This spring, when America shut down to try and avert COVID-19 from collapsing our health care system, national unemployment went from the lowest in 60 years to over 30 million unemployed in less than a month. The Kansas economy, paralleling the Trump economy, had a similar experience, going from 2.8% unemployment in February to 11.9% in April. Thankfully, that’s come down to 7.5% in June, about the levels of the early Obama-Biden years. Unemployment likely would be much lower if Gov. Kelly wouldn’t keep so many "non-essential" businesses shut down or limited. Many non-essential mom and pop restaurants, bars and other small businesses have closed their doors for good, having gone bankrupt or on its verge. That’s particularly bad news as 70% of businesses in Kansas (more in Leavenworth) are small businesses.
This was supposed to be a short-term deal. Americans were initially led to believe that two or three weeks was needed and given that, we rallied to the cause – inconveniently giving up both freedoms and savings – fully expecting to return to normal before Easter. State governments responded by rapidly trying to administer unemployment compensation through their antiquated labor department computer systems. They, including Kansas, were overwhelmed and what most people may not realize is that, like most government benefits, it’s not funded with government money but solely on a tax imposed on employers. Unemployment is to "provide benefits to eligible workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own … intended to provide temporary (up to 26 weeks) financial assistance." It’s meant to keep people out of the poverty level, currently $12,760 per year per person, until they are able to return to or find work and normally amounts to about $400 per week.
Because of the unique circumstances, Congress and President Trump enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act which includes a $600 per week unemployment supplement to state unemployment benefits. Combined, that’s $1,000 per week or $52,000 per year, far exceeding what unemployment is designed to do – keep people out of poverty. That amount, 400% of the poverty level, often far exceeds what the now unemployed person was earning when he/she was employed and is a real disincentive for people returning to their old jobs or finding new work.
Nefariously it may also be supporting the adage that "idle hands are the devil’s workshop" by fueling the "mostly peaceful" BLM/Antifa protests in so many Democratic-governed cities across the nation.
Despite this, and Congress’ intransigence, last week President Trump stepped in and issued an executive order extending federal supplemental money flowing to the unemployed at $400 per week as long as states provide $100 of that as an incentive for states to find opportunities to get their people back to work. Currently, Gov. Kelly is preventing the additional federal money from reaching eligible unemployed Kansans. Now, five months into this "temporary" shutdown and no medical system emergency, it’s well past time for governors to get out of the way and let Americans get back to work and their real lives.
Greg Beck is a Leavenworth Times columnist.