It’s been another busy week in the era of In These Troubled Times. Donald Trump is sending the feds into cities around the country for general fun and fascism. The cancel culture “debate” continues (oh god does it continue, can someone tell these people to focus on literally anything else). Also Taylor Swift is releasing a surprise album?? Will wonders never cease?
And in Washington, hallowed home to our most precious government institutions, a group of wise leaders is currently hashing out just how much poorer they want to make millions of people in the next couple of weeks.
That’s right: we are currently witnessing yet another round of congressional negotiations over a new coronavirus relief package, and at the top of the agenda is what to do about the $600-a-week unemployment benefits the federal government is currently handing out. Coincidentally, those benefits are set to expire at the end of July. This is what will happen if they do:
(Perhaps you are not one of the nearly 32 million people currently receiving some form of unemployment benefits. As someone who is about to lose more than half of his income if the federally subsidized benefits are allowed to lapse, I will admit to having a substantial stake in this debate.)
Currently, Democrats and Republicans are far apart on the issue. Democrats want to extend the benefits through the end of the year, when they will presumably realize that they’re starting to seem a little too “generous” to “poor people” and will move quickly to attach 700 new rules to the thing.
These are sure to be described as “complex” or “torturous” negotiations. But as with so many things in life, this is not complicated. I feel like we have said this before on Discourse Blog, but it bears repeating: just give us the goddamn money please!!!!
We need the money for practical reasons, obviously. It’s reaaaal bad out there, both in terms of actual jobs to be had and also, uh, all the death going on.
But that’s not what’s at the heart of this dispute. The real, sneaky problem with the $600 benefit is that it worked too well—for the people who actually got the money they were owed, at any rate. People’s personal incomes actually rose after the rollout of the initial aid package, largely because the unemployment money was generous enough to compensate for the loss of regular wages and then some. Workers in over half of the country were suddenly receiving more money than they’d earned on the job. (Really, the fact that it took just 600 bucks a week to do this is an incredible indictment of the poverty wages we pay in this country.)
In America, where social welfare is so means-tested and demonized, this situation is virtually unheard of. Unemployment insurance isn’t supposed to help you, like, be actually OK. How could it, when the average unemployment benefit doesn’t even amount to $400? It’s supposed to keep you one step ahead of utter disaster and send you scurrying to any job you can find, where you can resume being exploited and ground under the wheels of capitalism.
Instead, the $600 a week has actually allowed millions of people to—gasp—live their lives a little bit in the midst of a deadly pandemic, economic crisis, and job-killing recession. Here is a post that the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein found on the unemployment subreddit that I haven’t been able to get out of my head:
This is the real problem that the American state has with this kind of benefit: it makes people too free. Our freedom is supposed to come from hyper-individual greed and endless graft, not from everyone helping each other keep the roof over their head and avoid dying from a disease like this.
If this sort of freedom persisted, more people would have the time, space, and intellectual energy to, say, challenge power, or strive towards a better world, or do something that both benefits the economy and makes them feel happy. And we can’t have that in this country.
Instead, Democrats and Republicans will meet somewhere in the middle, the benefits will be slashed, and people will be shoved back into the empty hell of the workforce while COVID rages out of control. God bless America.