Last July, an article in NPQ began, “One of the many facets the pandemic has revealed to us is our nation’s tortured and conflicted position around labor and the value of work.” The move by two dozen Republican governors to cut off federal unemployment benefits between now and July 10th illustrates again just how little working people matter politically in the US, shining a light on the country’s ugly narratives that routinely demean workers and treat unemployment as a “choice” rather than a product of economic forces. The chart below, based on financial data from the Century Foundation, and cutoff dates as reported by CNBC, highlights what’s at stake:
|State||Date of cutoff||Workers affected||Est. value of lost benefits|
|New Hampshire||June 19||35,445||$170,257,786|
|North Dakota||June 19||15,057||$104,469,203|
|South Carolina||June 26||166,436||$891,381,978|
|South Dakota||June 26||5,059||$25,017,006|
|West Virginia||June 19||45,782||$240,416,510|
Nationwide, it’s worth bearing in mind that, as of May 8th, there are still 15.8 million Americans who rely on unemployment benefits for support. The GOP governors’ efforts will effectively end these benefits for one in four of these workers.
Still, the question remains: Why are states throwing away $22 billion in federal money to make the lives of their unemployed residents worse off?
Back at the end of July, when COVID-19 deaths had yet to exceed 145,000—one-fourth of today’s figure—Congress felt it was a fine time to end federal supplemental unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, as the CARES Act’s $600 weekly supplemental benefit was deemed “too generous.” It wasn’t until December when Congress reinstated a supplemental benefit, and when it finally did so, it reinstated the benefit at half the level of the CARES Act or $300 a week.
Absent federal support, state UI benefits in much of the US are paltry. (A list of policies is available here.) In Arizona, for example, the maximum weekly benefit is $240. In Florida, it is not much better at $275. In high-cost California, it is a modest $450 a week. Only a dozen states offer, as a maximum payment based on income (and sometimes, number of dependents), better than $600 a week.
It’s worth noting, too, that the CARES Act also established, for the first time in US history, unemployment benefits for gig workers. At the state level, these do not exist. As a result, gig workers in states that cut off benefits will see their benefits fall to zero. Among the 24 states listed above, only Florida is preserving the gig benefit for its workers, at least until the federal provision expires on September 6th.
The thin rationale is tha