All confronted the challenge — with no income and often no savings — of trying to stay housed, fed, safe and healthy. This burden, as with so many others, hit hardest in communities already struggling. As low-income and people of color suffered higher rates of coronavirus infections and deaths, they also lost jobs in disproportionately higher numbers.
For these Marylanders, federal pandemic unemployment benefits have been a lifeline. Though never a panacea, they helped many households avoid homelessness and stave off the worst of hunger, cold and illness that afflicted so many during this dark time. The state’s economy has also benefited, as the worst-hit households have spent their benefits on groceries, rent and other staples.
Then last week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced that these pandemic benefits will come to a crashing halt on July 3. Citing a “critical problem” of “severe worker shortages,” the governor claims that federal unemployment benefits are no longer necessary. Instead, he “look[s] forward to getting more Marylanders back to work.”
Don’t we all? Who wants Marylanders to face the desperation of trying to figure out which bills can be put off without losing electricity, or which medical appointments can be skipped without landing in the hospital? But “looking forward” to getting back to work does not make it so. Looking forward to work doesn’t help make rent. It doesn’t help breadwinners who can’t afford to earn wages so low they don’t cover child care, or struggling parents who can’t leave their kids until schools reopen.
Hogan’s decision to reject $1.5 billion in federal aid will have devastating consequences. It will deprive Marylanders of a life-sustaining bridge to full-time employment. It will mean more Maryland families lose their homes. It will deprive the state’s economy of federal assistance that would otherwise help businesses reopen and create jobs that would actually make unemployment benefits no longer necessary.
The governor’s rationale for prematurely cutting off access to unemployment benefits is specious at best. Most economists believe that pandemic unemployment benefits are not affecting people’s decisions about returning to work. They view factors such as child care and public transit, continuing risks of the coronavirus, inadequate skills and access to training programs as far more significant. Many also believe that the solution to short-term labor shortages is not to punish workers but rather to provide better working conditions and wages that don’t keep people living in poverty. In other words, as J.P. Morgan’s economic research team concluded, the recent parade of 25 governors rejecting more federal assistance “looks like politics, rather than economics.”
Federal pandemic benefits will end Sept. 5. Almost 200,000 Marylanders are still out of work. About 147,000 Maryland households are behind on rent, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium will end June 30. The state’s moratorium provides only limited protections, and our local jurisdictions need more time to get federal rental assistance to tenants and landlords. At least four counties have yet to distribute any of the millions of dollars they have received.
At a minimum, ending federal benefits two months early will mean more latchkey kids left to fend for themselves before schools reopen in September. Families will end up in shelters, losing permanent addresses and the minimal stability necessary to find and keep a job. Going back to work becomes much tougher for workers who have no place to live.
And finally, we know that the state’s economy is not yet strong enough to turn back $1.5 billion in federal aid.
Hogan must reverse course. Marking the July 4 holiday with a premature end to unemployment benefits is misguided and unwise. Rather than gamble that cutting benefits will drive people back to work, we should err on the side of protecting the most vulnerable. This time, let’s bet on our workers.
As we emerge from the pandemic and celebrate our country’s birthday, let’s also celebrate and protect — not punish — Marylanders who need our help.