The shape of our current crisis — both the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting recession — is being determined in large part by a dynamic we’re seeing repeated over and over, in which a system set up to handle a particular level of demand is suddenly inundated with many times that level and struggles under the load.

We see it in hospitals that don’t have enough ventilators, beds or protective equipment to deal with an influx of covid-19 patients. We see it in something as small as the supply chain for toilet paper. And we see it in the unemployment insurance system, which is a lifeline for those who have lost their jobs in the past few weeks, a number that as of Thursday has risen past 30 million.

But there’s something special about that unemployment system. Because so many people are seeking its help for the first time, they’re learning that in many places it’s a battlefield of the class war, designed by Republicans to be as difficult, infuriating and humiliating as possible to navigate.

The results are twofold. First, millions of people who need and deserve unemployment benefits are not getting them. Second, those who try to make their way through that system are getting a harsh lesson in the politics of weaponized bureaucracy.

And when it comes to bureaucracy, Republicans have strong feelings. They are forever raging against “red tape” and “government bureaucrats” who bind up noble job-creators with rules on workplace safety or pollution, arguing that if we only got all that bureaucracy out of the way, our economy would catapult us into a future of boundless prosperity. When they take control of government, they go on a crusade against regulations, the substance mattering less than their sheer volume; eliminate regulations by the hundreds or thousands, and life will surely be improved, they say.

But not all regulations. At the same time they clear a path for corporations to operate unencumbered by too many rules or taxes, they bring government’s heavy hand down on the backs of people who have the temerity to seek assistance with food, shelter, health coverage or financial help after a lost job.

As Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano of the New York Times report, states that spent the years since the Great Recession making their systems for unemployment insurance and other kinds of assistance as maddeningly bureaucratic as possible so as to deny people benefits are now scrambling to remove some of the barriers they erected. Now that some of their people need unemployment, their perspective has changed.

The states that were most aggressive about deploying red tape against the unfortunate are mostly those run by Republicans, where the GOP either took or expanded power in the sweep election of 2010. They added layers of bureaucratic requirements — forms to fill out, history to be reported, drug tests to be taken, information to be provided through janky online systems when many unemployed people don’t have computers, plus work requirements to be met for benefits such as Medicaid. All of these offered multiple opportunities to make mistakes or miss a deadline, which could get an applicant’s benefits denied.

To take just one vivid example: “It’s a sh-- sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott,” one adviser to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, describing how the state’s unemployment system was gutted by his predecessor, now-Sen. Rick Scott, both Republicans. “It wasn’t about saving money. It was about making it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low to give the governor something to brag about.”

“I think they do this for people to give up,” one woman in Michigan who was furloughed told the Times, and she’s absolutely right. Here’s what’s happening now:

“In a time when pretty much everybody who’s applying should be eligible, we’re working with a system that got us to a 26 percent recipiency rate,” said Steve Gray, the director of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency. That means Michigan was giving aid to one in four unemployed workers in 2019, following restrictions adopted by the Michigan legislature after the Great Recession. That system, Mr. Gray said, was “built to assume that you’re guilty and make you prove that you’re innocent.”
The crush of claims has demanded of states not just more server capacity and call-center workers, but also an abrupt change in the premise of the safety net: Systems trained to treat each case as potentially fraudulent must now presume that millions have legitimately lost their jobs.

Even at just 26 percent of those eligible actually getting benefits, Michigan still isn’t nearly the worst. That would be North Carolina, where before this crisis only 1 in 10 unemployed people managed to work their way through the system to get benefits. (Florida wasn’t far behind.)

Some African American men are criminalized in public spaces, says sociologist Dr. Rashawn Ray. It makes it harder for them to wear face masks during a pandemic. (The Washington Post)

Why is it that these systems treat every person applying for unemployment as though they might be pulling a scam? It’s the manifestation of two pieces of conservative philosophy. First, poverty is the result of deficient character, and if someone suffers deprivation, including a lost job, it’s because they’re lazy and morally suspect. Second, even a single “undeserving” person getting a government benefit is such a horrific outcome that it’s worth denying that benefit to thousands of people who deserve it if you can just deter that one scammer.

Still, although some states are trying to remove some of those obstacles now that the pain of unemployment is being spread more widely, they don’t want people to get too comfortable. Which is why at one point some Republicans became outraged at the temporary extra $600 per week for unemployed people that Democrats inserted into the Cares Act rescue package, warning that with such generous benefits, a bunch of lazy nurses might stay home rather than work, despite the fact that you can’t get unemployment if you quit your job voluntarily.

That feature of unemployment law is now being seen as an opportunity to force people back to work even in dangerous situations. Many Republican-run states are rushing to “reopen” their economies — and telling workers that if they don’t get back on the job right away, they’ll lose their unemployment benefits. Indeed, in some states there are suspicions that the very reason governors are removing stay-at-home orders is so they can save money by not having to pay unemployment.

Right now, millions of Americans who thought they’d never have to use unemployment insurance are learning just how cumbersome and frustrating those systems can be. But they should understand that it’s not because government inherently doesn’t work. Like the private sector, government sometimes works well and sometimes works poorly.

In this case, those systems are doing exactly what they were designed to do: Make life difficult for people who are already suffering. Maybe now that more of us are realizing it, we could consider designing them a different way.

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