Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs since the world's COVID-19 pandemic became a U.S. crisis in March, and while the country's overall unemployment numbers fell in both May and June, the official unemployment rate is still at a painfully high 11.1% -- worse than it ever was during Great Recession. And as has been noted by Fortune, the Motley Fool, and other media outlets, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is probably undercounting the number of unemployed workers significantly due to several ongoing issues. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is in a new recession, and the country is in the midst of its worst surge of COVID-19 cases yet, setting daily records for new diagnoses.
It's therefore a particularly bad time for one of the government's more-effective emergency economic stimulus and human relief measures to run out. Yet come July 31, the $600 boost that the CARES Act initiated for weekly unemployment checks is set to end. And once that happens, many of those tens of millions of out-of-work Americans will start finding it a real struggle to cover even their basic bills.
What do unemployment benefits look like without the boost?
Vast numbers of Americans are now on unemployment -- collecting payments that, under normal conditions, would average out across the United States to about $380 a week.
Thanks to the $600 a week in additional emergency benefits that are still in play, the average unemployment recipient is instead collecting $980 a week -- a figure Congress picked because it would allow the average U.S. worker to come out close to even relative to what they had been making before.
But if that program isn't extended, then shortly, the average payment will fall all the way back down to $380. Based on that, the average unemployed worker will only by replacing about one-third of their prior paycheck, according to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Of course, unemployment benefits differ from state to state, and they also hinge on the applicant's former earnings. States tend to set their benefit levels in the neighborhood of 50% of a person's prior income, up to a ceiling that somewhat reflects differences in the local cost of living. Even so, some of those ceilings are uncomfortably low.
In Mississippi, with the least generous unemployment benefits in the nation (and the lowest cost of living), the average jobless worker was collecting $213 a week prior to the pandemic. Massachusetts, which sports the sixth-highest cost of living, has the most generous benefit -- its average recipient was collecting $552. But on a national level, $380 a week doesn't sound good.
Will the $600 boost get extended?
Democratic lawmakers in Congress have been fighting to extend the $600 weekly unemployment boost, claiming that Americans and the economy as a whole still very much need that relief. Republican lawmakers have been firmly against continuing the program, however, and for a number of reasons.
For one thing, they argue that as restrictions on businesses and personal activity ease and the economy opens back up, the need for extra relief won't be as intense. (Republicans have applied that same argument in the context of their opposition to a second round of widely distributed stimulus checks.) Also, some fear that extending the $600 boost will disincentivize people from returning to work, especially since many former low-wage workers have been collecting more in enhanced unemployment benefits than they were getting paid for their labor.
But the current spike in new U.S. COVID-19 diagnoses could easily result in states and businesses slowing or reversing their reopening plans, leading to another surge in layoffs. That adds weight to the argument that this would not be a great time to pull the plug on a benefit that's making it possible for struggling families to put food on the table and pay their bills.
The House and the Senate only have a few more weeks to duke it out before the end of July arrives, and the solution may boil down to a compromise -- perhaps a smaller weekly boost in unemployment to replace a larger portion of laid-off workers' paychecks, but not so large a boost that people who could return to work are motivated not to. But either way, one thing's for sure: Living on $380 a week is not feasible for many people, and if Congress doesn't act, millions of Americans will be spending the second half of 2020 struggling to stay afloat.