Never Mind the Question – Impoverishing Families Is the Wrong Answer

September 21, 2020 by Aburiyeba Amaso

by Michael Redzich

Communities all across America face a rolling series of economic crises. Leaders trumpet a potentially over-inflated stock market[1] as conclusive evidence of an “unprecedented economic recovery.”[2] Working families, meanwhile, confront a stagnating job market[3], dwindling federal relief[4], and an ongoing pandemic that, unabated, will prevent a return to the pre-crisis economy.[5]  Indeed, in these times “[o]nly a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.”[6] Yet, some leaders are considering action that risks driving more families into poverty. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell spoke directly to the righteous indignation that many feel at the sight of individuals flouting social distancing and masking measures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus: “It’s my opinion you can’t receive public resources [unemployment compensation] but at the same time violate public mandates to keep people safe.”[7] No doubt, “large gatherings on Bourbon Street”[8] should galvanize leaders tasked with halting the progress of an airborne pathogen[9] that has already killed over 190,000 people at the time of this writing.[10] Indifference in the face of tragedy is galling! But punishing the families on the faltering front line of an escalating war with poverty by taking away their unemployment compensation is the wrong answer.

Unemployment insurance (UI) is a critical tool for keeping people out of poverty during economic downturns.[11] In 2011, in the midst of the Great Recession, UI lowered the poverty rate by as much as 40%.[12] The economic benefits extended beyond the unemployed workers themselves: 15.8 million family members lived with the 10.2 million people reporting UI income.[13] 620,000 of the 2.3 million people that UI lifted out of poverty that year were children.[14]

This year, the pandemic threatens deeper economic pain than recessions past.[15] By one particularly jarring measure, as many as one in four children in the United States may experience food insecurity because of rising unemployment.[16] That would amount to a million more kids going hungry now than during the worst of the Great Recession.[17] So let’s assume that the people being cited for failing to socially distance and losing their unemployment compensation are indeed drunk tourists on Bourbon Street and not, for example, homeless Texans being watched by police drones.[18] Even callous, drunk tourists on Bourbon Street have children! Without UI payments, they might fall into poverty with all of its accompanying traumas.[19]

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a lawmaker has suggested restricting eligibility to public benefits for people who do bad stuff. The Public Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—an extensive “welfare reform” measure—allowed states to choose whether to offer food assistance (SNAP) to people convicted of drug-related felonies.[20] They retain the same option with regards to payment of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the pared down replacement for traditional cash welfare.[21] During the two minutes of debate this horribly misguided decision was deemed to merit by Congress, its sponsor argued that “if we are serious about our drug laws, we ought not to give people welfare benefits who are violating the Nation’s drug laws.”[22] The trouble with that line of logic is, access to public benefits may reduce recidivism rates by as much as ten percent in the first year after a person’s release from prison.[23] But even if retribution were all that mattered in a vacuum, remember a critical attribute shared between people who have people who have committed a drug crime, callous, drunk tourists on Bourbon Street, and your parents, too: they all have children!

The evident thoughtlessness and/or adherence to political expediency that brought on great, selective[24] suffering must not be repeated. Even if the authorities could get the facts right every time, taking away UI from recipients who fail to socially distance will put entire families at risk of experiencing poverty who might avoid it otherwise.[25] That only exacerbates suffering. Anger and disappointment in one’s countrymen and women can justify neither their starvation nor that of their children.



[1] Shawn Tully, Stock Valuations Have Been This High Only Three Times In History. What Happened Next Should Give Investors Pause, Fortune (Aug. 6, 2020),

[2] Remarks by President Trump in Press Briefing | September 4, 2010, The White House (Sept. 4, 2020),

[3] Nelson D. Schwartz & Gillian Friedman, Unemployment Claims Send Another Worrisome Note, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2020),

[4] For instance, expanded unemployment compensation instituted by the CARES Act expired on July 31. That could be keeping $50B per month out of the economy. Jason Furman, Eliminating Expanded Unemployment Compensation Would Harm The U.S. Economy, Peterson Institute For Int’l Econ. (July 14, 2020),

[5] Ken Bredemeier, Fauci: US Economy Won’t Recover Until Coronavirus Controlled, Voice of Am. (Apr. 20, 2020),

[6] First Inaugural Address of Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Avalon Project, Yale L. Sch. Lillian Goldman L. Lib. (last accessed Sept. 10, 2020),

[7] Jeff Adelson & Emma Discher, Party on Bourbon Street, Lose Unemployment Benefits? LaToya Cantrell Pushes For It, (Sept. 10, 2020),

[8] Id.

[9] Large indoor gatherings are especially conducive the spread of the coronavirus. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Personal & Social Activities, Ctrs. For Disease Control & Prevention (July 30, 2020),

[10] Coronavirus Resource Center, Johns Hopkins U. of Med. (last accessed Sept. 10, 2020),

[11] Thomas Gabe & Julie M. Whittaker, Cong. Rsch. Serv., Antipoverty Effects of Unemployment Insurance (Oct. 16, 2012),

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Andry Kiersz & Carmen Reinicke, 5 Charts Show How The Coronavirus Crisis Has Dwarfed The Great Recession In Just 2 Months, Business Insider (May 24, 2020),

[16] This is a striking increase from 2018, when one in seven children experienced food insecurity. The Impact of the Coronavirus on Child Food Insecurity, Feeding America (Apr. 22, 2020), available at:

[17] Feeding America Research Projects Child Food Insecurity Could Hit All-Time High Due to COVID-19, Feeding America (Apr. 22, 2020),

[18] Maria Guerrero, Fort Worth Police Deploy Drones To Remind Homeless About Social Distancing, NBCDFW (Apr. 20, 2020),

[19] See Madeline Ostrander, What Poverty Does to the Young Brain, The New Yorker (June 4, 2020),

[20] Marc Mauer & Virginia McCalmont, A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits, The Sentencing Project (Nov. 14, 2013),

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Crystal S. Yang, Does Public Assistance Reduce Recidivism?, 107 Am. Econ. Rev. 551 (June 2017),

[24] One might just as soon use the word “racist.” “Of the 277,000 people imprisoned nationwide for a drug offense, over half (56%) are African American or Latino.” Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, The Sentencing Project (Apr. 19, 2018),

[25] Samantha Fields, Stimulus Checks & Unemployment Keeping Millions Out of Poverty, For Now, Marketplace (June 23, 2020),