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A Third of Unemployment Benefits Haven’t Been Paid Out: Report

Michael Rainey

The U.S. Treasury paid out $146 billion in jobless benefits in the three months ending in May as tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although the number is massive – larger than all of the unemployment benefits provided during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009 – it’s smaller than it should have been, according to a new analysis by Bloomberg News. Crunching the numbers on weekly unemployment filings and average claim size, Bloomberg found that total jobless benefits should have come to roughly $214 billion during that time.

“The estimated gap of some $67 billion shows how emergency efforts to boost payments, and deliver them via creaking state-level systems, are lagging the needs of a jobs crisis that’s seen more than 40 million people file for unemployment as the economy shut down,” Bloomberg’s Shawn Donnan and Catarina Saraiva wrote Tuesday.

A tough calculation: Although it’s hard to put a precise number on the shortfall – the Labor Department pushed back against the method used by Bloomberg to develop its estimate – there is general agreement that there are many people who still haven’t received the unemployment assistance they are entitled to. “There’s a lot more money that should have gone out that has not gone out,” said Jay Shambaugh, an economist at the Brookings Institution who has been studying the issue.

And Bloomberg says its analysis likely provides a conservative estimate of the shortfall. Some states are still working through backlogs of unemployment claims – Texas alone is waiting to verify nearly 650,000 cases – and more than 7 million people are still owed retroactive benefits under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for independent contractors.

Why it matters: In addition to the unnecessary suffering the delays are causing, the shortfall is reducing the positive economic effect that unemployment benefits are intended to provide. “On paper the U.S. strategy is very generous,” Ernie Tedeschi, a former U.S. Treasury economist now at Evercore ISI, told Bloomberg. “But that generosity on paper is meaningless if it doesn’t translate into actual money in people’s pockets when they need it.”

Diane Swonk, chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton, said she is worried that lawmakers are experiencing “fiscal fatigue” as the crisis wears on, risking a falloff in aid that could prolong the recession. “We’re really talking about an economy that is going to be operating at a fraction of its capacity for a long period of time,” she told Bloomberg.

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