The social safety net, designed to protect economically vulnerable families in America, has failed to buffer against impacts of the COVID-19 recession. Mass business closures are resulting in unprecedented unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression. A recent survey from the US Census Bureau revealed that nearly 50% of adults live in households that have experienced a loss in employment income since March 13, 2020. With many workers now facing limited employment options that do not align with their long-term economic and health preferences, the government is bridging the employment gap by expanding Unemployment Insurance (UI), including an additional $600 weekly benefit for eligible workers through the month of July, an expansion of coverage to workers who would not previously qualify, and an increased length of time during which workers can receive benefits. It is important to note that while benefits themselves have expanded, the requirements necessary to qualify for benefits have not. Those seeking benefits are still required to meet stringent guidelines including, for example, that the loss of their job was due to no fault of their own.
This increase in benefits has reignited personal responsibility rhetoric, unfairly attacking individuals facing precarious conditions by suggesting that work is no longer a priority for those receiving benefits.
Since the specifics of UI are not well known, this increase in benefits has reignited personal responsibility rhetoric, unfairly attacking individuals facing precarious conditions by suggesting that work is no longer a priority for those receiving benefits. While more recent history offers plenty of examples of this rhetoric (such as the welfare queen trope popularized by President Reagan), the notion of the undeserving poor dates back to the original welfare system created to help families affected by the Great Depression. As the original framework for American anti-poverty programs, the New Deal was met with opposition by those who fought successfully to exclude Black men and women from receiving benefits. In doing so, they set the precedent for what we now see as yet another attack on welfare recipients and racist criticisms of the “undeserving poor.” Proponents of such rhetoric often emphasize individual blame and evade the more honest conversation of how our system is failing our most vulnerable. Since 44% of the labor force earns low wages and Black workers are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage occupations and industries, our energy should be focused on interrogating why economic vulnerability is still so pervasive in this country and addressing the inequality that has enabled this trend.
The economically vulnerable are not only less likely to have the cash buffer needed to sustain approximately 6 weeks of income disruption, they are also more likely to be impacted by business closures and layoffs, and must often use means beyond their regular income to support themselves and their families. Thus, those facing the greatest level of risk appear to have the fewest resources to weather the storm. Policy makers must implement more robust social insurance policies, and focus on resilience-building strategies that reenvision UI and job training mechanisms to better support low-income workers during economic downturns.
Policy makers must implement more robust social insurance policies, and focus on resilience-building strategies that re-envision UI and job training mechanisms to better support low-income workers during economic downturns.
Currently, businesses are using creative strategies to help alleviate overreliance on the social safety net, including Workshare Programs, Partial UI, and Workforce Actions that place social impact and industry adaptation at the forefront of reopening. However, this heavy burden placed on businesses to compensate for the failings of public benefits is no longer a viable solution for our country, so we must consider alternative solutions. One such solution is social insurance policies like Universal Basic Income that induces cash transfers to individuals and is becoming more widely accepted for its potential to mitigate over-reliance on the social safety net during future shocks, possibly costing the government and businesses much less in the long term. No-strings-attached cash transfers would ensure that wealth-building is equally accessible to economically depressed groups that are now suffering the repercussions of having been denied access to wealth-building initiatives since their inception. Ultimately, to truly prepare for future shocks, we must reject and dispel bigoted rhetoric in both its historical and contemporary forms. We must overcome its legacy, which is imbued in the foundation of the social safety net, and redesign it to be accessible to all.