What’s Next For The Unemployed

There’s a reality being left unsaid in our current conversation.

Over the course of the last several weeks there have been countless stories and reports on the continued impasse in Washington, D.C. over how and to what extent to continue the federal unemployment assistance program. Originally set at $600, this program gave those who had lost their jobs in some form or another because of the Covid-19 pandemic that amount on top of their standard state unemployment benefits.

It didn’t take long for the effects to be felt after that additional assistance expired at the end of July, with consumer spending already falling and more. Pres. Trump has floated a few ideas that he can’t actually enact which would reduce those benefits to either $300 or $400 a week, but under those plans (such as they are), those benefits would only last a few weeks, not offering much long-lasting upside for those who still find themselves out of work and without much hope or choice as to what’s going to come next.

One of Republicans’ favorite pushbacks against continuing to offer these enhanced benefits, and part of the reason why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has sent everyone home and said a deal may not be reached until September, is the claim that government shouldn’t pay people more to stay home than they would be making on the job.

McConnell and others, to use a phrase in the popular vernacular at the moment, are telling on themselves with this claim in two ways.

First, it betrays a basic misunderstanding of how unemployment works. Namely, that to continue collecting assistance at all you have to A) be actively looking for work, and B) not refuse any legitimate job offer. It’s not as if people can just keep refusing offers and keep enjoying the unemployment check that arrives each week. McConnell et al either know this and are intentionally misrepresenting the issue, or they don’t and should therefore be removed from a position of dictating the program’s future.

Second, it contains two important underlying facts.

  1. That the wages they were making before being laid off were, in many cases, barely enough to live on and support their families or households with. In other cases it wasn’t enough at all.
  2. That unemployment benefits without that additional federal boost still aren’t enough to live on and support families with.

If either of these weren’t true, you wouldn’t have nearly the level of stories about how people are days, weeks or months away from losing their homes, were having to ration medication, needing to choose between paying for housing or paying for food or make other horrible decisions.

Millions of Americans are still furloughed and unsure when they’ll be able to return to their jobs or if they need to be looking for new jobs, assuming there are any out there to be had as most of the “new” positions in recent weeks are simply companies calling workers back, not creating anything on top of that.

While there are certainly necessary conversations that need to happen now, not in September, about the immediate issue of enhanced unemployment assistance. But at the same time, we need to discuss those two issues, that the systems in place aren’t sufficient to do what they *should* do, even if they are unfortunately doing what they’re *designed* to do.

This is an opportunity to have just that kind of conversation.

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