Consequently, “the economic pain people are feeling is even larger than massive numbers we’re seeing reported every week,” Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on low-income workers, told VICE. A fuller picture will be revealed when the Labor Department releases its new jobs report on Friday, which officials are predicting will be the “worst ever.”
But if unprecedented unemployment is a five-alarm national emergency, then our backlogged unemployment insurance system should be treated as a true national scandal—an unnecessary and wholly avoidable extra crisis at the worst possible time.
Both are major issues with the capacity to create bottlenecks, even with an ideal system. But to wave off what’s happening as an expected consequence of an unprecedented situation papers over the fact that our dilapidated unemployment insurance system was deliberately designed to keep certain people from accessing benefits, long before coronavirus came around. And now, those decisions are ruining millions of people’s lives. Kathy, for one, is currently strategizing about how to not get kicked out of her home.“I’m going to have to call him and tell him I don’t know how I’m going to do this,” Kathy said, referring to her landlord.Our country’s social programs have long been built around an ethos of framing people either as “deserving” or “undeserving” of benefits. It’s a racist trope furthered by Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen myth and the Bill Clinton era of welfare reform, ingraining the idea that our social safety net’s primary function isn’t to help people, but to get them off of the dole. That was in plain view after the Great Recession, when states that had exhausted their unemployment funds either had to raise employer taxes or cut worker benefits. “Many chose the latter,” The New York Times recently reported.
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Such choices have led to states in the South, which have a higher proportion of workers of color, now having some of the most stringent unemployment requirements. In real terms, this has meant that 7 out of the 10 states that had fewer than 15 percent of unemployed people receiving benefits in March were in the South. In Florida, where the situation has been especially egregious, only 7.6 percent of jobless people got their benefits. By comparison, 65.9 percent of those in Massachusetts who applied for jobless benefits got them.In order to keep certain Americans from getting benefits, the Ohio unemployment office has gone so far as to set up a form for employers to narc on employees who refused available work, even while it is getting more than 650,000 calls daily. Oklahoma workforce leaders also discussed asking the federal government to cancel the extra $600 payments because they feared it would “disincentivize” people from returning to work.
To wave off what’s happening as an expected consequence of an unprecedented situation papers over the fact that our dilapidated unemployment insurance system was deliberately designed to keep certain people from accessing benefits, long before coronavirus came around.
Travis, a former floor manager for Regal theaters in Georgia, was laid off and applied for unemployment benefits on March 15. He has yet to get any of the $5,700 that he’s calculated that he’s owed. “I’ve lost count of how many voicemails and emails that I’ve sent,” Travis told VICE. If it weren’t for the fact that he lives in a house his cousin owns, Travis doesn’t know how he’d get by.
“If we just had one system it would be a lot more efficient. We’re running up against the inefficiencies of moving 53 different entities to enact all these changes,” Evangelist said.
After recessions, states typically scale back their unemployment benefits and funding, resulting in the administrative horror show we’re seeing play out. But with the system’s fundamental flaws in full sight, now is the time for progressives to guard against these restrictions and push for the country to rethink the priorities and design of our current system. The question isn’t one of austerity, but of political will—as EPI noted, we would need to pay the 30 million unemployed workers an extra $1,400 per week for a year just to match the size of the 2017 corporate tax cuts.In the meantime, while they wait, all people can do is keep filing their claims over and over again. They’re not left with much other choice. If nothing comes in by the time the next Sunday rolls around, Kathy, the teacher, said she doesn’t know what she’ll do. “How I’m going to get by," she said, "is a big question mark.”
“You get these little superstitions about stuff, ‘Oh I got through when I called right at 6:59 and I let the menu cycle through three times so that I would be accessing it at 7:01,’” Bowen told VICE. “It’s easy to see how people get religious.”