A central pillar of the economic stimulus being debated in Congress is a plan to pay unemployed workers more -- about $325 instead of $300 a week -- and extend through 2009 the unemployment benefits that would otherwise expire in March.
Here's a better idea. Pay them to volunteer.
Millions of people are out of work and unable to find new jobs, so make volunteerism synonymous with unemployment. A volunteer-for-benefits program for unemployed workers would:
Since the recession began, the nation has lost 3.6 million jobs. Unemployment is 7.6% and in the double-digits if you count the "underemployed" -- those unwillingly working less than full time, and those who have given up looking for work.
Economists like the idea of extending benefits for sound, simple reasons: Put money into the hands of people who are struggling, and they're likely to spend it. That spending stimulates the rest of the economy, which can build up momentum enough to eventually open up new job opportunities. Anyone who's lost a job and has had trouble finding a new one -- given that there are 3.6 million fewer to seek -- likes the idea because they can keep food on the table, and a roof overhead.
Meanwhile, local communities around the nation are facing their own budget crises. Nonprofits are struggling to get donations, compounding a longer-term trend in declining volunteerism. (Not incidentally, all those out-of-work Americans are also in greater need of local community and nonprofit services, like food banks and soup kitchens.) The House, but not the Senate, would significantly boost aid to states to prop up local governments, in part to maintain jobs currently on the public payroll.
But we have millions of recently laid off, able workers sitting idle, collecting unemployment benefits. Already, laws require people to prove they are actively looking for work to qualify for unemployment benefits. With fewer and fewer jobs available, why not add a provision that allows the unemployed, alternately, to certify that they are volunteering? The IRS already has methods for defining various nonprofit organizations, so qualifying nonprofits could "employ" a legion of volunteers receiving government unemployment benefits.
When the economy picks up, most people will surely seek a job that pays better than $325 a week. Lawmakers at that point can debate the wisdom of maintaining the volunteer-for-benefits provision. (I don't see why it wouldn't benefit the economy and communities no matter what the overall state of the economy.)
The program would have some additional administrative bureaucracy cost, and presumably the same potential for fraud already inherent in the system. And, true, states are already buckling under the task of responding to unemployment claims. (The stimulus could dole out $500 million just to help states with the task.) But even expanding a government bureaucracy would employ people, and for good purpose. And Congress has already committed to the largest cost of the program: paying unemployed workers.
The stimulus bill could also make $7 billion available to states that adopt various unemployment benefits reforms to make it easier to claim benefits... Why not add one more simple reform to the list?
Oh, and remember: President Obama has repeatedly called Americans to serve their communities. This is one way he can support that call.
What do you think? Am I on to something? Way off base? Comment below:
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