Editor’s Note: Mark Zuckerman is president of The Century Foundation and former deputy director of President Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. Andrew Stettner is a senior fellow at the think tank who specializes in unemployment insurance. The views expressed here are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
In March 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic was in its infancy, we warned that the looming unemployment and economic crisis would need a historic government response. For the next 18 months, the federal government delivered just that – significantly expanding unemployment benefits for a record number of jobless Americans.
The value of weekly unemployment checks increased – first by $600, and then by $300 – as new programs reached workers typically not eligible for aid, including freelancers and the long-term unemployed. Through our elected officials, Americans made an implicit promise to one another: If you were forced to lose your job to keep your family and community safe, you should not be penalized with economic hardship and anxiety.
This collective response to the pandemic jobs crisis was an unequivocal success. According to US census data, the boosted unemployment insurance kept 5.5 million Americans from falling into poverty in 2020. Remarkably, when accounting for unemployment benefits and other forms of economic assistance, there were 8.5 million fewer people living in poverty in 2020 than in the previous year, despite the economy shedding a net 9.6 million jobs during that time.
This week marks the one-month anniversary of our legislators breaking that implicit promise. In early September, the various unemployment benefit programs put into place during the pandemic were summarily cut off, ending all aid for more than 8 million workers and cutting benefits by $300 per week for another 2.1 million people.
This is the making of a silent calamity. While many have argued that the end of pandemic unemployment benefits will force people back into the job market, there is ample evidence showing that ending them won’t magically lead the jobless to find work. Half of US states canceled their participation in federal benefits earlier this summer, and still only one in eight of the 1.1 million workers who were cut off from benefits in June were able to find jobs in July.
Instead, the ending of unemployment benefits is leading to widespread suffering. And the pain will fall hardest on those who have the least.
There are those experiencing the health effects of Covid-19, both physically and mentally. Available jobs aren’t always a match for a worker’s experience, and not every worker can stand on their feet for eight hours a day, filling in at fast-food restaurants that offer little in the way of pay, benefits, or a reliable schedule. Child care centers are still struggling to offer enough slots for young children who need care in order for their parents to go to work – and some parents would end up paying more for child care than they would earn at the job taking them away from their kids. Families of school-aged children can’t yet be confident that their kids will be able to go to school uninterrupted amid Covid-19 quarantines and closures. And there are racial inequities to address: Even as the overall unemployment rate has slowly declined, Black, Hispanic and Latinx workers continue to face higher unemployment rates than White workers.
Unemployment benefits have also helped workers find jobs during the pandemic, providing peace of mind and the ability to pay for the basics while navigating a drastically altered labor market. The number of Americans relying on unemployment insurance plummeted from almost 20 million at the end of February to 11 million by Labor Day, with most of those having exited unemployment for new work.
But 11 million unemployed benefit recipients in America is still a crisis, one that the nation can’t afford to ignore. By comparison, the last time Congress ended emergency unemployment benefits in December 2013, four years after the official end of the Great Recession, there were only 1.3 million workers remaining on federal benefits.
Those who haven’t been able to find work are now vulnerable to the harsh consequences of long-term unemployment. These are workers like Brooke Whitford, a grocery delivery worker who shared with NBC News that she lost income during the pandemic and was unable to secure a new job before her benefits expired, despite submitting more than 100 applications. A grandmother in Washington, DC, described a similar scenario to The Washington Post, demonstrating how the pandemic benefits helped keep her family afloat through 50 unsuccessful job applications in the 18 months since she lost work.
This precarious scenario is one of the biggest risks to Americans’ financial and personal health. And without unemployment benefits, jobless workers will also have to figure out how to pay their rent and mortgages at a time when Covid-19 eviction protections have lapsed. Such financial insecurity can send unemployed Americans into a spiral that they struggle to recover from.
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It’s a cruel irony to end one of America’s most successful policy interventions in recent history at a time when the Delta variant remains a threat and millions remain out of work. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with more than a dozen other members of Congress, recently introduced a bill to restart pandemic unemployment benefits, which would not only help jobless workers but also hasten our still-recovering economy through greater consumer spending.
Congress has a lot on its plate in the coming months. But to lose sight of the millions of our fellow Americans who remain out of work would deal a devastating blow to families and our economy. We are far from out of the pandemic; it’d be a mistake to act as if we are.