Congress and the White House are in heated negotiations on the nature of the next round of financial support needed for our economy. A deal will soon be struck, of that I am quite certain. What I am growing uncertain about is our lost sense of empathy as a nation. It’s high time we find it.
In a few days, we will reach the end of the second week of zero supplemental unemployment benefits coming from the federal government. As of last week, about 30 million people without work depended on this financial lifeline. For the average unemployed person in Michigan, what’s been left behind is a meager $300 per week. For just a moment, let that figure sink in as you reflect on your own personal budget.
Between my own flurries of frustration and hostile criticisms of our nation’s abject failures to effectively respond to this ongoing crisis, I’ve also tried to acknowledge a sense of gratitude. It’s an internal battle; some won, some lost. I’m sure many of us who still have our jobs and still feel a sense of economic stability have felt similarly. For too many of us, including me, criticism comes much more easily than does empathy.
As we watch the negotiations in Washington unfold, let me summarize the main sticking point of unemployment benefits through the lens of empathy.
Republicans have proposed cutting the special federal unemployment benefits from $600 per week and replacing it with a lower benefit of just $200 per week. Democrats want to keep the higher benefit in place for the next five months. The difference roughly equates to a mortgage or rent payment for tens of millions of households. Note that already one in 12 households with a mortgage are in forbearance programs.
Republicans’ primary criticism of the now-expired benefit is the majority of jobless workers were collecting more from unemployment than they earned in their former jobs. Many Republicans have adopted the view that this encourages people not to work. Their underlying assumption is that the millions who have experienced the misfortune of losing their job during a global pandemic are inherently lazy.
My personal reminder of the importance of empathy – the act of understanding the experiences of another person – recently came to me through an essay written back in 2017 by former CBS anchorman Dan Rather. His recollections of his Depression-era upbringing offers a stark contrast to the situation we find ourselves in today. The following passage highlights a viewpoint that I think we could all benefit from, especially those of us who, today, can be counted among the fortunate.
“There was no judgment or disdain on the part of those offering assistance. No one wondered why those neighbors weren’t working, and no one passed moral judgments on their inability to fend for themselves. We understood that in life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces…We understood that those who were suffering weren’t lazy or lacking the desire to do better. Fate had the potential to slap any of us.”
Jason P. Tank, CFA is both the owner of Front Street Wealth Management, a purely fee-only advisory firm and the founder of the Money Series, a non-profit program committed to providing open-access to financial education, for all. Contact him at (231) 947-3775, by email at Jason@FrontStreet.com and at www.FrontStreet.com