July 20 2010

Feed the Unemployed a Fish

Hadley Heath

When I was young, I remember asking my parents what this phrase meant:

"Feed a man a fish; you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish; you feed him for a lifetime."

Now I see, sadly, that Congress needs to remember this lesson.  Today at 2:30 pm, legislators will vote on the extension of unemployment benefits.  They want to continue to give a fish a day to the unemployed. 

Many unemployed Americans already have the "fishing" skills they need to contribute to the workplace and provide for themselves.  They need to match those skills with demand in the labor market.  But this is the real problem - there aren't enough jobs.  There are about five job seekers for every job opening in the U.S.  (I'm thinking of five of my job-seeking friends who recently graduated college with me; this means only one of them will find a job!)

It is tempting to believe that the extension of unemployment benefits is the humanitarian thing to do.  But I disagree.  At the heart of unemployed Americans, just like other Americans who currently have jobs, is the desire to work and provide for themselves.  It would be easier to continue to receive unemployment checks, but what the unemployed really want is to earn pay checks.

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece today that supports my point:

Americans tend to support jobless benefits on compassion grounds, but at some point such a policy becomes the false compassion of welfare by keeping people out of the job market and thus not learning new skills.

Feeding a person a fish a day is not a sustainable solution.  The more efficient solution is to allow each person to "fish" for his or herself.  This means making room in the market for more working people, not extending unemployment benefits.

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