the benefits retroactively through May. But House Republican leaders are so far unwilling to go along. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has argued that it would be difficult for state workforce agencies to implement the measure, and he has complained that the bill doesn't incorporate Republican ideas to create jobs.
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney called Boehner's demands "an attempt to throw spaghetti against the wall on sort of ideological things that have nothing to do with making sure that these benefits get to the people who need them."
Holton's condo is five miles from Boehner's home in Ohio. The former tech salesman says he's been tempted to stop by, and see "if [Boehner's] family is able to pay the bills." Instead, he's chosen a less confrontational approach, reaching out to Boehner's local and national offices. "Other than having an argument with his West Chester rep that answered the phone, I haven't gotten any response," Holton said.
Holton has actually found some part-time work since his unemployment insurance lapsed. He has a job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development that pays him about $240 a week, enough to barely keep him afloat as he remains in school studying to become a network administrator.
"I didn't get to spend Easter with my family because I couldn't afford to drive anywhere," he said. "Every penny I get goes to rent, utilities, food and gas in the car."
Holton is currently looking for work in computer support. Six years ago he was making $85,000 per year at his job. Today, he'd be willing to take anything that fit with his school schedule, even if it paid only $30,000 per year.
"I've lowered my expectations," said Holton. "There just aren't jobs out there"
Research from previous recessions has suggested that receiving unemployment insurance can reduce the intensity of people's job searches and make them pickier about available jobs. More recent studies, however, have found that extensions of benefits have kept unemployed people from giving up their searches altogether. And some new research has found employers simply unwilling to hire anyone with long gaps in their resumes, even if they have the same qualifications as the short-term jobless.
The presence of a resume gap is one of the reasons that Mary Mitchell, 46, believes she remains unemployed. In the fall of 2012, Mitchell moved back from the Virgin Islands to Ohio, only to discover that there was no work to be had. For months, she looked around while relying on unemployment insurance. When the benefits expired in late December, she only had a few months' worth remaining.
Mitchell downsized her hopes for a new job. The last one she held paid her $30 an hour, but now, she's looking for work that pays $12. She's offered her services on a contractural basis to help prepare tax returns and is attending classes at the University of Cincinnati to get a degree in paralegal studies.
"I have applied through Careerbuilder. I have taken the fax numbers from Careerbuilder and just faxed them over myself. And the only place I got an interview was with a temp service and they don’t have positions for me at this time either," she said. "You can't make someone hire you."
On Monday, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee announced that the number of people who had lost unemployment insurance benefits had hit 2.5 million. The benchmark, however sobering, doesn't seem likely to have much of a legislative impact. Aides on the Hill say there have been no substantive talks to hammer out an agreement in the House during the Easter recess.
Marcia Carroll and others are left to wait and watch. Carroll lost her job as a warehouse materials handler in July 2013 and had been unemployed until last week, when she got a job that pays a little more than half what she'd made before. Carroll said her job search didn't change a bit after her benefits went away.
"I just kept applying for as many jobs as possible," she said. "I had done that from day one because I didn't want to be unemployed. I would have taken anything."
Carroll, who is 43 and lives in Staunton, Va., said her new job doesn't pay enough to catch up on her bills. She borrowed money from her mom and used her car to get a loan so she could keep the lights on. She's still hoping Congress passes an unemployment extension so she gets back pay for the weeks of unemployment insurance she missed.
"I was making $21.30 an hour and now I'm making $12," she said. "If they don't do that extension in the next couple of weeks I'm probably going to lose my vehicle."
Still, she's grateful for the job, handling shipping and receiving for a Harley-Davidson store.
"I'm just glad when I wake up in the morning I have somewhere to go," she said. "It boosts the ego a little bit knowing you have somewhere to be."