By Matthew Rodriguez
Ugly truths have emerged for working-class Americans, forced out of work by the pandemic, and then vilified for receiving benefits promised by the government. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the inherent weakness of the American economic system.
The $600 unemployment extension under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act single-handedly changed the economic equation overnight. Many people earned more staying home than they did in the jobs they lost. The stimulus money changed the spirit of the Americans who received it.
As we keep close count of deaths and infection rates, we must also count lives changed. While many of us still fantasize about returning to our previous experiences, just as many are looking at a future that is no longer possible or even desired.
A significant flashpoint of conversation at the dinner table of America during the pandemic concerning the CARES Act has questioned the generosity of $600. The misdirection of this frustration cannot be understated. An overwhelming amount of onus is put on the workers earning extra income, not the employers who across the board are not paying a livable wage.
The big question: why go back to a job that pays less when one can stay at home and make more money? Valid question, but a better way to frame it is why should workers go back for less than a living wage? This is where desire lies. Not in being paid to stay home.
We already know human productivity correlates to human happiness. It is now the quality of life that is being measured carefully in a post-COVID era.
When the top economic minds in our country were considering the American people’s unemployment amount to pump into the CARES ACT, the number that was arrived at was $600. It turns out, $600 on top of regular unemployment benefits was a real living wage.
So, a better question the American people should be asking themselves is internal and should focus on why they cannot earn more than those on unemployment?
Once an inherent contradiction in our economic system is seen, it cannot be unseen. There will now be a segment of the population who has had plenty of time to think about their previous lives. The lack of stability, the abundance of stress, the dispassionate jobs we gave so much of our time and effort to let go from overnight.
The only takeaway is that no job will ever be the same after experiencing what a living wage looks like. Obviously, none of this can fit neatly into a clear storyline. But the $600 unemployment extension has taken on such a massive significance in the national conversation and has economic consequences that are still unforeseen.
The $600 unemployment extension, for myself, played out as a deal. If I were to be relieved from my job and do my part in “flattening the curve,” my government would make sure I was compensated.
It was a reprieve from going into full bankruptcy or a home foreclosure for millions of people.
My unemployment experiences have left me in the best position possible to tackle what this “new normal” will be. The $600 unemployment extension was a lifeline in a turbulent sea that was surely going to drown me.
The privilege I have at being able to absolve myself of debt and put money back into our struggling economy felt like sharing a piece of the American pie. The concept of free time, once elusive, now used to explore my place in the post-COVID world; time to invest in people that I care for.
Through unemployment, I received a leg up from my country that I was resigned never to receive, and that has put me in a position to pay it forward.