Writing for The New Republic, Clio Chang recently described her three-month attempt to receive unemployment benefits in New York after being laid off from her job at Vice. As a journalist who had been covering unemployment until the moment she needed to apply for it, she was better positioned than most Americans to navigate the system. And yet, despite living in a deep-blue state, she had to jump through hoops for an entire summer just to get a benefit she very clearly qualified for.
It is true, as Chang notes, that throughout much of the country, state unemployment systems were intentionally broken or neglected in order to discourage their use. But that is not really the case in New York, a high-tax, ostensibly high-service state run for many years now by conventional liberal Democrats. Here, it didn’t work because none of those conventional liberal Democrats have invested enough time and energy and care into making sure the machinery of government simply works.
New York lawmakers and political leaders can blame an unprecedented unemployment crisis caused by a global pandemic for the brokenness of the unemployment system, but evidence of their chronic underinvestment and negligence predates Covid-19. The New York City subway system was allowed to degrade and break over a period of many years. It wasn’t until it reached a crisis point of unreliability that anyone in power decided to take responsibility for fixing it, though successive administrations and legislatures could’ve at any point decided to run it effectively.
Nor is this remotely a problem limited to New York. Chang’s piece inspired countless people on Twitter and elsewhere to share their own stories of dealing with dysfunctional state unemployment systems throughout the country. We’ll probably never know how many Americans were falsely denied benefits because of this dysfunction; as of late April, the Economic Policy Institute found that, for every 10 people who successfully filed, three or four couldn’t get through the system, and an additional two didn’t even try.
The federal failure to send money to newly jobless citizens was just the most widespread evidence this year that American governance at every level is hollowed out and incapable of performing essential functions. The government’s inability to carry out fair or orderly elections has been evident for years; it has not improved this year. It took a shockingly short amount of time for right-wing goons to completely sabotage the U.S. Postal Service. State investment in public higher education never fully recovered after the 2008 financial crisis, and the pandemic may destroy the institution as we know it. Parents of younger children across the country don’t know where or whether or when their kids will see the inside of a classroom again. And in some parts of the country, people have just been abandoned to fend for themselves. One can already, in the words of The Washington Post, visit places where it is possible to get “a glimpse of what a complete social and economic collapse might look like in America.”