Jesse Eisinger: We’re replicating the mistakes of 2008
Meanwhile, the old stigmas against unemployed workers will resurface, as memories of the initial crisis fade and people find new reasons to fault others for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Even today, we see hints of what is to come. Some of the country’s most prominent conservative ideologues are already complaining about how Congress’s top-up of unemployment benefits encourages people to drop out of the workforce.
This resentment will become much more widespread and pernicious. Here, again, history is instructive. Even during the Great Depression, a global economic catastrophe that catapulted the U.S. unemployment rate to about 25 percent, resentment grew as the doldrums persisted. As the sociologists Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs have noted, critics of the Roosevelt administration excoriated the long-term unemployed as malingerers and reprobates and assailed New Deal programs as socialist schemes to tax the middle class into poverty. Eight decades later, a Wall Street–led financial contagion pushed the unemployment rate to 10 percent. This time, the rancor coalesced more quickly, fed by a steady drumbeat of rage from cable news, talk radio, and, eventually, the Tea Party.
During the second phase of the coronavirus recession, America’s temporarily strengthened social safety net will revert to its usual bare-bones form. Somehow, no money will be available to help the long-term unemployed—even though, just three years ago, Congress found more than enough to pay for tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans. As their unemployment benefits expire, the jobless and their families will face financial collapse. Public outpourings of compassion and grace will be steadily replaced, as they were in past downturns, with moralizing anger pumped up by partisan media.
Swift action from Congress could prevent the coming disaster. First, lawmakers would need to make permanent the temporary upgrades that Congress made to our antiquated unemployment-insurance system, which raised benefits so that families don’t sink rapidly into poverty and extended those benefits to gig workers. But beyond helping the unemployed, Congress must also revamp our regulatory system and safety net to better shield our growing workforce of underemployed workers—not just low-wage workers, but also the broader group of freelancers, temps, and subcontractors who have few legal protections and tend to be the first to go when the economy sputters. Severe income inequality means that even employed Americans often live paycheck to paycheck, with no savings to get them through the next emergency. A just-in-time economy, it turns out, has no real margin for error. Tying health insurance to employment is unusually harmful to workers amid a health crisis that provokes mass joblessness while requiring widespread virus testing and intensive care. If the threats posed by longer-term trends like automation were not reason enough, the present unemployment shock has enhanced the appeal of benefits not linked to work—including a universal basic income.
Annie Lowrey: Millennials don’t stand a chance
Policies that provide only temporary relief are insufficient to protect American workers from all the forces arrayed against them. The structural barriers to securing a decent livelihood in this economy will not suddenly disappear when a vaccine is found. The coronavirus has highlighted vulnerabilities in our current system that will far outlast the pain it has unleashed—and the solidarity it has instilled, at least for now.