Monday, February 6, 2012

Bryant: Unemployment benefits "wasted" on teachers, others

America's best-known personal-finance guru, Suze Orman, made some bold statements to Piers Morgan on CNN last week, and they bear repeating. She said:

I think no private school should be out there. I think everything should be public. I think everything should be that way. But, we don't honor our teachers. We don't pay them enough. They are the first people that we cut. And so, what do people do? They start spending money to go to private schools. It's ludicrous. It's not the American way.


An expert on personal finance and a best-selling author on economic issues says that American democracy and values are undermined because America doesn't honor its teachers, because our lawmakers don't appropriate funds sufficient to compensate educators justly, and because lawmakers first cut public education and education jobs when an economic downturn occurs.

And, therefore, the undermining of American public schools and educators leads to a lack of faith in that system, which leads parents to opt for private schools. Which, Orman emphasizes, is "ludicrous. It's not the American way."

Here in the Independent Republic of South Carolina, which doesn't consistently adhere to anything labeled the "American way," South Carolina's lawmakers have proven her point in spades, leading to teacher layoffs for the past three or four years running. In fact, without knowing this for sure, I'd bet that during the past decade, we've experienced a net decline in teacher employment more years than we've had net increase, thanks to laying off public school teachers and other school district employees.

This year, to add insult to injury, our lawmakers are looking for ways to harm those laid-off educators even more. You know, because they have nothing better to do.

Some call it a business-friendly way to safeguard the ability of the state’s unemployment system to pay benefits to jobless South Carolinians who lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Others say the S.C. Legislature has declared war on the state’s unemployed workers.

Either way, big changes could be on the way governing who receives unemployment checks and what they must do to get them.

Several bills working their way through the State House would eliminate unemployment benefits to some workers who are fired from their jobs. Other bills would require those who get unemployment checks to pass drug tests and meet other guidelines.

Supporters say the bills would help businesses by reducing their taxes while also ensuring benefits go to only workers who have lost their jobs through not fault of their own.

The proposals include:

• A Senate bill, to be considered by a committee today, that would require any unemployed worker to pass a drug test before receiving an unemployment check. The committee also will consider other bills that would require the unemployed to volunteer in their community to get a jobless check, and deny benefits to part-time workers as well as workers fired for misconduct.

• A House bill, to be considered by a committee next week, would allow companies to inform the state when a prospective employee fails a drug test. That failure would trigger the loss of unemployment benefits.

• A House bill, which passed a committee last week, would penalize more harshly those who fraudulently receive jobless benefits.

Sure, this is necessary.

Because if I'm an unemployed teacher, laid off because of education budget cuts -- and because Mick Zais and Nikki Haley refused to accept federal dollars to keep educators employed -- then I'm likely laid up at home, drug-addicted and lazy, thinking of ways to defraud the state government of unemployment benefits.


“I keep thinking the victims of this economy are the people who have lost their jobs and are struggling,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which advocates for low-income South Carolinians. “Now, they find themselves the target, as if they’ve chosen to be unemployed.

“It’s very disconcerting. We’re so worried about the employers that we forget about the people.”

About 200,000 South Carolinians are unemployed, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. The average laid-off worker gets $236 a week from the state’s unemployment trust fund, money paid in by businesses.

Two hundred thirty-six bucks a week is a king's ransom, y'all. After praying that the car runs another month without breaking down, an unemployed educator can probably stock up at Wal-Mart on store-brand frozen vegetables, hot dogs and rice, and whatever laundry detergent is cheapest this week, plus fill up the gas tank once, pay part of one utility bill and with the remainder, get high as a kite on somebody's surplus prescription medication.

According to some lawmakers, this is a travesty -- not that educators are unemployed, but that unemployed people get subsistence benefits so they can eat Wal-Mart brand foods.

For state Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, it boils down to the numbers.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates South Carolina paid $86 million in unearned unemployment checks last fiscal year to people who defrauded the system – 18 percent of all claims paid. The state also paid about $50 million in benefits to workers who were fired.

“That’s $136 million that was wasted. We’ve got to do a better job of safeguarding the system and helping our businesses,” said Bryant, who said he has heard from many frustrated business owners who say they have had to pay unemployment benefits to workers who were fired for sleeping on the job, using alcohol or using firearms.

“I have dozens of examples, and we need to fix it,” Bryant said, adding helping businesses is the best way to help workers. “If you lower taxes, they can hire more people and grow the economy.”

It also is not too much to ask those getting unemployment checks to submit to drug tests or volunteer in their community, said Bryant, who is co-sponsoring some of the bills. Last year, he led a successful effort to cut the amount of time that the jobless can collect state unemployment benefits to 20 weeks from 26 weeks. (Federal benefits extend payments over a longer period.)

“We’re paying them to stay home. There should be some activity required,” Bryant said. “It also gets the (prospective) employee out in the community, making contacts and helping our nonprofits.”

The foregoing facts suggest that Senator Bryan is a saint among men.

Businessmen, certainly.

In the context of Christian theology, however, not so much. In fact, the Good Book has a whole lot to say about helping people in need, and what destiny awaits those who don't.

I don't recall that it advocates taking away the one lifeline that is available to many who don't have jobs, incomes, prospects or hope.

Perhaps those who advocate punishing the unemployed, the poor and others are reading from another book:

Therefore it is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

And you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state, to act contrary to faith, friendship, humanity, and religion. Therefore it is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result.

While we breathe, we hope.

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