Monday, October 12, 2009

A dollar a day

So apparently there's a lawyer out there who's struggling to defend her unemployment benefits after reporting to the state that she earns $1/day from her blog.

The problem here is a matter of the mapping that happens whenever you attempt to create an model a domain. In the beginning, one might start out like so: There are jobs. Some folks have them, others don't. Among those that don't, some are deserving of unemployment and some are not. The deserving ones 1) didn't quit, 2) are looking for employment and 3) have been employed in the past.

That all sounds simple enough, but then you think about it for a while and the exceptions come up. What about folks who are employed but seasonally? Or who work on a contract-for-project basis like actors or writers? Or who were self-employed but then went out of business?

One doesn't become a bureaucrat without being among the best and the brightest of the land, so it goes without saying that those responsible for administering unemployment have run into these issues and worked out the answers. Go to your state's unemployment website some time, you can read all about it. Of course there's a lot of text to go through, but my state, California, has their act together and summarized it all in a quick guide. The guide, which I affectionately refer to by the name they gave it (DE1275A), is 48 pages long. In their defense, some of those are charts or diagrams.

Anyway, I've read through DE1275A, and though I'm not from New York, or a bureaucrat or a lawyer, here's my understanding of the situation. If you're unemployed but earning money, there are a few categories into which you might be put:
  1. You might be earning residual moneys which can be discounted
  2. You might be earning too little money to pass the minimum declarable amount
  3. The money might be enough that your benefits will be reduced somewhat
  4. The money might be enough that you're considered to actually be employed and therefore no longer eligible
  5. The money might not be enough, but you might be considered self-employed, and therefore eligible.
Some of these are easily adjudicated as a simple matter of determining if sum X is greater than limit Y. Others are a bit more tricky and will require an application of a pre-determined standard. Needless to say, the standard was probably not pre-determined with AdSense in mind.

I'm sure that, in the end, the great state of New York will get this little matter sorted. They might even decide that the eventual decision is of sufficient import to merit a bullet point of clarification in their version of DE1275A. And that will be the end of it, until the next time.

What I'm more concerned with though isn't the exact classification of our protagonist's blog revenue, but how the sum of these little decisions has combined to affect incentives. Part of the result of attempting to shoe-horn a program from the industrial era into the information-age/knowledge-worker/whatever-you-call-it era we're in now is that discouraging underemployment might no longer be a good idea.

Writers, designers, actors, programmers, IT workers, teachers, consultants and all their ilk, once laid off, have the option to take on small free lance projects here and there that are great for providing experience and networking potential that might be leveraged toward full employment over time. Those projects might be few and far between and they might not amount to much money.

What unemployment does in that mix is add a bit of an all-or-nothing element to the equation. You've basically got to be sure that the solo work will be reliable enough and profitable enough to make up for unemployment, or you've pretty much got to avoid it altogether in order preserve your shots at unemployment while hoping to find some full-time work before your eligibility runs out.

Surely those who are receiving unemployment checks are happy to receive them, but it's unclear to what extent society is benefiting from its monetary commitment here. What is it, precisely, that makes the unemployed so much more deserving of assistance than our protagonist who was perhaps 0.5% employed? What sorts of behaviors and outcomes are we attempting to discourage or encourage? Are the attempts succeeding?

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