July 30, 2020 9:57:53 AM
If you have a job, July 25th may not have held much significance. Yet for an estimated 69,700 Mississippians who are unemployed, it was a red-letter day, emphasis on red.
That was the day the supplemental $600 per week added to state unemployment benefits expired. The federal funds were provided by the CARES Act passed by Congress on March 27.
From now on, unemployed people will receive only the regular amount of money provided through state unemployment benefits. That's especially bad news if you are an unemployed Mississippian. Our state ranks last in the nation in both maximum weekly benefits ($235 per week) and average weekly benefits (at $215, it's about one-third less than the national average of $318).
As the U.S. Senate considers a new COVID-19 funding bill, the debate is about how much federal unemployment supplements should be approved.
Senate Democrats want to resume the $600 weekly supplement through the end of the year. Republicans want to provide a maximum of $200 per week for two months, then move to a formula that would cap the combined state/federal benefits to 70 percent of the worker's normal wages.
Democrats believe extending the $600 weekly benefits is the best way to ensure millions of American workers don't fall into poverty.
Republicans say the $600 benefits are a disincentive for those who are unemployed to return to the workforce, which they believe stalls the economic recovery.
At first glance, you can see the Republican argument. The Democrats' plan would mean an unemployed Mississippian would bring home $3,252 per month. That's far more than the state's per capita income, which is a little less than $2000 per month.
In some respects, the Democrats' plan is a windfall.
But there's more to that than meets the eye.
When an unemployed person is called back to work, the unemployment benefits end. And now that the requirements that a worker has to accept a job offer have returned, the unemployed person doesn't have a choice in the matter.
The statistics don't help the Republicans' disincentive argument, either. In Mississippi, the unemployment rate has dropped dramatically since April, when the jobless rate was 16.7 percent. It was 10.5 percent in May. In June, the rate is 8.7 percent, about half of what it was in April.
Even in a state where the supplemental benefits produced the biggest jump in income, Mississippians are returning to work when jobs are available. This punches a hole in the Republican theory because what has been true in Mississippi is generally true everywhere -- 4.8 million Americans returned to the workforce in June.
There is also an economic benefit of maintaining the $600 supplement. That money goes back into an economy that is still struggling to recover. It's spent on rent and groceries and restaurants and a host of consumer goods that our economy depends on.
There will be some who dismiss the extensiveness of the $600 benefit as another example of a government give-away.
If that's your concern, you might be looking at the wrong people. According to a MarketWatch analysis of the Paycheck Protection Program, the Small Business Administration's data revealed that more than a half-million small businesses received PPP loans without retaining any jobs.
When it comes to supplemental unemployment benefits, it's more logically viewed as an investment, not only in our economy but in our people. It is recognition that the vast majority of Americans are not looking for a hand-out but for a way to survive a crisis not of their making.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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