Wineke: Why punish the unemployed?

MADISON, Wis. — It’s becoming official in business group circles: Wisconsin can’t find enough workers and the reason is we’re too generous to the unemployed.

The proposed answer is that we cut unemployment benefits and increase penalties on those who aren’t searching hard enough for work.

The unstated but obvious predicate of those suggestions is that unemployed people are lazy and would rather lie around eating bon-bons than work the jobs that are now abundant.

No one ever cites real evidence that that is true. It’s just that we know many people still draw unemployment insurance and we know many companies have unfilled jobs so we assume that people drawing unemployment are either lazy or that they are getting too much money.

This, incidentally, is not the way we look at unemployed corporate executives. When they lose their jobs they receive massive golden parachutes that allow them to take their time searching for new, well-paid positions.

This is not an area in which I am an expert. I have never drawn unemployment insurance nor have I ever been a corporate executive.

But I did spend more than three decades as chaplain of a rescue mission that served poor people, many of them addicts and many who suffered from mental illnesses. If anyone was likely to shirk real jobs, it would most likely have been the people I worked with.

Yet, most all of these men and women worked at bottom rung jobs, as dishwashers or day laborers or something. They weren’t lazy; it’s just that they had problems that kept them from obtaining good jobs.

I’ve also in five decades as a clergyman met many people who could be employed if they had access to affordable child care or if they didn’t take responsibility for an elderly or incapacitated relative.

The thing is, I’ve been around many “unemployed” people over the years but I have met very few who would prefer welfare or government benefits to holding real jobs.

In fact, I’d bet I have personal experience with a far greater number of unemployed people than most of the corporate executives who sit on the boards of chambers of commerce or of business roundtables have.

There are people who don’t want to work. I understand that and I know people who feel that way.

But why would anyone want to hire someone who is lazy or who doesn’t want to work?

If we really want to put unemployed people back to work, we will pay attention to President Biden’s legislative proposals that put a solid safety net under families so that workers, women in particular, can return to the labor force without abandoning family responsibilities.

In other words, we could try treating workers with respect rather than assuming they are too lazy to make good decisions.