The virus and the vulnerable

The virus and the vulnerable

Image: Adobe Stock

The image of a perfect storm conveys a rueful irony: the storm whose components are so intertwined, so synchronized, so mutually reinforcing as to make it “perfect” in its destructiveness.

Perfect storm, meet COVID-19.

The overall dynamic is as simple as it is terrible. The coronavirus endangers people who come into contact with others who may be infected. People retreat into their homebound bubbles.

Employers, losing customers, shed jobs. Idled workers see their paychecks disappear. As the economy shutters, pressure mounts to re-open and return to “normal” – sustaining the chain of virus transmission.

That’s pretty much where we find ourselves these days, while also wrestling with how to carry on with education for our children. As deaths and infections surge in many states, the times have called for leadership of an extraordinary caliber. Instead, we’ve seen failures so profound as to threaten America’s standing in the world and our very way of life.

Here in early August,, roughly five months since the pandemic hit, we face what amounts to a test case for those responsible for stemming the damage. Among the first countermeasures approved by Congress was a program to boost unemployment benefits across the country so that people thrown out of work could continue to buy groceries and pay the rent or mortgage — and so money could keep flowing through the system that provides goods and services.

That $600-per-week program now is poised to end – an especially bitter pill for North Carolinians, whose state unemployment benefits are among the nation’s stingiest.

Perhaps five months was a reasonable duration to set when nobody knew how the virus threat would play out over the summer. But now it’s clear that as the menace continues, job prospects are nowhere near improving to the point where unemployment aid can be dialed back without putting millions of Americans – many of our North Carolina neighbors among them — up against a financial wall.

Aid in the balance

The immediate solution to this dilemma lies in Washington. Yet legislation approved by the U.S. House extending the $600 weekly payments to eligible recipients through the end of the year has met resistance in the Senate, where majority Republicans worry that somewhere, somehow, they might end up allowing a person to earn more by cashing a benefits check than by going to work, virus be damned.

That line of thinking – straight out of Charles Dickens, it seems – also dovetails with President Trump’s reckless and science-contemptuous push to get the economy back in gear as he thrashes about in hopes of salvaging his re-election campaign.

Negotiations on Capitol Hill were ongoing, with the White House trying to strike a deal with House Democrats. At last report the Democrats – seeking to maintain unemployment benefits at their current, emergency levels – had the upper hand, as Senate Republicans were splintered on how to proceed.

Could those Republicans, already on the defensive with an election just around the corner, afford to let the pandemic simply take its course, with no further economic intervention? Democrats might be saying, “OK, then – make my day!”

The House approach has called for an additional relief package carrying a $3 trillion price tag – on the same scale as the so-called CARES Act from last spring. Besides further aid for the jobless, it would extend more loans to struggling businesses and help states and localities whose budgets have been knocked for a loop as tax revenues have dwindled.

Republicans have countered with a proposal costing $1 trillion – although support in the Senate GOP caucus has been shaky, as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed.

As to unemployment benefits, the Republican idea would be first to shrink them to $200 per week. Then after states could adjust systems that actually distribute the money, federal aid would be scaled so that on average – combined with state benefits – workers would receive 70% of what they’d earned on the job. That compares to a target of 100% under the program expiring on July 31.

Does 100% sound generous? Can’t folks be expected to tighten their belts? That’s a natural question, but for anyone caught in the pandemic-related job crunch, there’s plenty of hardship to go around even if they’re able to keep food on the table and a roof over their head.

Their health insurance may have evaporated. They may face additional costs for child care. Their prospects for returning to work in a shell-shocked economy may be minimal. And in North Carolina, nobody was going to get rich even with $600 a week arriving from Uncle Sam.

The state’s top weekly joblessness payment, geared to previous earnings, is $350 for at least 12 and as many as 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate. That has meant a combined federal-state payment topping out at $950 per week, perhaps enough temporarily to sustain a modest lifestyle but by no means extravagant.

Jobless and punished?

North Carolina’s unemployment insurance program was downsized by the legislature’s majority Republicans in 2013. The maximum weekly benefit had been $535, payable for up to 26 weeks.

Not only are payouts now at the low end of the national range but it also can be hard to qualify. For example, self-employed people and independent contractors whose business has dried up during the pandemic aren’t eligible. (If they can’t work as a “direct result” of the virus, they may be able to collect up to $350 per week through December, thanks to CARES Act funds channeled through the state system. Very thoughtful to help keep virus-sufferers from starving!)

Democrats in the General Assembly attempted during the recent legislative session to make jobless benefits somewhat more generous. Given Republican opposition, channeling the views of many employers whose payments finance the unemployment insurance program, that effort was a long shot. But it has highlighted the current program’s deficiencies.

House Bill 1075, introduced on May 14 and languishing since then in committee, would boost the state’s maximum weekly benefit to $450 and lengthen the period during which benefits could be collected to 26 weeks.

The bill also would make more people eligible. Someone forced to quit work because of health conditions, family hardship or spousal relocation could collect benefits.

Perhaps such adjustments would be less urgent if the federal $600 per week payments were ongoing. But in their absence, failure to offer more state-level unemployment assistance rubs salt in fresh wounds. When legislators next convene – they’re scheduled to return on Sept. 2 – HB 1075 deserves a fair hearing devoid of insulting, lazy-worker stereotypes.

All of us hope for wise public policies, brilliant science and smart personal conduct that can halt the coronavirus rampage. The N.C. Council of Churches and its allies have an added dimension of concern:  for essential workers who must risk their health in the line of duty, for people who were struggling with poverty even before the pandemic, for all those thrust into economic limbo and facing hunger or eviction.

Already we’ve seen how the virus has hit hardest among communities of color, those living in crowded conditions, those who can’t rely on the comfort of a personal bubble to shield them from the risks of exposure. It follows that a proper pandemic response must be rooted in a sense of justice and, as so often is the case, in care for the vulnerable. Amid those many challenges, looking out for those who have seen their livelihoods evaporate is one we can’t dare to neglect.