When to Take a Federal Handout

For many of the unemployed, the refusal to accept federal aid seems mystifying. What are reasons to take the money — or not? How might the new requirements placed on the states outweigh the immediate benefits of pumping cash into pockets and the local economy? Gary Burtless and other experts discuss these questions in a

New York Times op-ed.

The stimulus package includes provisions that temporarily boost unemployment benefits. Most of the extra aid, including a temporary extension in the duration of benefits and a short-term hike in the weekly checks, is uncontroversial, mainly because it is entirely paid for by the federal government.

The more controversial provisions aim to expand the percentage of laid-off workers who qualify for compensation. But many of these provisions would direct unemployment insurance systems to better reflect the needs of the changing labor force.

For example, many states now determine eligibility using earnings from a qualification period that is out of date. The stimulus bill prudently requires those states to adopt more up-to-date qualifying periods. Nearly all states require unemployed workers to look for a full-time job. Congress wants states to make benefits available to part-time workers, who make up an ever bigger share of the work force and have been hard hit by layoffs. Under the stimulus bill, the federal government will give states temporary help to pay for these expansions, but only if a state makes some of the expansions permanent.

Some Republican governors will reject the federal grants, claiming that when the temporary federal help ends their states will be left with permanently higher bills. But Congress has asked states to make perfectly sensible expansions in benefit eligibility.

The expansions make just as much sense in Louisiana as they do in Massachusetts. The governors should accept the temporary help and permanently fix their out-dated unemployment rules.