You Can’t Afford to Live Anywhere in the United States Solely on Unemployment Insurance

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) approaches the microphones, September 2020.

Throughout spring and summer 2020, roughly 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance (UI). The pace, occupational distribution, and scope of job loss eclipsed previous economic downturns. However, Congress acted swiftly via the CARES Act to minimize the economic crisis that would result from millions of newly unemployed people having to rely solely on the benefits states were equipped to provide after decades of disinvestment.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) bolstered consumer spending that kept other workers employed; helped support states and localities through the collection of sales tax; and precluded a full-blown eviction crisis through the spring and summer. Borne out of the technical difficulty of calculating replacement wage rates for millions at one time, the $600 weekly payment contributed to a surprising decrease in the poverty rate.

The hope was that FPUC and other economic policy tools would buy time for public health efforts, allowing people to stay home as much as possible while testing, contact tracing, and treatment efforts for COVID-19 expanded. Unfortunately, without a national plan to control the pandemic, the health crisis has continued far longer than it has in other countries. In fact, some workers have experienced multiple waves of unemployment, and layoffs are shifting from temporary to permanent as businesses close.

After the $600 FPUC expired at the end of July, Senate Republicans proposed a wholly inadequate $300 weekly boost to UI benefits, which would extend through December the five-week boost of $300 enacted by President Donald Trump’s memorandum. This plan would come up short everywhere for the typical one-adult, one-child family, and it would be more than $1,000 short every month in more than 94 percent of counties and county-equivalents in the country.

Unemployment in this crisis has been concentrated among low-income workers, particularly in the restaurant and hospitality sectors, and among women and Black/Latinx workers. These workers were already hampered by the lack of an increase to the federal minimum wage since 2009, a decade in which the minimum wage lost 21 percent of its purchasing power. These cohorts were also harmed by the continued existence of the subminimum wage for workers who receive tips. Before the pandemic, even if they were able to schedule full-time hours, these workers could rarely count on financial stability. As of June 2019, more than half of families in the bottom 20 percent of incomes had nothing in savings, while those in the 20 to 40 percentile range had median savings of just $860, which can be depleted quickly in the case of unexpected income shocks or in a family emergency. Those who note that the $600 FPUC was more than some workers were making in wages should take issue with the abysmally low wages themselves—not with a policy intervention that kept families and the economy afloat.

With the expiration of FPUC at the end of July, the millions who are still unemployed received only their state’s benefit amount. In many states, this benefit is far too low to cover the rent alone—not to mention any other expenses. For example, in North Carolina—which is not among the lowest-benefit states and does not have a low cost of living—typical weekly benefits are only $218. Average state UI benefits are lower in states where more UI recipients are Black. A flat-rate FPUC of $600 helped counteract the inequalities in wages that can be calcified by a proportional replacement calculation.

CAP analysis of typical unemployment benefits being received across the country shows that there isn’t a single county, parish, borough, census area, or city in the United States where state unemployment benefits alone can cover a set of very modest monthly expenses (for example, the 40th percentile of area rent) for a typical one-adult, one-child family.

CAP analysis finds that the $300-per-week boost to unemployment benefits enacted by President Donald Trump’s memorandum—which has yet to be paid out in most states and is only expected to last for about five weeks—comes up more than $1,000 short every month for the typical one-adult, one-child family in more than 94 percent of counties and county equivalents. The median monthly shortfall per family for the Trump plan, while it’s active, is $1,587. Under the state benefits-only scenario that most people have been living with since the CARES Act FPUC expired at the end of July, the median monthly shortfall is $2,787.

The House of Representatives passed an extension of the $600 FPUC in May. Even that amount would lead to a gap between median monthly budget and UI benefits of $387, but that amount is more manageable than a gulf of $1,587 each month. Unemployment levels remain extremely high, particularly for Black and Latinx workers as well as women. The FPUC must be extended until labor market conditions improve for all subsets of workers instead of being repeatedly cut off on arbitrary dates.

These dropdown menus allow users to select a state and county, and to see the shortfall between various UI benefits plans and the modest budgets of families in that county.

This look at modest budgets in counties across the country demonstrates how important the $600 FPUC has been to families. Without it, families everywhere would have fallen thousands short of affording basic necessities. The HEROES Act, passed by the House in May, would extend the $600 FPUC that has been so crucial to keeping the overall economy afloat, while a Senate Republican plan to halve benefits will fall woefully short of family budgets.

The authors would like to thank the Economic Policy Institute for sharing the data that comprise their Family Budget Calculator.

Lily Roberts is the director of economic mobility at the Center for American Progress. Justin Schweitzer is a policy analyst for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center.

Methodology

The data on monthly expenses was produced internally and provided to CAP by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) as part of their Family Budget Calculator, which “measures the monthly income a family needs in order to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living.” The tables represent the modest budget for a family consisting of one adult and one child. The “All Other” category in the monthly expenses represents “Taxes” and “Other Necessities,” which are defined in the Family Budget Calculator Technical Documentation. For every county or county-equivalent*, the data was obtained as annual totals from the most recent year for which it was available, 2017. It was then divided by 52 to create a weekly budget and then multiplied by four to get the monthly total and to have the same four-week timeframe as the UI benefits computations.

For each of the monthly UI benefit amounts, the state UI portion was calculated using the mean average weekly benefit, multiplied by four, for the corresponding state from the Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration’s Monthly Program and Financial Data table for August 2020, which was the most recent month of data available. For each legislative scenario, the additional specified FPUC payments were multiplied by four and added to the monthly state UI amount. Finally, the average UI benefits for each scenario were subtracted from the average total expenses to determine how much the total UI benefits would come up short of “a modest yet adequate standard of living” each month for the typical family in each county.

*Authors’ note: Valdez-Cordova Census Area, Alaska was abolished in January 2019 and replaced with Chugach Census Area and Copper River Census Area. Because the county-specific data is from before that event, Chugach and Copper River have been combined into Valdez-Cordova for the purposes of these tables.