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The outbreak of COVID-19 has become both a public health and an economic crisis. In particular, the closure of many businesses has resulted in an unprecedented surge in unemployment claims in the United States. Since late March, over 44 million people have applied for benefits.
Through the unemployment insurance program, the government provides temporary payments to workers who have been laid off from work. Beneficiaries normally must also meet certain eligibility criteria, such as actively seeking a job, but many states have changed or waived the requirements for those who are unable to work due to the pandemic. As a social safety net program that provides benefits to jobless individuals, the unemployment insurance program is designed to grow significantly during economic downturns. Such growth occurred during and immediately after the Great Recession, when federal outlays on unemployment benefits tripled from 2008 to 2010. Spending over the past two months has grown significantly faster — outlays for unemployment insurance were 20 times higher in May than they were in March.
Following the outbreak, Congress enacted a series of bills to provide economic relief to those affected. In particular, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided states with the option to expand the unemployment program by offering benefits to those who previously were not eligible, providing an additional $600 in benefits per week, and extending insurance payments beyond the regular 26 weeks. Since enactment of those provisions in late March, federal spending on unemployment insurance has risen noticeably.
Even as the economy begins to recover, spending on unemployment insurance is likely to continue at an unusually high level. This program and its temporary provisions are an essential part of helping American workers during the economic downturn. As the crisis continues, policymakers should not only plan for an effective recovery but also understand how the policy response will impact America’s longer-term fiscal outlook.
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