You've lost your job, and you've been out of work for six months.
So, quick choice: Option One, take a full-time job for $10 an hour at a big box store.
Option Two, continue collecting $400 each week in unemployment benefits until you find something better. You can do this for a total of 99 weeks, or just under two years.
Option One comes with a health insurance plan to which you must contribute. Option Two, thanks to the stimulus package, comes with a similar deal for the first 15 months: a 65 percent government COBRA subsidy for your old employer's health plan.
So, which one would you choose?
Don't feel bad for hesitating. Even if you're the most conscientious job-seeker in America, you may calculate that it's better not to take the job. Maybe you can find something closer to your current field and closer to your old salary. And if such jobs no longer exist ... well, then, Congress is giving you 99 weeks -- nearly two years -- to figure that one out.
If you ponder aloud the possibility that 99 weeks might be too long to lie in the safety net, you will be criticized as "heartless." Some sophomoric pundit will frame your statement in absurd, straw-man terms, as if you were suggesting that benefits "make people lazy." They don't. What they do, when extended to two years, is alter the choice that job-seekers are making.
Unemployment benefits should not be confused with welfare. Your employer pays a state and federal unemployment tax on your behalf (usually less than $1,000 combined per year), and in exchange, the government normally provides you with up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits when you lose your job. In the current crisis, Congress has extended that to 99 weeks, and partisan tension has prevented it (for the moment) from extending the time period for which that more generous regime applies.
It's not like anyone is getting rich off unemployment. Even our hypothetical $400 a week, which is near the high end of the various states' unemployment payouts, is rather meager. If it's enough to cover your rent or mortgage, it probably won't stretch beyond that subsidized COBRA premium.
That's why the argument that extended unemployment benefits extend unemployment is far from airtight. But neither is it without merit. You have to think that the benefits regime that Congress has been struggling to extend -- nearly two years of benefits and 15 months of government-subsidized health coverage -- is affecting job-seekers' behavior even now.
For some two-income households, a two-year benefits period will be a bridge to becoming a one-income household. For some older workers who have lost their jobs, it will serve as a bridge to retirement, Social Security and Medicare benefits. And yes, some people will spend 99 weeks watching DVDs.
But assuming that the vast majority of unemployment recipients are earnest job-seekers, 99 weeks of benefits will affect them by removing any incentive to take available lower-wage jobs as a temporary (or permanent) measure. It's a lot easier to be picky if you have a 99-week backstop.
Tomorrow night, comedian Stephen Colbert is teaming up with migrant farm workers for a segment called "Take Our Jobs." The segment is intended to highlight the need for a guest-worker program or immigration amnesty, because Americans will not "take their jobs" even if they are offered. But Colbert will also be highlighting the fact that Americans -- even teenagers, even the unemployed -- simply will not take the menial, low-paying jobs that migrant workers do.
You can blame the high minimum wage for this, or the regulations and the taxes that make lawful employment impossible in agriculture, or the availability of cheap foreign food, or cultural laziness, or whatever you like.
But give the entitlement state its due. If unemployment benefits last 99 weeks, and they are even mildly attractive next to a $10-per-hour job, then no rational actor would pick lettuce for less.
David Freddoso is The Examiner's online opinion editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.