If the fear of contracting the coronavirus doesn’t make you nervous, the thought of losing your income most likely does — and for good reason. Unfortunately, the ongoing health and economic crisis is giving more Coloradans a window into the instability that people facing poverty routinely encounter: not knowing how one will be able to afford the basic needs of food, health and housing on a week-by-week basis.
When the $600-a-week federal subsidy known as the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (or PUC) program expired on July 31, more than 240,000 unemployed Coloradans who’ve relied on the benefit since April faced a financial shortfall of about $2,400 a month. This represents a significant hit for most Colorado families, not to mention the ones who are already suffering hardship due to the pandemic. Simply put, the health and well-being of Coloradans hangs in the balance unless Congress acts soon.
Unlike regular unemployment benefits, PUC was paid for by the federal government, not the states’ unemployment trust funds — giving the bottom 70 percent of wage earners in Colorado roughly what they earned in their previous jobs. The fund provided many people with sufficient cash to weather this extraordinary public health emergency and support the state’s economy during a time of economic decline. The additional income also created a cushion for workers of color and low-wage workers, who are far less likely than white or higher-wage workers to have savings on which they can draw to weather this period of uncertainty.
Under normal circumstances, unemployment benefits for Coloradans cannot exceed $618 a week — or $2,472 a month. According to Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s self-sufficiency standard for Colorado, that figure won’t cover the cost of basic needs if you add dependents to the equation in most parts of the state. However, the average unemployment benefit is about $400 a week (or $1,600 a month) — far below the self-sufficiency standard in all family compositions in all Colorado counties. That’s why the added income from the PUC is absolutely essential in ensuring the health and well-being of Coloradans.
While the state’s unemployment rate has improved since its low point in April, many people are still struggling because the economy hasn’t fully “reopened” during the pandemic. In fact, during the week of July 2, 52.2 percent of Coloradans over the age of 18 lived in a household where someone had experienced a loss of employment since March 13. Despite claims that generous unemployment insurance benefits provided through the PUC would encourage workers to remain on unemployment insurance, the number of unemployment claims sharply increased in mid-July, suggesting the job market isn’t exactly rebounding. Recent statistics show there are not enough jobs available for every unemployed worker in the state to fill.
The PUC not only helps families make ends meet during this unprecedented time, it also mitigates the contraction that came with shutting down the state’s economy. For example, during the week ending June 27, the expanded unemployment insurance benefits added an additional $131.4 million into the pockets of Coloradans receiving unemployment insurance that could then be spent in the state’s economy. Research from the past recession suggests that each dollar spent generates as much as $2 of indirect spending in the economy — supporting businesses and jobs that otherwise would have been lost. According to estimates by the Economic Policy Institute, failing to extend the PUC through July 2021 could lead to a loss of 66,898 Colorado jobs over the next year — hampering the state’s recovery efforts.
While opponents of additional economic relief for American workers claim that the country can’t afford to take on additional debt associated with PUC and other stimulus, the statistics cited above suggest the economic cost of doing little to nothing is considerably higher.
Extending the PUC will give Coloradans facing unemployment their best shot at economic security and keeping a roof over their heads until the pandemic subsides.
Though there are other actions that federal and state officials need to take to address the ongoing crisis, extending the PUC is the best way to provide immediate relief for those who need it most. That’s why we are asking Colorado’s congressional delegation — particularly Sen. Cory Gardner — to stop playing politics with Coloradans’ lives and extend the benefits soon.
Tiffani Lennon is executive director of Colorado Center on Law and Policy. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @TiffiniLennon.