June 15 2010
My Personal Adventure with Unemployment Benefits
A New York Times editorial is headlined "The Unemployed Held Hostage." Federal unemployment benefits began expiring earlier this month, and about 350,000 are now unemployed and without benefits. The editorial proposes that this problem could be mitigated by ending a "loophole" that allows "the richest Americans" to retain some of their money:
Some senators, including Democrats, have balked at an unrelated provision that would begin to close a tax loophole enjoyed by some of the richest Americans. You heard right. Desperately needed unemployment benefits have been held hostage to a tax break for the rich, and the Senate's Democratic leadership has had to delay and finagle to get its own caucus in line.
Rather than comment on the story, I think I'll tell you a personal story. In the early 1990s, I received unemployment for several months. I had been let go by a New York Daily whose proprietor didn't like my column (I know that sounds defensive all these years later). Being without a job is a horrible experience, and I was relieved to know I'd be getting unemployment benefits. The knowledge softened the blow. I'd been making quite a lot of money, and the benefits were good.
A stated requirement of receiving benefits was that the recipient be looking for a job. I did this, proposing, among other things, a gossip column for one of America's most serious magazines-I felt it could be chic, intellectual gossip. I began to view myself as possibly a combination of Nigel Dempster, Hedda Hopper, and James Q. Wilson. The idea didn't fly. I applied here and there, didn't jump at the chance for a job in my field in a fabled journalistic sweatshop (I don't know if I'd have gotten it if I had been more eager). But it was a time similar to now when jobs were not plentiful. It was a depressing time, and I was glad to have my unemployment benefits (along with savings).
But then something dawned on me: the benefits were scheduled to stop soon. Guess what? I immediately found a job. Like within a few weeks. It wasn't one I particularly wanted-it was editing, and some of the material I edited I didn't like. The job had little potential to confer stardom. But there was no alternative: the benefits were stopping. A funny thing happened, though it was a job I would probably not have taken for any other reason than necessity: I gained a skill, editing, which I had not before possessed. It turned out that it was one of the most valuable jobs I ever held. It was not only fun at times, but it laid the foundation for subsequent employment. Thank heavens the benefits ran out (I speak only for myself).
I am an ambitious person and have even been called hard-working. Work is essential to me, both financially and spiritually. But I would never in a million years have pursued one of the most meaningful jobs of my working life if those benefits had not been-painfully and frighteningly-on the verge of ending.
As long as the benefits were coming in, I could indulge in quixotic pursuits, such as trying to convince a high-brow magazine that what they really needed was a gossip columnist. This is just my story-for what, if anything, it's worth.