Unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans without pushback from Biden

7.5 million people will lose their benefits entirely and another 3 million will lose the weekly US$300 supplement. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Expanded unemployment benefits that have kept millions of Americans afloat during the coronavirus pandemic expired on Monday (Sept 6), setting up an abrupt cut-off of assistance to 7.5 million people as the Delta variant rattles the pandemic recovery.

The end of the aid came without objection from United States President Joe Biden and his top economic advisers, who have become caught in a political fight over the benefits and are now banking on other federal help and a pickup this autumn in hiring to keep vulnerable families from foreclosure and food lines.

The US$1.9 trillion (S$2.55 trillion) economic aid package Mr Biden signed in March included extended and expanded benefits for unemployed workers, including a weekly US$300 federal supplement to state jobless payments, additional weeks of assistance for the long-term unemployed and the extension of a special programme to provide benefits to so-called gig workers who traditionally do not qualify for unemployment benefits. Monday's expiration means that 7.5 million people will lose their benefits entirely and another three million will lose the weekly US$300 supplement.

Republicans and small business owners have assailed efforts to extend aid, contending that it has held back the economic recovery and fueled a labour shortage by discouraging people from looking for work. Liberal Democrats and progressive groups have pushed for another round of aid, saying millions of Americans remain vulnerable and in need of help.

Mr Biden and his advisers have pointedly refused to call on Congress to extend the benefits further, a decision that reflects the prevailing view of the state of the recovery inside the administration and the President's desire to focus on winning support for his broader economic agenda.

Mr Biden's most senior economic advisers say the economy is in the process of completing a handoff between federal assistance and the labour market: As support from the March stimulus law wanes, they say, more and more Americans are set to return to work, drawing pay cheques that will power consumer spending in the place of government aid.

And Mr Biden is pushing Congress this month to pass two measures that constitute a multi-trillion-dollar agenda focused on longer-run economic growth: a bipartisan infrastructure Bill and a larger, partisan spending Bill with investments in childcare, education, carbon reduction and more. That push leaves no political oxygen for an additional short-term aid Bill, which White House officials insist the economy does not need.

Administration officials say money that continues to flow to Americans from the March law, including new monthly payments to parents, will continue to sustain the social safety net even as the expanded federal jobless aid expires. Mr Biden has called on certain states - those with high unemployment rates and a willingness to continue aid to jobless workers - to use state relief funds from the March law to help the long-term unemployed. So far, no state has said it plans to do so.

On Sunday, Mr Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain told CNN's State Of The Union that the March law was also allowing states to help those out of work by offering employment bonuses and job training and counselling.

"We think the jobs are there," Mr Klain said, "and we think the states have the resources they need to move people from unemployment to employment."

Mr Biden has faced criticism from the left and the right on the issue, and he has responded with a balancing act, supporting the benefits as approved by Congress but declining to push to extend them - or to defend them against attacks by leaders in some states.

Throughout the summer, business lobbyists and Republican lawmakers called on the President to cut off the benefits early, blaming them for the difficulties some businesses were facing in hiring workers, particularly in lower-paying industries such as hospitality. Soon after the backlash began, Mr Biden defended the benefits but called on the Labour Department to ensure that unemployed workers who declined job offers would lose their aid.

But roughly half of the states, nearly all of them led by Republican governors, moved to cut off benefits early on their own. Mr Biden and his administration did not fight them, angering progressives. The administration is essentially extending that policy into autumn, by calling on only willing states to fill in for expired assistance.

Privately, some administration officials have expressed openness to the idea that economic research will eventually show the benefits had some sort of chilling effect on workers' decision to take jobs. Critics of the extra unemployment benefits have argued that they are discouraging people from returning to work at a time when there are a record number of job openings and many businesses are struggling to hire.

Barnard College economist Elizabeth Ananat, who has been studying the impact of the pandemic on low-wage workers, said that cutting off benefits now, when the Delta variant has threatened to set back the recovery, is a threat to both workers and the broader economy.

"We've got this fragile economic recovery, and now we're going to cut income from people who need it, and we are pulling back dollars out of an economy that is still pretty unsteady," she said.

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