By Jack Hoffman
Let’s all take a deep breath. Before we jump to the conclusion that $600-a-week federal unemployment checks on top of state benefits are going to destroy the work ethic and wipe out the labor force, let’s remember why we’re doing this.
The intended consequence of federal pandemic unemployment benefits through July is that workers will stay home. Until there is a vaccine, isolation is the best defense against the coronavirus. And if people are going to be confined to their homes, they need to have enough money to feed themselves and their families, make rent or mortgage payments, and pay for essential goods and services.
We’re looking at this the wrong way if we’re trying to balance “unemployment compensation” in one hand and “to not be working” in the other. The amount of the payments has to be weighed against the cost of feeding and housing a family. And it has to be weighed against the public health risk—not just to the stay-at-home workers, but to all of us.
How much is it worth to not be getting COVID-19?
There’s an unfortunate moralistic undertone to some of the complaints about the temporary federal benefits. People at home aren’t getting money to be lazy. For many of them, especially those with kids, it’s a lot of work. Not only are they providing child care, they also have had to become teachers. Some of these “unemployed” workers are working as home health aides for family members who shouldn’t risk trips to the grocery or pharmacy or who have come down with the virus.
We all should be grateful for the essential work these people are doing at home. (The people in essential jobs who are still serving the public need livable incomes, too.)
When it’s safe to go out again, we’ll be glad that these house-bound workers can return as consumers. That’s why it probably will be necessary for Congress to extend pandemic unemployment benefits after stay-at-home orders are lifted. For businesses to get up and running again, they will need customers. For customers to be able to buy things, they’ll need money to spend. The federal government will have to keep priming the pump.
There are lessons to be learned from this crisis to guide future policies. For one, we need to be more realistic about the cost of food, housing, and other basic needs for Vermont families. Those costs should be reflected in how much people are paid, especially the lowest wage workers, and how much unemployment compensation they require when there is no work.
The sky is not falling—at least not from trying to keep people safe in their homes.
Jack Hoffman is the senior policy analyst for the Public Assets Institute, a non-profit advocacy organization, publicassets.org.