Unemployment benefits provide people who lose jobs with a little help for a little while. The money is not really enough to live on, by design: People are supposed to find a new job.

During an economic crisis, however, people can’t find jobs. They need money to live on.

Congress recognized this reality in March when it responded to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic by increasing unemployment benefits. But the expansion expires at the end of this month, even as the pandemic continues to rage. Congress, after dragging its feet for months, has all but run out of time to prevent a lapse in the distribution of extra aid.

The nation’s elected representatives need to act immediately to extend emergency benefits, and to authorize the extra aid to continue for the duration of the crisis.

Because crises are inevitable and unpredictable — and because the federal government is slow to react whenever a crisis begins to unfold — the government also needs a set of rules that automatically switches the unemployment benefits program from normal mode to crisis mode, and back again, based on the evolution of economic conditions.

The need for more unemployment benefits is just part of a broader set of measures Congress must take to shore up the economy. State and local governments urgently need help, including funding for schools. So do businesses that the pandemic has shuttered, and health care providers it has overwhelmed.

But those who have lost jobs are singularly vulnerable — especially because pandemic job losses have been concentrated among low-wage workers with little money in the bank.

The program created in March has two main components. First, Congress expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits to include self-employed workers, gig workers and others who were previously ineligible. Americans deserve to have that adjustment made permanent: It moves the safety net of unemployment benefits more squarely beneath the modern work force. As of the end of June, more than 14 million American workers had qualified for benefits under the expansion out of a total of 33 million workers drawing unemployment benefits.

The second component of the rescue package gave unemployed workers a $600 weekly payment from the federal government on top of their standard unemployment check, which averages $373 a week, although the amount varies widely by state. The average recipient is thus getting nearly $1,000 a week. People also can collect the benefits for up to 39 weeks, up from as little as 13 weeks before the crisis.

Federal aid, including the expansion of unemployment benefits, has helped to stabilize the finances, and thus the lives, of millions of American households and the communities of which they are a part. It’s not as good as a job: Among other things, millions of people have lost their health insurance. But even as the pandemic has pushed unemployment to the highest levels since the Great Depression, research suggests the aid is preventing any meaningful increase in the share of families living in poverty.

These are individual benefits with societal impact. Workers on federal aid can afford to make rent payments, easing the pressure on landlords. They can afford to shop at local stores, supporting hard-pressed small businesses.

When Congress slapped a July expiration date on the program, there was reason to hope that the United States might have brought the pandemic under control by now. Other nations have done so. But the United States has failed to control the spread of the virus, and fear continues to curtail economic activity. The need for continued aid is undeniable.

The House of Representatives passed a bill in May that would extend the aid program through January, but few economic analysts expect the economy to recover by then — particularly as the first wave of the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly across the Sun Belt. While any arbitrary deadline risks another battle over reauthorization, a January deadline would be particularly fraught. After the Republican Party lost control of the White House in 2009, during the last economic crisis, congressional Republicans decided it was politically expedient to oppose federal spending that was needed to revive the economy. Democrats would be wise to take the lesson.

The size of the $600 bonus is also a subject of controversy. The figure was chosen because lawmakers wanted to provide workers with the money they would have earned, but the antediluvian conditions in many state unemployment offices made it impossible to tailor benefits. Instead, Congress picked a figure that would make the average worker whole.

The White House, and some congressional Republicans, are upset that some workers are getting more money than they earned in their former jobs. They argue this could discourage workers from seeking new jobs.

This is not an immediate problem: At the moment, the United States is suffering a lack of jobs, not a lack of willing workers. Moreover, there is a ready solution: a plan to reduce the payments as the economy recovers.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, introduced legislation early this month to continue the emergency aid on a state-by-state basis until the jobless rates in each state recede. Expanded eligibility would last until unemployment dropped to 5.5 percent. Expanded benefits would drop by $100 when the rate fell below 11 percent, and by another $100 each time the rate dropped by another percentage point, ending when the rate hit 6 percent.

Congress can avoid the need for similarly ad hoc policymaking during future crises by providing funding for states to fix the problems that have impeded the distribution of benefits — and by adopting rules to automatically expand and contract supplemental benefits.

Claudia Sahm, then a Federal Reserve economist, wrote in a paper published last year that the movement of the unemployment rate could be used as a reliable indicator. She found that since the 1970s, when a three-month average of the unemployment rate rose half a percentage point above the lowest rate during the previous year, the economy was in a recession.

Ms. Sahm, now the director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, has proposed using this “Sahm rule” as a trigger to initiate aid programs such as supplemental unemployment benefits. The emergency aid would then continue until the unemployment rate fell back to that threshold. In the current crisis, emergency aid would continue until the unemployment rate, now 11.1 percent, receded to 5.3 percent.

That would be a smarter way to provide workers with necessary and timely aid.

• The New York Times

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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(17) comments

Carlos Ponce

In the news I heard of a restaurant who still hasn't filled the position to bus tables - at $17 an hour. Why not? As long as the government check keeps coming in, why bother? I see help wanted signs throughout the county, last one at Kelley's in La Marque.

Jim Forsythe

Kelley's is paying how much per hour and for how many hours? Some of the people that would have applied for jobs in the past, now have a problem with childcare. Also people with medical conditions, that Corna19 could cause problems, will not apply for this type of job now.

Jul 02, 2020--- "Average Busser Hourly Pay $8.77" "Employees with Busser in their job title in Los Angeles, California earn an average of 25.4% more than the national average. These job titles also find higher than average salaries in Chicago, Illinois (14.0% more) and New York, New York (8.3% more). The lowest salaries can be found in Las Vegas, Nevada (4.3% less), Houston, Texas (3.1% less) and San Antonio, Texas (0.6% less)." info from PayScale.

Carlos Ponce

"Kelley's is paying how much per hour and for how many hours?" Looking for a job, Jim?

Jim Forsythe

No, you are the one talking about why Kelly's may no be able to hire someone.

This has been a ongoing problem for businesses, and now is no different.

If Kelly's is paying the going rate of about $8 an hour for less than 30 hours per week, they will be hard pressed to fill job.

I also did find that they had advertised this job opening. They may have, but I could not find a ad.

Carlos Ponce

There are jobs out there.

Gary Scoggin

Carlos, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

Jarvis Buckley

It would be fine with me if the GDN did not waste paper & ink reprinting NYT articles .

Most of their articles are politically biased &

Quite honestly in my opinion anti- American.

Gary Scoggin

It’s my understanding that anyone that doesn’t agree with a MAGA is anti American.

Carlos Ponce

MAGA - make America Great Again. So is Gary Scoggin saying NOT wanting to make America great again makes you a patriot?

Jim Forsythe

Trump MEGA came from the past, just as KAG did.

Author Octavia E. Butler used "Make America Great Again" as the presidential campaign slogan for a character, Andrew Steele Jarret, in her 1998 dystopian novel, Parable of the Talents (novel). Jarret is described as "a demogogue, a rabble-rouser, and a hypocrite" who "pulled religion and government together and cemented the link with money from rich businessmen"

The tagline for The Purge: Election Year (2016) is "Keep America Great" (a phrase Trump would later use as his 2020 campaign slogan); one of the TV spots for the film featured Americans who explained why they support the Purge, with one stating he does so "to keep my country [America] great". The next film in the franchise, The First Purge, was subsequently advertised with a poster featuring its title stylized on a MAGA hat.

"Let's make America great again" was first used in Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.

The phrase was also used in speeches by Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign.

Gary Scoggin

MAGA is shorthand for those who blindly follow the current President and believe him to be infallible. They often resort to silly, convoluted logic such as statements like “NOT wanting to make America great again makes you a patriot.” Most MAGAs claim to be Republicans even though their current wish list, as dictated by parroting the President, is nothing like traditional Republicanism. They are marked by a complete lack of political philosophy except what benefits them directly financially and results in harm to those they seem less worthy (generally, anyone who doesn’t support the current President.

Carlos Ponce

The first instance of "Make America Great Again" appears in the Greenville Delta Democrat Times Friday, December 15, 1950, Greenville, Mississippi said by Dr. W. F. Bond at the Delta Area Boy Scouts Council. A "Silver Beaver" award was given to Dr. Frank. M. Acree that night.

But I'm certain it was said earlier.

There are 6 references to the phrase in the 1960s, 54 in the '70s, 227 in the 80s, 38 in the 90s according to Newspaper Archives.

Carlos Ponce

"Keep America Great" appears 13 times in the 1920s, the first being in the Woodland Daily Democrat Monday, April 7, 1924, Woodland, California in an editorial about President Calvin Coolidge. The phrase appears over a thousand times in archives, very common in the '70s with 472 references.

George Caros

America will be great again when the Russian puppet us cited out this November MAGA

Stephanie Martin

I agree 100% with Mr. Ponce.

Emile Pope

Three numbskulls no waiting...

Carlos Ponce

You have three skulls? Who knew?

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