This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but haven’t been able to since the story wasn’t quite complete. Now that my final unemployment insurance payments have landed in my account, I can do a full accounting of the entire course of my pandemic relief assistance.
I think this is an interesting exercise for a couple reasons.
First, I was a completely “normal” case, without any of the complexities that you might “reasonably” expect to cause delays in benefits. I lost my job the first week pandemic benefits were available, and was never called back to work or did anything else that might end or reduce my benefits. I was also a “traditional” unemployment insurance claimant, and never needed to take advantage of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the program for platform workers and those without adequate work history.
Second, and relatedly, my experience is a kind of Rorschach test: you can see whatever you want to see in it. Is it an endless sea of red ink washing over undeserving, able-bodied adults? Or is it a crushing failure of the federal and state bureaucracy to give people adequate income security during another of our once-a-decade economic collapses?
Finally, I’m only going to address cash and cash-like benefits, not the myriad other changes wrought by the pandemic. The fact that buses stopped collecting fares was certainly valuable to a lot of commuters, but I’m not going to count the $1.50 I saved each time I rode the bus for free.
As I mentioned, I lost my job March 31, 2020. This was not quite ideal: unemployment insurance benefits are based on the 4 quarters preceding the last full quarter you worked. Since I didn’t work the entire first quarter of 2020, my benefits were based on my earnings from the fourth quarter of 2018 through the third quarter of 2019. My income had risen over time, so my base benefit would have been slightly higher if the fourth quarter of 2018 had “rolled off” and the fourth quarter of 2019 had “rolled on.” As we’ll see, base benefits are so paltry that while any adjustment upwards would have been welcome, it probably wouldn’t have amounted to more than $10 or $20 more per week.
The point of this post is only to account for the laws passed to address the pandemic. I would have received my base benefit of $315 for 26 weeks even if no additional laws were passed, and assuming the unemployment rate stayed high I would have received an additional 13 weeks of Extended Benefits at the same rate, so I’m excluding that initial base benefit and first period of Extended Benefits.
- Phase 1: April 4 – July 25, 2020. $10,200 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. This was the original CARES Act benefit of a $600 top-up to unemployment insurance payments, and it lasted through the end of July. After weeks of trying to get my application processed, I was ultimately paid for the first 6 weeks on May 15, 2020, and then was able to submit my continuing claims normally online through the end of July.
- Phase 2: August 1 – September 5, 2020. $1,800 in Lost Wages Assistance. This is a mostly-forgotten program where FEMA reallocated some money to send to the states to provide a $300 per week top-up for up to six weeks. There were some initial concerns about whether the reallocation was legal, but most states ultimately took the money, and I received two lump-sum payments for $1,200 and $600 on September 21 and October 5, 2020, respectively.
- Phase 3: September 12 – December 26, 2020. The Lean Months. This was the period in which there were no additional federal benefits available. My benefit dropped down to my base $315 per week, and at the end of September I exhausted my traditional unemployment insurance period and transitioned to my first 13 weeks of PEUC. I made it through this first transition without a break in benefits.
- Phase 4: January 2 – September 4, 2021. $25,740 in Extended Benefits, PEUC, FPUC and MEUC. Without additional Congressional action, I would have exhausted my original benefit and first round of PEUC at the end of December, so all 36 weeks of benefits in 2021 are attributable to the pandemic response. My base $315 benefit continued under Extended Benefits and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and were topped up by $300 in FPUC and $100 in MEUC. This was the period I really entered hell, with 3 gaps in payments: 3 weeks at the beginning of January, 3 months between April and June, and 13 weeks between July and September 24, when my last 10 weeks of benefits were finally paid out all at once.
That makes the total additional unemployment insurance payments I received due to federal action $37,740, or an average of $503 per week over 75 weeks, and if I had received $818 per week for the last 75 weeks, I wouldn’t have anything to complain about.
The source of stress for me and millions of other folks unemployed during the pandemic has been those interminable breaks in benefits, which make it impossible to budget since we were given no indication of whether or when payments would resume. Folks that could have easily paid their bills if they received timely payments instead fell hopelessly behind, only to receive a lump sum months after it had any chance of helping.
Economic Injury Payments
The so-called “stimulus” checks, I received the full $1,200, $600, and $1,400 payments on April 15, 2020, December 31, 2020, and March 16, 2021, respectively, for a total of $3,200.
Economic Injury Disaster Loan advances
As I’ve written about in detail, I received a $1,000 EIDL advance in April, 2020, during the first round of the program, and a $9,000 Targeted EIDL Advance in July, for a total of $10,000. I was not ultimately successful applying for the Supplemental Targeted EIDL Advance of $5,000.
I also received a $3,000 low-interest EIDL loan, which will need to be paid back over the next 30 years.
Unemployment Insurance tax exclusion
As I’ve written before, in the American Rescue Plan Act Congress excluded up to $10,200 in unemployment insurance payments from your 2020 federal taxable income. Since my income puts me in the 12% marginal income tax bracket, that exclusion was worth $1,224 in reduced federal income tax and $612 in state income tax, for a total of $1,836.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Since April I’ve received a $95 monthly “Emergency Allotment” in addition to my base SNAP benefit, for a total of $570. I believe that program is supposed to run until April 2022, so I may have some additional outstanding benefits to collect there.
SNAP benefits are the most “cash-like” of our remaining traditional welfare programs, although they’re not quite as good as cash, and I’m still occasionally surprised by what they can’t be used for; I once picked up a box of tea that claimed to have therapeutic properties and the register rejected payment with SNAP since it had been entered into the system as a “nutritional supplement.” Go figure.
Programs I skipped: Paycheck Protection Program and rental assistance
The two remaining big pots of money made available in CARES, CARES II, and ARPA were the forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans and the money made available to states to make up missed rental payments and prevent evictions.
I was technically eligible for a PPP loan, but based on my previous year’s payroll the amount would have been negligible, and it taking one had the potential to negatively affect my EIDL advances. Had the amounts involved been higher, I might have pursued it, but the juice didn’t seem worth the squeeze, to me.
The second pot of money, rental assistance, was only available to folks who could document falling behind on rent. I didn’t fall behind on rent, and even if I had I wouldn’t have been able to document it, so this program was essentially closed to me.
So when all’s said and done, my final cash and cash-like haul from the pandemic relief laws adds up to $52,776 in cash and $570 in SNAP benefits. As I said at the outset, this is an outcome that lends itself to multiple interpretations depending on your prior ideological leanings and your own experience navigating the system.
First, you can fight over the question of quantity. There was widespread agreement at the beginning of the pandemic that something needed to be done to raise unemployment insurance payments because in normal times benefits are kept deliberately low in order to encourage people to seek new work. Raising benefits and suspending work-search requirements was a strategy to encourage people to stay home and not circulate in the community. The amount of the increase is a purely prudential decision, however: there’s no obvious right answer. Pay people too little and the strategy will fail as people nevertheless seek work that pays more than their paltry benefit. Pay people too much and you risk a back-loaded inflation bomb when the economy reopens. Personally I think we got the overall quantity “about right.” In the aftermath of the Great Recession there was a federal top-up of $20 or $30 per week to unemployment benefits, which was obviously too low, as evidenced by the grinding, painful recovery that followed. On the other hand, if I’d been paid $200,000 in federal benefits even I would consider the possibility we were going overboard and running the risk of future debt and currency issues.
The second issue is one of timing. I received an average of $704 per week in cash benefits, but there was no week I received exactly $704: my payments ranged from $915 per week under CARES to $315 during the Lean Months, before popping back up to $715 in 2021. Whatever you think the right amount of supplemental federal aid was, it obviously should have been paid out on a predictable timetable instead of a series of ad hoc amounts based on the political calendar. I’m relatively agnostic about what the “right” timetable would have been. The federal top-up to unemployment benefits varied over time between $0, $300, $400, and $600. When I say the timetable should have been predictable, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should have been flat. A flat federal top-up of $500 per week would be predictable, but so would a top-up that ran for 6 months at $600, then dropped to $500 for 6 months, and then to $400 for 6 months before expiring. The point is simply that people need to be able to accurately predict their income in order to make plans, whether moving to a more favorable job market, getting married, having kids, or retiring.
Finally is the issue of implementation, which has been inexcusable. There are states that managed relatively smooth implementation of the alphabet soup of different programs, and states that botched it completely, leaving people with months of unpaid benefits. The problems arose from different causes: last-minute and retroactive Congressional action, ancient and flawed software, and incompetent administrators. But to explain the problems is not to excuse them: Congress should have passed a simpler, more predictable package of benefits, municipal software should be up-to-date and well-maintained, and bureaucrats should be paid well enough that we don’t have to settle for being governed by fools. Ultimately, the solution is a single, federally-administered national unemployment insurance program run out of the Social Security Administration, with automatic, predictable tripwires to raise and extend benefits during periods of high unemployment.