Beyond jobless rate drop: Little for optimism

The drop in the unemployment rate is due less to economic recovery than by discouraged workers dropping out of the labor force entirely.

Iowa’s unemployment rate fell to 6.6 percent in July, down from its peak of 11 percent in April. But larger picture offers little grounds for optimism.

The overall jobs deficit is still substantial. The Iowa economy has shed 97,200 jobs since February — that’s 35,500 more jobs than were lost in the entirety of the Great Recession. And that 6.6 percent unemployment rate is still equal to the highest monthly rate recorded during the Great Recession.

The drop in the unemployment rate is generated less by any observable economic recovery than by the fact that discouraged workers are dropping out of the labor force entirely. Since February, Iowa’s labor force participation rate (the share of the adult population who are working or looking for work) has plunged from 70.9 percent to 65.6 percent — a decline twice as steep as that of the nation as a whole, and steeper than all but one other state (Kentucky).

For those on unemployment (106,392 continuing claims, and 6,544 new claims last week), the uncertainty and insecurity is mounting. It is now almost a month since the $600 “PUC” bump to unemployment benefits expired, and it is unclear when or how the $300/month “Lost Wages Assistance” program established by executive order while kick in as a partial replacement.

Because the Lost Wages Assistance program requires a 25 percent match in state money, it will be unavailable to those who are receiving “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance” (PUA) benefits instead of regular state benefits. Meanwhile, Iowa Workforce Development is aggressively trying to move beneficiaries from the regular state program over to PUA. And, as of September 8, the job search requirements for almost all receiving UI benefits will be reinstated.

It’s hard to spin any of this as good news. While just under 100,000 Iowans have gone back to work, almost 130,000 have dropped out the labor force entirely. For many, the return to work — into the teeth of a pandemic that shows no sign of abating — is driven less by a genuine economic recovery than by an unemployment insurance system whose benefits are that is suddenly less accessible and less generous.

Colin Gordon is a senior research consultant for Common Good Iowa. He is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

IPP, CFPC form Common Good Iowa

A new chapter for great work by longtime partners in Iowa policy analysis — now as one organization, Common Good Iowa.

Today we have exciting news. The Iowa Policy Project has joined with our longtime partners at the Child and Family Policy Center to formally create a new organization, Common Good Iowa.

Look to Common Good Iowa for the solid research, rigorous policy analysis and focused advocacy that Iowans have come to expect from both organizations. Expect the same attention to critical issues that you have seen from IPP over two decades — and a new, invigorated approach to advancing a bold policy agenda. By joining to together we will have more capacity to coordinate our expertise on issues and communications, and wage successful campaigns to improve the lives of every person who calls Iowa home.

The creation of one organization out of two is the result of many months of discussions among board and staff members at both IPP and CFPC. We have always recognized that as each group has focused on some issues that the other has not, we share a common focus in other areas, including budget priorities and tax policy needed to fairly and adequately support those priorities. But we also have recognized that we need to connect the dots better between these many issues if we want our friends in the advocacy community to do so as well.

Common Good Iowa will, with one voice, draw attention to policy that connects these issues for the benefit of our entire community in Iowa — as we say, “the common good.”

Since the early discussions in 2000 that led to our founding in 2001, IPP has followed the vision of a “three-legged stool” for our work: economic opportunity (to include wages, jobs, education, wage theft, collective bargaining, economic development, pensions, and work supports including child care and Food Stamps); tax and budget issues, particularly tax fairness and revenue adequacy; and energy and the environment, including policy opportunities toward clean, sustainable energy choices and better water quality.

As you may know, IPP’s work on tax fairness and tax credits, as well as some of our research and advocacy on work support and safety-net programs, has been in cooperation and coordination with CFPC as the “Iowa Fiscal Partnership.” That brand on our work will go away as we are now formally one organization.

Common Good Iowa will carry on CFPC’s example as a leading advocate in Iowa on early childhood; children’s health, development and well-being; and family economic opportunity. As CFPC has done for many years, our new organization will continue to share data, link research to policy and promote best practices for improving child well-being as part of the nationwide Kids Count initiative.

Every staff member for both IPP and CFPC has a place in the new organization. Anne Discher, who has served as executive director of CFPC, will be the executive director of Common Good Iowa, headquartered in Des Moines. We will retain an Iowa City office, with IPP executive director Mike Owen becoming deputy director of Common Good Iowa. I invite you to reach out to Anne or Mike if you have questions about this new arrangement.

The name “Common Good Iowa” was chosen after great deliberation among staff and board of both organizations. It reflects our vision of public policy in Iowa. Philosophers, economists and political scientists have long debated and defined the common good, and there’s a powerful theme that links those conversations: public systems and structures for the benefit of all people, achieved through collective action in policymaking and public service. It feels utterly right for our new endeavor.

This is a great opportunity to reimagine our work. We’re at a moment when the devastating impact of racism, intolerance in our civic discussions, and years of neglect of our public systems have been laid bare for all to see. No Iowa community can thrive when some community members are systemically deprived of opportunity by our health, educational, human service and justice systems. We must do better.

As a largely white organization, we pledge to listen to and learn from our partners of color around our state, and to be not be just not racist, but, to borrow from scholar Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, to be anti-racist: to actively advance concrete policies and practices to dismantle the persistent inequities experienced by Black, Latinx, Asian, Native and other marginalized communities. We also commit to the internal work to become an organization that itself is attractive to a diverse, talented staff.

The merger is official now, although we will be putting finishing touches on our new brand over the next months. You’ll be hearing more about how you can celebrate virtually with us when we unveil our new logo, website, social channels and policy roadmap later in the year.

Until then you can reach Common Good Iowa staff at their existing CFPC and IPP email addresses, websites and social media accounts.

Sincerely,

Janet Carl

Vice President, Common Good Iowa Board of Directors
Former President, Iowa Policy Project Board of Directors

Data clear: New stimulus needed

Basic protections needed in unemployment insurance, SNAP, energy and other assistance as the COVID-19 virus surges in Iowa and other states in a weak economy.

As the long-awaited next round of federal aid and stimulus remains mired in political infighting, the hardship in Iowa — and around the country — is acute. As a new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) makes clear, households are struggling to pay for the basics now, and that need will only grow if the $600 per week federal “PUC” boost to unemployment insurance benefits expires as scheduled next week.

The receipt of SNAP (food stamps) is up 14 percent in Iowa since February of this year, but the share of Iowans reporting food insecurity continues to grow. According to the CBPP’s analysis of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, 1-in-8 (12 percent) Iowa families with children reported (for the last week of June and first week of July) that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days.

Housing insecurity is also a growing problem. Iowa set up a small fund with CARES Act funds to provide short-term assistance for those unable to make rent or mortgage payments — but disqualified those receiving PUC benefits from even applying. There is about $20 million left in the fund (out of $22 million) but when the PUC expires next week, the demands on this program will skyrocket. According to CBPP, 1 in 6 Iowa tenants are already behind on their rent.

These hardships will be especially stark for Iowa’s Black and Latino workers and their families. Unemployment rates are persistently higher for workers of color. These workers are disproportionately represented among the front-line and manufacturing (especially meat processing) jobs that have posed a higher risk of exposure to the virus. In the absence of meaningful and enforceable workplace protections, the temporary boost to UI benefits provided something of a refuge. As an administrative judge concluded in approving unemployment compensation for a worker who quit because of safety concerns concluded in one recent UI case, “the working conditions at Tyson were unsafe, intolerable and detrimental, and rose to the level where a reasonable person would feel compelled to quit.” But that option evaporates next week.

All of this hardship would be even worse in the absence of the CARES Act provisions for enhanced unemployment insurance, and increased federal support for SNAP, LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program), and other social supports. Iowans are suffering with those programs in place, and they will suffer more if social supports are allowed to return to levels previous to COVID-induced shutdowns.

The latest data on initial unemployment claims, released today, show the persistence of Iowa’s economic woes during the pandemic, with nearly 400,000 filing claims in the last 18 weeks.

It is crucial that, with the virus surging in Iowa and other states and the economy projected to remain weak, that our federal representatives move quickly to enact a stimulus package that continues and expands upon these basic protections. We need an extension of expanded unemployment benefits, more opportunities for paid leave, more federal support for child care, SNAP, and LIHEAP, and robust fiscal relief for states and localities. And it is just as crucial that Governor Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature pass along any discretionary state assistance to those in the most need.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project and a history professor at the University of Iowa.

Iowa jobless claims numbers daunting

Initial jobless claims keep climbing in Iowa. Yet, as the crisis persists, the safety net for Iowa’s unemployed is about to unravel.

In the last week, another 11,125 Iowans applied for unemployment insurance. That brings the total, in the 24 weeks since the COVID-19 recession began in February, to over 400,000 — or almost a quarter of the entire Iowa labor force. Of that, nearly 388,000 (387,847) are the change over the last 17 weeks, in which these numbers first spiked.

Let’s put that in perspective: 400,000 unemployment claims is over four times the number filed over the first 24 weeks of the Great Recession. Over that span, from December 2007 to May 2008, weekly claims peaked at 13,542 in late December 2007 — the only week in the Great Recession when Iowa unemployment claims topped the 10,000 mark. In the last 24 weeks, weekly claims have exceeded 10,000 eleven times. Indeed, the average since early February is almost 17,000 new weekly claims — 3,000 higher than the worst week of the Great Recession.

As the crisis persists, the safety net for Iowa’s unemployed is about to unravel. On July 25, the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program — the $600 weekly boost to regular state benefits — comes to an end. For the nearly 150,000 Iowans currently receiving unemployment benefits, the checks will be a lot smaller: For an unemployed worker who had been working full-time at minimum wage, the weekly check will shrink from over $800 to barely $200. Once the applications of the 11,125 Iowans who filed for unemployment last week are processed, the PUC will be a distant memory — and their benefits will replace barely half of their lost wages.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

Warning: Edge of a cliff

With COVID cases surging, extending federal support for unemployment insurance is crucial to fighting this recession — and the virus that caused it.

In less than two weeks, the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) program — the $600 federal supplement to unemployment insurance benefits — will come to a close. The impact, for Iowa’s working families and for the Iowa economy, is likely to be devastating.

Our regular unemployment insurance system reaches only about half of the workforce and replaces barely half of an unemployed worker’s wages. In order to support those workers thrown out of work by the pandemic and, more broadly, to support the public health goal of sheltering in place, the CARES Act extended eligibility to most of those not covered (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or PUA) and added $600 a week to the benefit paid under regular UI and the PUA.

This means a full-time minimum wage worker who lost their job qualifies for a regular weekly benefit of about $152.00 (Iowa unemployment insurance replaces about 52 percent of wages), and an additional $600 under the PUC — for a weekly benefit of $752.00. An unemployed worker had had been earning the median hourly wage in Iowa ($18.40) qualifies for a weekly benefit of $387.00 and an additional $600 under the PUC — for a weekly benefit of $987.00.

The $600 supplement under the PUC and the entire benefit paid to non-traditional workers under the PUA are all paid for the federal dollars. That has had a huge stimulus effect in Iowa, sustaining not just individual consumption but state and local tax revenues as well. Currently there are 145,875 Iowans either receiving regular UI+PUC or waiting for their claim to be processed, and another 18,456 receiving PUA+PUC. That represents an inflow of over $102 million into the state every week. Come July 25th, when only the federal contribution to the regular PUA benefit is left, and that will slow to a trickle, barely $3 million a week.

The result? Many of the unemployed will see a substantial benefit cut, tumbling from near full replacement of wages for workers earning less than $65,000 to barely half that. At half-wages, few will be able to meet basic expenses. That blow will reverberate throughout the economy. According to new estimates by the Economic Policy Institute, failure to extend the PUC beyond July will cost Iowa another 42,586 jobs over the next year.

Meager benefits and persistently high unemployment, in turn, will put new demands on other forms of social support, including SNAP and rental and utility assistance. And they will press the unemployed — unable to pay their bills — back into the labor force at the expense of their health and the public health. With COVID cases surging in Iowa and many other states, the extension of federal support for unemployment insurance is crucial to fighting this recession — and the virus that caused it.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and is senior research consultant at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

Worker safety: Who gets protected?

Public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward. The blanket business immunity in SF2338 during COVID-19 comes with a failed record of protecting Iowa workers.

The COVID-19 crisis poses a dizzying combination of health and economic risks, and it has forced us to rethink the ways in which our public policies protect us against those risks. The underlying logic of the CARES Act, for example, was based on the assumption that sharing public spaces — especially workplaces — posed a grave threat to the public health. Its benefits — including a limited program of paid leave and a relatively generous expansion of unemployment insurance — were designed to make not working and sheltering in place possible.

That instinct was right but its execution was dismally flawed. State unemployment systems could not begin to manage the avalanche of claims. The virus flourished in settings — most starkly meatpacking plants — that ploughed ahead as “essential” businesses. And states impatient to open up again did everything they could to discourage workers from accessing the new federal benefits — a point Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend all but conceded in testimony before Congress last week.

From the first hint of the virus to the rush to reopen, Iowa has done perilously little to protect its workers, their families, and their communities. Safe workplaces are pretty clearly defined in the guidelines developed by both the CDC and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). But there is nothing in state or federal law that compels employers to follow them, and ample evidence that many are not. Even in the midst of local outbreaks, county health directors lacked the authority to shut down production. “They just don’t get it,” as the Tama County emergency management coordinator, complained in the midst of an outbreak at the National Beef plant there, “They will keep going until all of their employees have this virus. They would rather risk their employees’ health and keep their production going.” As Governor Reynolds coldly reminded us in late May: “Our recovery is contingent on our ability to protect both the lives and the livelihoods of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other.”

Those priorities came into sharper focus this week. In a brief and largely aimless session, the Iowa Legislature offered scarcely a passing reference to the health and economic insecurity facing Iowa’s working families. They did, however, jump to address the insecurity of Iowa employers — offering up blanket immunity from COVID related claims coming from workers or consumers.

The “COVID-19 Response and Back to Business Limited Liability Act” (Senate File 2338) requires that any claims of exposure to the virus meet a standard of “reckless disregard” or “actual malice.” Employers “shall not be held liable for civil damages for any injuries sustained from exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19 if the act or omission alleged to violate a duty of care was in substantial compliance or was consistent with any federal or state statute, regulation, order, or public health guidance related to COVID-19 that was applicable to the person or activity at issue at the time of the alleged exposure.” Since such regulations or guidelines are virtually non-existent, it is hard to imagine what such threshold might look like.

At a time of such peril and uncertainty, this is a remarkable and damning expression of our state’s priorities. It is a solution in search of a problem; there has been no stampede of frivolous damage claims — in Iowa or elsewhere. And it ignores the more obvious and equitable tack, which is to protect the workers in the first place, and allow them to refuse work (and draw unemployment benefits) if that protection is not sufficient. “Everybody wins when businesses follow clear, science-based guidelines to protect health and safety,” as The New York Times put it in a recent editorial. “Workers and customers are less likely to get exposed to the virus, and businesses are less likely to get exposed to litigation.”

Now, more than ever, our public policies should be assessed on whom they put at risk and whom they reward; on whom they protect, and whom they do not. The blanket immunity offered Iowa businesses by SF2338, alongside our abject and continuing failure to offer any meaningful protection for Iowa’s workers, fails that assessment on all counts.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the Iowa Policy Project and a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Encourage Iowans to seek both jobless, housing benefits

The new rental and mortgage assistance program offers relief in one breath to Iowans economically harmed by COVID-19, and then snatches it away in the next.

Amidst the worst employment crisis since the Great Depression, Governor Kim Reynolds and her colleagues seem fixated not on the magnitude of the crisis, but on the generosity of the CARES Act unemployment programs and the obstacle they apparently pose to getting Iowans back to work.

First, Iowa Workforce Development issued a chilling directive (from which they have now retreated) which very nearly suggested that only those actually laid out by the virus had any claim on unemployment insurance. Now the new “Iowa Eviction and Foreclosure Prevention Program,” (which offers rental and mortgage assistance to households “at risk of eviction or foreclosure due to a documented COVID-19 related loss of income”) actually disqualifies those receiving unemployment insurance from applying.

The logic here is difficult to fathom. Those thrown out of work by the pandemic are struggling to make ends meet, and to sustain rent or mortgage payments. Aren’t these exactly the Iowans who should be eligible for a program of rental or mortgage assistance? Instead, the new program offers assistance to “Iowans who have been economically impacted by COVID-19,” in one breath and then snatches it away in the next — penalizing and stigmatizing those most at need by treating receipt of the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) benefit ($600 a week through July 25) like a failed drug test.

But even if we put the savage inequity of this aside, the Governor’s evident distaste for the federal supplements to unemployment insurance is just bad fiscal policy. Let’s do the math. As of this week, 178,619 Iowans are receiving regular unemployment benefits and another 17,545 are receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).  The PUA base benefit is paid for with federal dollars, and recipients under both regular UI and the PUA also get the $600 PUC benefit through July. That’s an inflow of over $120 million a week, from the federal treasury into the pockets of working Iowans.

If we assume an effective state income tax rate of 2.3 percent and effective sales tax rate of 5.3 percent (both based on estimates by the Institute on Tax and Economic Policy for Iowans earning between $22,000 and $40,000/year), that’s a boost to state income tax receipts of $2.8 million dollars a week,[1] and a boost to state and local sales tax receipts of $6.4 million dollars a week. In the seven weeks before the PUC expires July 25, that’s a net revenue of gain of $64.5 million — or enough to pay for the mortgage and rental assistance program (which has been allotted $22 million of Iowa’s CARES Act funds) almost three times over.

And these are conservative estimates. The unemployment totals do not include the over 150,000 UI (including those from the last two weeks) that have been filed but not yet processed. They do not include the retroactive benefits payable to those qualifying for UI. They are based on the minimum monthly benefit under the PUA. And they do not include the stimulus or tax revenue impact of state-funded UI benefits.

For the health and safety of working Iowans, we should be encouraging and enabling as many as possible to qualify for unemployment benefits. And, as long as federal government is picking up the tab, we should jump at the chance to backfill state and local budgets with the tax revenues that accompany such benefits.

[1] The state’s June 3 fiscal update echoes this estimate, attributing a $31.4 million increase in state income tax receipts over the 10-week period from March 19 to June 2 ($3.1 million a week) to withholding from UI benefits. This estimate is slightly higher because it includes the withholding from state-funded benefits as well.

Colin Gordon is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He is a professor of history at the University of Iowa.

Too soon to consider recovery?

Even economists point the immediate focus to public health — and keep recovery in the wider view.

What is needed in a pandemic is for citizens to stay home, and for public policy to assure access to unemployment insurance and health care, and push support to the health system.

Economists such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich are making these points — that limiting the spread of the coronavirus is the top priority to save lives.[1] When even economists are pressing the point about public health, our leaders should pay attention. Now is not the time to talk about being “open for business” prematurely, as President Trump once suggested we do by Easter.

That is not to say a public health spotlight precludes steps in the coming weeks and months to set up recovery when that can be the main focus.

Now, jobs remain in critical services in hospitals and electric stations, and some in construction. Factories where people stand next to each other on a production line have different social distancing from workers who build things in the open air. We could expand more of the latter jobs right now where the materials are at hand.

Good examples: Wind turbines and solar installations and the power lines that connect them to the electric grid. Right now we could be constructing clean energy facilities that can be producing electricity in six months or a year when we all want demand to expand. It is an opportune moment to think ahead and start replacing older coal production plants, which have their own health problems.

Public policy has a role here. Just before the Iowa legislators recessed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they passed — and Governor Kim Reynolds signed — a bill to stabilize the solar industry. It would do this by setting the price for the next seven years for the electricity that MidAmerican and Alliant buy from homeowners and businesses.[2]

Another step the Legislature could take is lifting the limit on the tax credit for businesses and homeowners when they install solar.

The annual amount that could be taken on the credit was not fully used in the first year, but in all years since 2013 installations exceeded the cap, now at $5 million per year, pushing installations completed later in the year to a waitlist.[3] The tax credit eventually comes but not until at least a year later. While an installation completed today will get a federal tax credit when taxes are filed in April 2021, the Iowa tax credit will not happen until 2022 or later.

Why make these Iowa investors wait? Extending the total amount eligible for the credit from $5 million to perhaps $20 million would further stimulate the construction of solar panels just when the economy needs the jobs.

There also is a federal role, as the amount of that credit for both solar and wind is phasing out. This would be a good time to stop the phaseout for the next several years. Tax credits of electric cars could also be enhanced.

COVID-19 has slammed the economy. We need to think about when we will recover but also how we will recover. Jobs in clean energy have been on a growth curve that can be re-established quickly. And these jobs are creating a new energy system that will help us with the next crisis, climate change.

Most agree we should follow science to confront the pandemic. We should also follow the science to prepare for the next crisis — climate change.

David Osterberg is an economist and lead environmental researcher at the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

A version of this column also ran in the April 1 Quad-City Times.

 

 

 

 

[1] MSNBC interview, March 17, 2020. https://www.msnbc.com/the-beat-with-ari/watch/-our-economy-is-shutting-down-clinton-wh-veteran-pushes-lives-over-dollars-in-covid-19-crisis-80868933847

[2] O. Kay Henderson. Iowa House and Senate give solar bill unanimous support. Radio Iowa March 4, 2020. https://www.radioiowa.com/2020/03/04/iowa-house-and-senate-give-solar-bill-unanimous-support/

[3] Iowa Department of Revenue. Solar Energy System Tax Credit Annual Report for 2019. https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/publications/DF/1126111.pdf

New solutions needed long term

Federal emergency legislation will make important unemployment insurance reforms on a temporary basis. Iowa — like other states — should make secure and equitable changes permanent.

Current estimates of job losses in the COVID-19 recession are hard to fathom. Even with a sizable stimulus, the national economy would shed nearly 14 million jobs by mid-summer; Iowa is projected to lose more than 140,000.

To make matters worse, as Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute underscores, this recession is “laser-targeted at low-wage, low-productivity, and low-hours jobs in service industries.”[1]

Our most vulnerable workers, in other words, will bear much of the burden: They do not have the option of working from home — a luxury enjoyed by two-thirds of workers in the top quarter of the earning distribution and by one-third of white workers, but by fewer than 1 in 10 workers in the bottom quarter of the distribution, 1 in 5 African-American workers and 1 in 6 Latinx workers. These vulnerable workers face both a much greater risk of unemployment as the service economy shuts down and a heightened risk of exposure to the virus if they keep working.

This is a scale of unemployment and social and economic dislocation that our existing programs are ill-equipped to handle. This demands a policy response — state and federal — unprecedented in its scale, and innovative in its efforts to reach those most affected. At the forefront of that policy response is both a dramatic expansion and a fundamental rethinking of unemployment insurance.

The first step here has already been taken by the federal government. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (passed March 18) pumped $1 billion into the administration of state unemployment insurance (UI) programs, in exchange for new state standards and conditions. In order to draw down these funds, states must improve their methods of notifying workers of their eligibility for benefits, provide multiple (not just online) methods of filing, provide prompt notice of the receipt of a claim, waive waiting periods for benefits, waive the requirement that recipients be actively searching for work, and ensure that employers are held blameless for COVID-19 layoffs. (Conventionally, UI is “experience-rated” so that employers with histories of layoffs are taxed at a higher rates).

As Peter Fisher pointed out in recent days, Iowa has met all these conditions. There is still a lot of work to be done — not just to meet the current crisis, but to ensure that our unemployment insurance system is recast for the 21st century and ready for the next crisis.

The first task is to make unemployment insurance accessible and available to more workers.

In Iowa, just 41 percent of unemployed workers ever see a benefit check. This is better than the national rate (28 percent), but it is still a scandal that well over half of the jobless are left in the cold. We should sustain the “Families First” Act’s commitment to raising the recipiency rate by streamlining the claims process. Federal and state unemployment law should revise our definition of “employee” to better capture the diversity of employment (including the self-employed, gig workers, and the like) in the modern economy. Too often, workers — cleaners, homecare workers, delivery drivers — are misclassified as “independent contractors” and shut out of basic social insurance programs like UI. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program embedded in the latest COVID-19 stimulus bill provides up to 39 weeks of benefits to those (like the self-employed) otherwise ineligible for UI. This is a start — but the real fix would be to recast the law so that such workers are eligible in good times and bad.

By the same token, we should make permanent the more generous standard for a “good cause” separation, allowing workers — not just in pandemic conditions — to qualify for UI when they leave their jobs for compelling personal reasons. Iowa should make better use of its work sharing program, which allows workers partial compensation for reduced hours, while retaining their attachment to the labor force and their access to job-based benefits such as pensions and health insurance. And we should make benefits available to new entrants to the labor force — students graduating into a recession, returning caregivers, the formerly incarcerated — who deserve support even in the absence of a recent work history.

Second, we need to bolster the size and the duration of the basic benefit. Iowa’s current “replacement rate” is less than 50 percent of current wages — higher than the national average (38 percent) but still woefully insufficient to maintain basic expenses.[2] The logic here, of course, is that a low replacement rate will compel the unemployed to look for work. But low replacement rates (and short benefit windows) create enormous economic burdens and, by pressing workers back into the labor force, actually worsen re-employment prospects. As a baseline, UI benefits should be closer to two-thirds wages. And, for the duration of this crisis, they should be 100 percent. After all, places of employment are under order to close down, and those displaced have few options. This is why the pending stimulus bill bumps UI benefits by $600/week through the end of June.

Finally, we need to improve the funding of state unemployment insurance programs. The $1 billion boost to administration in the “Families First” legislation does not come close to backfilling cuts in federal aid since the 1980s. During the last recession, 36 state UI trust funds went broke — and most of those entered the current crisis with insufficient reserves. Iowa’s trust fund is in better shape than most, but all state funds will be exhausted once this crisis lifts. Under current law, the state only taxes the first $7,000 in earnings. This should be increased dramatically (Social Security taxes the first $137,700), so that revenues are sufficient to sustain UI administration, and pay extended and disaster benefits when needed.

Federal emergency legislation — some in place, some in the pipeline — will install many of these reforms on a temporary basis. But many of the problems being addressed — the accessibility of benefits for deserving workers, the low percentage of the unemployed who receive benefits, the insufficient level and duration of benefits — are broader problems with the UI system itself. Iowa should, of course, do what it can to qualify its workers for extended and enhanced benefits paid for with federal dollars. But it should also follow the lead of other states in making its UI system more secure and equitable on a permanent basis.

[1] Josh Bivens, Economic Policy Institute, “Coronavirus shock will likely claim 3 million jobs by summer,” March 17, 2020. https://www.epi.org/blog/coronavirus-shock-will-likely-claim-3-million-jobs-by-summer/

[2] The inadequacy of this replacement level is compounded by the fact that the benefits are still taxable, and yet they do not count as earnings for purposes of the Earned Income Tax Credit, creating an additional income loss for low wage workers receiving that tax credit.

Colin Gordon is a University of Iowa professor of history and is senior research consultant for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. He has authored several IPP reports since the organization began in 2001. Among these are the State of Working Iowa series, and the October 2019 report “Race in the Heartland: Equity, Opportunity and Public Policy in the Midwest,” for Economic Analysis and Research Network members IPP, Policy Matters Ohio and COWS.

Lesson from the Recovery Act

The 2009 Recovery Act offered a good example of how state fiscal relief, in addition to the temporary boost in Medicaid funding, can aid in recovery from economic problems caused by the current health emergency in the United States.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a larger report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “Immediate and Robust Policy Response Needed in Face of Grave Risks to the Economy.” It points to lessons policy makers can take regarding state fiscal relief in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, enacted to move recovery from the Great Recession. For the full CBPP report, click here.

Providing Additional Needed State Fiscal Relief

Given the severe threat to the economy — and the resulting threat to state finances — states will likely need additional fiscal relief beyond what (a temporary increase in the share of Medicaid costs borne by the federal government, or FMAP) … would provide. During the last recession, states faced budget shortfalls totaling about $600 billion. The Recovery Act’s FMAP provisions provided roughly $100 billion in fiscal relief — a big help, but well short of what it would have taken for states to avoid laying off teachers and other workers and cutting services in other ways that deepened the recession. Increasing the FMAP is the single most important way to get fiscal relief efficiently to states, but Congress should also enact additional emergency fiscal aid to states. We recommend that this added fiscal relief take a similar form to the Recovery Act’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF), which provided roughly $60 billion in fiscal aid to states.

Given the wide range of fiscal challenges states are facing, they should have significant flexibility over how to spend this aid. The SFSF required states to spend 82 percent of the aid on education, including both K-12 and higher education. A new version of the SFSF should allow states to spend a smaller percentage of the aid on education, so that states are free to best respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and its economic fallout, but still require that a substantial share be used to support state education systems. While many schools and universities will likely be closed in the next few weeks, teachers still need to be paid (to avoid hardship and further drag on the economy). And if revenues decline as sharply as expected, states will face serious difficulties in adequately supporting their schools in the coming fiscal year, when schools will be trying to make up for lost class time. Education accounts for roughly 40 percent of state spending, the single largest part of state budgets, making it very difficult for states to avoid cutting educational services when revenues decline sharply.

As under the Recovery Act, states would be required to distribute funding to schools using their existing funding formulas, which favor low-income districts, or by distributing funding directly to Title I schools (schools that serve a large number of disadvantaged students). States should also be encouraged to use the funding to increase college tuition assistance for low-income people facing a tough job market and students whose families’ ability to help pay for school has diminished. Targeting state fiscal aid to protect education systems in the coming year would benefit the nation’s economy in the longer term by improving the educational outcomes of students, many of whom are now missing weeks of school. And requiring states to distribute a substantial share of this aid to schools would help protect against some states accepting the aid and then using it instead to cut taxes. As under the Recovery Act, this new version of the SFSF should include a maintenance-of-effort provision that requires states to maintain their own education spending at current levels.

Finally, Congress should also consider certain forms of direct aid to localities, whose own budgets will also be deeply harmed. For example, Congress should consider direct aid to public transit systems, whether buses or subways, which stand to lose much of their fare revenue in coming weeks — losses that many of these systems will likely have difficulty recovering from on their own and that will further strain local budgets, risking cuts in other needed public services.

This excerpt is one small section of a CBPP report by Sharon Parrott, Aviva Aron-Dine, Michael Leachman, Chad Stone, Dottie Rosenbaum, LaDonna Pavetti, Ph.D., Peggy Bailey, Chuck Marr, and Kathleen Romig. We share it on the Iowa Policy Project blog as an example of one approach that research and experience have shown will be needed as states and local governments attempt to contribute to recovery from the current health emergency.