What new pandemic unemployment benefits taught us about health
The COVID-19 pandemic caused an enormous wave of disruption to the U.S. economy, leading the unemployment rate to rise to a record high of 14.7% in April 2020.
While unemployment has since improved — the unemployment rate in January 2021 was 6.3% — America has yet to reach the employment levels it held before the pandemic.
In response to so many out of work, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020 expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits. Within that legislative package, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) increased the amount of money people could receive through such programs.
FPUC expired for the first time in July 2020, leading to insurance beneficiaries receiving smaller benefits.
Employment and job security is a known social determinant of health and the relationship to suddenly losing a job and a person’s health isn’t yet widely understood. To study the how FPUC may have affected unmet health-related social needs, Seth Berkowitz from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Sanjay Basu from Harvard Medical School examined these needs and mental health among unemployment insurance beneficiaries before and after the initial expiration of FPUC.
Published in the March 2021 edition of Health Affairs, Berkowitz and Basu’s research found that the initial FPUC expiration was associated with a 10-percentage-point increase in risk for self-reported missed housing payments. In addition, risk for food insufficiency as well as depression and anxiety symptoms increased among households receiving unemployment insurance benefits.
Seth Berkowitz joins Editor-in-Chief Alan Weil on A Health Podyssey to discuss his research, the potential health impact of unemployment insurance, the changing nature of work in the U.S., and how direct payments programs — such as universal basic income — could compliment social safety nets.