By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the nationwide quarantine and social distancing orders, a number of intellectually dishonest arguments have been appearing online. One false premise goes like this: people who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus are lining up for unemployment checks, while I continue to work during the pandemic. Where is my check and why am I excluded from federal aid?
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This argument boils down to a “what about me?” attitude. And it is intellectually dishonest because it ignores the entire purpose of emergency welfare and aid funding during a public crisis. These are not free cash handouts that the government is dispensing at random. They are subsidies to help cover basic costs of living for those people who have been adversely affected by the coronavirus and who have no other means of support.
Social Welfare Programs Exist to Provide Financial Aid When It Is Needed
This flawed “what about me?” position fails to recognize the basic reason why social welfare programs exist in the first place. They exist to provide financial aid when it is needed.
Some proponents of this flawed argument assert that they too ought to receive social welfare benefits because some people who are receiving them don’t really need them. And to be fair, this does sometimes happen.
A few years ago, a friend of mine lost her job because her employer was closing the business. She wasn’t fired for cause so she was eligible for unemployment benefits, and she planned on applying for them. But my friend was able-bodied, educated and very bright. She could – at that time – find another job very quickly if she wanted.
So I asked her why she was planning to pursue unemployment. “Because I can,” was her response.
So indeed there is a problem with the view that many people have about social welfare programs; namely, if you’re eligible then you are justified in taking them whether or not you actually need them. There is obviously a limited amount of money for such benefits. If everyone took welfare checks just because they could, there wouldn’t be enough money left for those who genuinely need the help.
We Could Do a Better Job of Screening Our Social Welfare Programs for Fraud
To the extent that humans are imperfect, our systems will always be imperfect. Someone will always find a way to take advantage. And such fraud is arguably likely to be more frequent during a public crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, President Trump tossed out the plans that President Obama left for disaster readiness, so we were left totally unprepared here.
But just because some people wrongfully take advantage of social welfare programs doesn’t mean that other people have an excuse to demand unneeded financial aid. Surely we could do a better job of screening our social welfare programs to ensure that only those with genuine needs receive benefits.
And we can work on improving these systems without sabotaging them. You wouldn’t try to fix a stain on your living room rug by burning your house down, would you?
In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no denying that many millions of people are struggling. The evidence is all around us every day. The fact is some people might attempt to take advantage of the system. But that doesn’t entitle everyone else to dip into the social welfare coffers and condemn those who really need help might go without.
This would be akin to enjoying a big meal at home and then also taking bread away from homeless people just because you can. You might retort that some homeless people are able to help themselves more than they do. But your taking bread from them makes it harder for all homeless people, including those who really need it.
We live in a first-world society that ostensibly values well-being and prioritizes help to those in need. Imagine that we have one pizza to share among a group of people, half of whom are starving and half of whom are well-fed. The well-fed members of the group should not feel slighted if they get less pizza – or even no pizza at all – because need should determine who eats. We’re not wolves. We’re human beings.
Those who continue to work during the coronavirus – especially those on the front lines in the medical field with direct exposure to the COVID-19 virus – are deserving of our gratitude. And to the extent that there is enough in the proverbial pot that the government could pay these workers a little extra for the risk they bear and the courage they muster, I’d be all for that. But the reality is there likely won’t be any extra funds.
This pandemic has cost our government trillions of dollars in aid so far, and this cost is likely to continue to increase. It will only pile on top of the existing $20+ trillion national debt. So there simply may not be enough funds for everyone to receive economic relief regardless of need.
Some Unethical People May Attempt to Take Benefits They Don’t Really Need
I’m aware that some unethical people may attempt to defraud the system and take benefits they don’t really need. And I wish they wouldn’t.
But I also know that millions of people are genuinely out of work and financially hurting due to the coronavirus. So the fact that they are receiving certain government unemployment benefits that I won’t receive doesn’t bother me; I didn’t lose my job as a result of this crisis and I’m not in financial peril. I’m not tempted to reach into that pot because I don’t need to.
We owe it to our fellow citizens to remember that emergency societal relief isn’t a handout. So we shouldn’t feel we’re being disrespected or left out when we don’t receive financial aid that we don’t need. If we can keep that in mind, then maybe when we are the ones in need of help someday, society will protect us in turn.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.