Dana James: Unemployment in Iowa has never been a ‘hammock’

Dana James — courtesy of Black Iowa News

I lost my job when the U.S. housing market collapsed in 2008 and unemployment soared, pushing homeowners into foreclosure and the nation into crisis.

For the first time in my life, I filed for unemployment benefits, which would keep me afloat for nine long months. A bachelor’s degree didn’t insulate me from financial distress nor help me find a job, and everyday, waves of worry dominated my thoughts and tormented me late at night.

Relief washed over me when my unemployment benefits kicked in and I began receiving about $300 a week. I could buy food, I could keep my utilities on — but not much else.

I applied for jobs I was qualified to do, jobs I wasn’t qualified for and much lower paying jobs. I just wanted a job and an end to anxiety-filled days and nights as I watched my unemployment funds shrink and my debt rise.

During Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ 2022 Condition of the State address in January, she said: “There are so many reasons for the worker shortage, but we need to recognize in some cases, it’s because the government has taken away the need or desire to work. The safety net has become a hammock.”

Reynolds and the Republican-controlled legislature this session slashed unemployment. Some Democrats decried the cuts as a method to manage Iowa’s so-called worker shortage and as a way to push Iowans back to work after the coronavirus pandemic brought about business closures and cutbacks and revealed child care crises and many other things that affected employees’ ability to work.

The Iowa House and Senate approved Iowa H.F. 2355, a bill to reform unemployment, but legislators have disagreed on whether to institute a one-week waiting period before Iowans could begin collecting benefits. The bill, which contains the following provisions, among others, is on Reynolds’ desk for approval (unsigned as of print time).

  • Creating a one-week waiting period before benefits begin
  • Reducing weekly benefits from 26 weeks to 16 weeks
  • Reducing the maximum benefit payable from 39 weeks to 26 weeks for individuals whose employers have gone out of business
  • Requiring Iowans receiving unemployment benefits to accept “suitable” lower-paying jobs earlier in their job searches

Reynolds last May also prevented Iowans from receiving the extra $300 a week from federal unemployment pandemic funds before the program was slated to end.

The word hammock implies laziness. I doubt many Iowa families would choose a few hundred dollars of unemployment — a pittance — over steady jobs to care for their families. But wait. According to Reynolds and Republicans, it’s OK for Iowans who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine to get unemployment benefits. I guess it’s OK for anti-vaxxers to lie in their hammocks all day and enjoy the social safety net.

• • •

Cutting benefits hurts the already vulnerable. According to a Brookings Institution explainer, unemployment has only typically replaced about 40 percent of lost wages on average during the past 20 years. Hardly enough to avoid going to work indefinitely.

As to be expected, Blacks makeup a greater share of those who are unemployed. According to the most recent federal employment data, the unemployment rate for Blacks is consistently double that of whites — and much higher for certain subgroups, according to economic research and federal unemployment data.

The U.S. unemployment rate is 3.8%.
The U.S. Black unemployment rate is 6.9%.
Iowa’s unemployment rate is 3.5%.
Iowa’s Black unemployment rate is 6.2%.

Black men, in particular, face a higher unemployment rate due to systemic racism and other factors, according to the Center for American Progress. During the height of the pandemic, the unemployment rate for Black men soared to 16 percent in 2020. In 2021, the typical length of unemployment was 16.1 weeks for white men, but 20.1 weeks for Black men, according to the organization, which researches and develops progressive policies to facilitate national change.

For an individual or family receiving unemployment, each week without pay matters.

“Yet this economic recovery is revealing the impacts of continuing systemic racism, ageism, and ableism on the labor market,” according to center authors of Black Men and the U.S. Economy: How the Economic Recovery Is Perpetuating Systemic Racism.

Like the 2008 real estate market crash I lived through, the coronavirus pandemic hit employers and employees hard. It helped knowing I could access financial resources to remain afloat until conditions improved. After nine months of receiving benefits, I found work, ironically enough, at a mortgage company helping homeowners apply for loan modifications to forestall foreclosure. My first paycheck hit at nearly the same time my final unemployment payment was posted.

Unemployment compensation served as a welcome safety net during those tumultuous times. Not a hammock.

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 002.

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