Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Unemployment, Taxes, and the 1940 Census

Unemployment has been a subject much on my mind lately, especially as I prepare tax returns for people who have been receiving unemployment compensation. The release of the 1940 census has brought the issue more sharply into my consciousness.

The only time I collected unemployment, it was something one got for a month or two between jobs, because it didn't take all that long to find a new job. Obviously, this experience was not recent. Because the period of unemployment was brief and ended with new employment, it didn't matter if you had taxes withheld from your check or not; by the time the tax bill came due, there would be money to pay it. But now, in my volunteer work, I'm seeing people who received unemployment compensation for quite a while and owe a significant amount of tax on it (and when you don't have income, it doesn't take a large amount of tax to be considered quite significant). If I were getting unemployment compensation today, I would definitely have Federal Income Tax withheld from it. (In California, unemployment compensation is not taxable, so at least it's not a problem on state income tax returns.)

Then last week the 1940 US Census was released. Each census has some questions that are unique to it, and in 1940 there was an entire section on employment status–as opposed to the earlier ones, which just asked for a person's profession. Here's what was asked in 1940:
21. Was this person AT WORK for pay or profit in private or non-emergency Govt. work during week of March 24-30?
22. If not, was he at work on, or assigned to, public EMERGENCY WORK (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during week of March 24-30?
If neither at work nor assigned to public emergency work
23. Was this person SEEKING WORK?
24. If not seeking work, did he HAVE A JOB, business, etc.?
25. Indicate whether engaged in home housework (H), in school (S), unable to work (U) or other (Ot)
If at private or non-emergency Government work ("Yes" in Col. 21)
26. Number of hours worked during week of March 24-30, 1940
If seeking work or assigned to public emergency work ("Yes" in Col. 22 or 23)
27. Duration of unemployment up to March 30, 1940 – in weeks

I wonder how similar the answers to question 27 would be if we changed "1940″ to "2012." I also think it's a shame that we don't have something like the WPA now. WPA projects included the highway I drove to graduate school (four nights a week after work), several of the libraries I've used, a building that is now one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. We could use projects like that again.