Culture Trips

John Oliver: US unemployment chaos is ‘the result of deliberate choices’ | Late-night TV roundup

John Oliver trained his focus on the dysfunctional, maddening unemployment system on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight, nearly a year into a pandemic recession which has left millions of Americans without jobs or a functional safety net. The pandemic exposed widespread failures in America’s diffuse, patchwork unemployment system: dysfunctional websites, hours of on-hold phone calls and even physical lines for unemployment benefits that, for many, arrived too late.

Economists generally agree that unemployment insurance is “one of the most effective policies to aid recovery”, Oliver explained, “which does make sense because when you give the unemployed money, they tend not to hoard it offshore in the Caymans; they spend it on shit they need”. Nevertheless, as of January 2021, it’s estimated that unemployment systems reached at most 30% of all unemployed workers, leaving an estimated 8 million unemployed Americans not receiving benefits.

While some of the chaos “was because states’ antiquated systems were simply overwhelmed”, Oliver continued, it would be “a mistake to think of this merely as a technological problem. Because the system underneath that shitty technology has been broken for years now, and sometimes deliberately.”

Even before the pandemic, unemployment programs in the US, which vary greatly by state, made it difficult for unemployed people to access benefits. Only about 10% of unemployed residents of North Carolina and Florida, for example, received benefits. “Just think about what that means,” Oliver said. “Out of every 10 unemployed people in those states, only one is actually receiving benefits. If you boarded an airplane and learned that only one in 10 seats had an oxygen mask, you would wonder: who designed this system, why did they make it this way, and how do I get the fuck out of here right now?”

And, true to virtually every government program in the US, racial inequities were baked in from the beginning; in the 1930s, agricultural and domestic workers were purposely excluded, shutting out 65% of black workers. “It seems in the US, you can basically point to anything and ask, ‘how is that racist?’ and get a specific historical answer,” Oliver said. “Freeways? Demolished black communities. Mickey mouse? Based on minstrel shows. This toddler?” he said over a picture of a generic white baby, “well, his name is Kendall, so it’s only a matter of time.”

Fundamental design flaws aside, the failures of American unemployment in 2020 “were the result of deliberate choices”, Oliver continued, especially changes made in the wake of the recession, when numerous states fixed budget shortfalls by reducing access to benefits with onerous work requirements rather than raising taxes on businesses.

Oliver turned to a perennial state case study of poor trends in governance: Florida. The state’s former governor, Rick Scott, bragged in 2019 that he reduced the number of Floridians on employment to 61,000 people out of 22 million unemployed. Those staggering numbers were achieved by numerous restrictive measures: Florida started documenting contact with five potential employers per week, slashed the number of weeks one could receive benefits, and threw in extra obstacles such as requiring a 45-minute online exam that tested math, reading and research skills.

Oliver played footage of nervous Floridians lined up during a pandemic to apply, again, for unemployment, with reasonable expectation of being denied crucial benefits. “It’s a testament to both this pandemic and Florida’s ridiculous system that I feel the same white-knuckle terror watching people line up for unemployment applications as I do when watching a daredevil jump a motorcycle over a row of buses,” he mused. “Although to be honest, it’s probably only a matter of time before Florida makes bus-jumping a requirement for filing for unemployment there, too.”

Oliver urged short-term changes to unemployment programs, such as funding to upgrade their broken technology and the removal of “stupid obstacles that prevent applicants who need help from getting it”. But he ended the monologue with a call for radical, long-term change to a fundamentally broken system – namely, nationalized standards for benefits and, short of that unlikely scenario, legislation to set basic unemployment standards that states cannot drop below.

“All of which is really just a long way of saying that we need to take all of the energy that we have been pouring into making sure people who don’t deserve payments don’t get them, and put at least as much energy into making sure that people who really need them do,” he concluded. “To not make big changes after the flaws of this system have been so brutally exposed over the last year would be unforgivable.”

What's your reaction?

Excited
0
Happy
0
In Love
0
Not Sure
0
Silly
0

You may also like

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *