Into the End of the $600 Unemployment Check
Trymaine Lee: It's been a week since the White House and Congress allowed federal unemployment benefits to expire. Democrats want to extend the $600 a week in jobless aid through January. Republicans are divided on what the new coronavirus relief package should look like and have proposed cutting payments to $200 a week.
As members of Congress fight it out in Washington, 30 million unemployed Americans are struggling to get by. That's clear in Stockton, California, a city of around 300,000 people. Because of the pandemic, the unemployment rate rose to more than 17% by May, nearly triple what it was at the start of the year.
Many of those people qualified for that weekly $600 check from the federal government. And with the median salary in Stockton around $46,000 a year, a lot of people stood to take more money on unemployment than they did in their jobs. That's true all across the country.
One early study out of the University of Chicago estimated that two out of every three people who qualify for the federal unemployment bump would make more money than their regular jobs. So when Republicans argue that it's time to reduce those federal benefits, they point to all those people and say, "Well, where's the incentive to work?"
Mitch Mcconnell: We also intend to continue some temporary federal supplement to unemployment insurance, while fixing the obvious craziness of paying people more to remain out of the workforce. Small business owners across the country have explained how this dynamic is slowing rehiring and recovery.
Lee: Or maybe this extra money is revealing something deeper about the way we value people and work in this country.
Selena Pollack: If I was makin' that much at my work, then I probably wouldn't be struggling check to check. Yeah, it's crazy.
Lee: (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, as the federal unemployment benefits remain in Limbo, we're headed to Stockton, California to learn what it's like to be jobless during this pandemic. And we're joined by Stockton mayor Michael Tubbs, who says now is the time to rethink what it means to make a living wage in America. Before coronavirus hit, Selena Pollack was a chef at Mile Wine Company, an upscale restaurant and wine bar in the heart of Stockton. She's 40 years old and has two teenage kids who are 15 and 18.
Pollack: So I've always done fast food, always loved cooking. And then when I moved down here, I got my first professional cooking job at French 25. And then I was there for a year, and then I moved on to baking and pastry at Market Tavern. And I was there for a year. And then I came to Mile Wine, and I've just been there since. It's been, like, six years.
Lee: What's it like working there? What kind of place is it?
Pollack: It's great working there. I love the people, the atmosphere, and the customers. The environment is, like, kick back, have a good time, enjoy some cheese and charcuterie plates. You know, we have a nice big wine selection. We have live music on Fridays and Saturdays. We have our taco Tuesdays. You know, my coworkers are awesome. I love it.
Lee: Talk to us about how much you were making at the restaurant before everything hit.
Pollack: I was making $16 an hour. Basically, it was check to check. I was able to pay off my bills and stuff. Like, it worked out.
Lee: And so then I can only imagine what it must have felt like when COVID happened, and the restaurant closed, and the bottom kinda fell out.
Lee: Talk to me about, like, just how everything happened once the restaurant closed.
Pollack: So we had closed down. March 15th was my last day that we had closed. And basically, I had to file for unemployment. And I got that. It took a little bit, but it's just been crazy. I mean, that extra money helped me out a lot.
Lee: So when you finally did get the unemployment checks, when they started rolling in, how much did you actually get? And how did that compare to what you were making as a chef?
Pollack: Oh, well, see, with that extra $600, 'cause just without that I woulda only got $289 a week. So with that extra $600, I was making $1,778 every two weeks. Compared to, like, my regular checks I was getting, I'd like out with, like, $1,100 after tax is taken out.
Lee: Wow. That's a big jump.
Pollack: Oh yeah. Really. Really was.
Lee: That $289 Selena mentioned, it's the unemployment insurance she's collecting from the state. That's separate from the $600 federal benefit. How much, like, stress relief was that extra $600?
Pollack: Oh, that was a big weight off my shoulders. Knowing my rent's gonna get paid, knowing that all my bills are gonna get paid, you know? Debts that I had, like one of my electric bills and some other little debts that I had. So it was just nice to get those all paid off 'cause I'm tryin' to bring my credit up.
I was able to do stuff for my kids. My son's been wanting a PlayStation 4. So finally I was able to get him that for a belated birthday present. And just for being good kids I got them little gifts. So it was nice. 'Cause I'm, like, basically living check to check. You know, I wasn't able to always get stuff for them. So it was just nice to actually, like, you know, get them clothes and stuff they could use. It felt nice.
Lee: So if not for that extra $600, what would these last few months have been like? Like, what do you think?
Pollack: Oh, it woulda been hard. I don't even know. 'Cause, $289 a week, like, I pay $800 for rent. And then that's not even including my electricity, and my water, and my trash, and my phone.
Lee: You know, when you hear that kinda math, and a lot, a lotta people are living, you know, paycheck to paycheck, just making, you know, ends in meet. And in Congress in D.C., there are a bunch of folks who've never lived like that who are arguing and making decisions. And so last Friday, that $600 expired. And one argument is that it's just too much money, right? And if people are making more money not employed than they were making when they were working, they simply wouldn't want to go back to work.
Lee: What would you say to those people who are arguing that?
Pollack: I would say, like, not everybody don't wanna sit home and, you know, collect money. Like, I know I don't. Like, I love working. I can't wait to go back to work. But having that little extra, that helped out. They don't know other people, you know, what they're going through or what they have, you know? And it's a blessing to have that extra money, you know, to pay off stuff. You know, not everybody blows it.
Lee: So, I mean, while Congress tries to work out a deal about how much to pay people, are you once again feeling the financial strain now that $600 will be going away?
Pollack: It's hard 'cause, like, I'm still getting unemployment. And that's barely enough just to pay my rent, and I have, like, maybe $100 to my name. And I still got other things to pay off. So I'll have to just pay it when I get my next unemployment check.
Lee: There are a lotta people who point to what's happening now and just how much of a life saver this $600 benefit has been for so many people. And they point to it, and they'll say, "You know what? This is an indication that we don't pay people a living wage." Has this experience made you rethink, you know, what a minimum wage could be, a living wage should be?
Pollack: Oh yeah. Definitely. (LAUGH) If I was makin' that much at my work, then I probably wouldn't be struggling, you know, check to check.
Lee: Selena, I know you really love working at Mile Wine. But with everything going on, did you ever think about maybe going to a different restaurant, a different job altogether, maybe say to yourself you could make a couple extra dollars an hour somewhere else?
Pollack: Yeah. But I'm comfortable there and I love it there. It's like my family there. I'm devoted to that restaurant. And I don't want to really go anywhere else. Like, it's literally 10 minutes down the street from my house. I just love it there. Like, maybe when things happen and we open back up, maybe I could get a raise. (LAUGH)
Lee: Are you hoping that the restaurant will reopen anytime soon? Or are you looking for a new job?
Pollack: I'm hoping we'll reopen. We're supposed to reopen next month actually. Well, depending on how everything's going. But we're supposed to open next month.
Lee: Do you believe it's gonna happen?
Pollack: I don't know. I don't think it is. It's not like COVID's gone, you know? It's still here. Like, I do. I want to go back to work. I really do. But then at the same time I don't 'cause I don't want to get sick. You know, I don't want to bring that to my family. You know, I have two kids to think about. So it's just like what do you do? Like, this is really stressful and it's hard.
Pollack: And, you know, I've been just taking it day by day, which you can only do. Like, you know? Can't really do nothing about it, you know? (LAUGH) It's stressful and it sucks that this is happening, but I'll get through it somehow.
Lee: (MUSIC) Selana Pollack is a professional chef and mom of two in Stockton. After the break, we'll talk to the mayor of Stockton, Michael Tubbs, about what he's doing to help folks like Selena and how to think big about making sure people have enough to survive.
Lee: (MUSIC) So while Democrats and Republicans fight over funding in Washington, there's another model in the works in the city of Stockton that was put in place well before the pandemic hit. It's a pilot program for guaranteed basic income. Since January 2019, 125 residents have been receiving $500 a month, no strings attached.
I talked with Mayor Tubbs about why it's a way to help people bridge that gap out of poverty. He says this pandemic proves we need it now more than ever. Yeah, I want to ask you this. Let's just start here. I wonder, how is Stockton doing during the pandemic? It's been rough on a lotta places. But how are you all doin'?
Michael Tubbs: I think Stockton is doing as well as can be expected during this crazy time. I've been amazed at sort of how the community has really come together around notions of universal human dignity and making sure we provide for everyone, how folks have been doin' their best despite mixed messages from government officials around the seriousness of the pandemic, and how when we had our protests and civil unrest against police brutality and racial violence that we had no tear gas, didn't have to issue a curfew, didn't have the National Guard here.
Tubbs: Had really no incident as people took to the streets to speak their piece about the need for a more just country. But even then, it hasn't been all roses. I mean, we were a community that had economic insecurity before, and we've seen that intensify now with just the way that COVID-19 has impacted our small businesses but also our work.
We know that in a majority-minority city that so many of our essential workers are people of color, are women of color. And we're seeing right now a terrible outbreak of COVID-19 through our farm worker community. And also because of our ideological diversity, two months ago wearing a mask was a political lightning rod and me saying, "We need to have a mask ordinance," caused a little bit of political f-- friction. But I think now we're all at a point as a community partly because our hospital ICU beds are over capacity, that we realize that COVID-19 is not a political game but something very serious.
Lee: You know, what's amazing and wild about this time is you have the confluence of the pandemic, this kind of uprising and racial reckoning, and then you have the economic concerns, right? A lot of folks are struggling right now, small business owners but also people who work for small businesses.
You know, in fact, we talked to a woman from Stockton, and her name is Selena. She's a chef at a place you might know, Mile Wine. And she made more money with federal unemployment than she did on her regular wage. And I wonder: Is her story typical of Stockton and those who have been adversely affected by the economic fallout?
Tubbs: Her story sounds typical of many stories we're hearing in Stockton but also I'm sure, as you know, throughout this country. That COVID-19 has really exposed so much about who we are as a country. And the fact that folks made more money not working than working shows us that we don't value labor as much as we say we do. And I know her actually. Mile Wine's around the corner from my house. It used to be one of my favorite establishments.
Tubbs: I know that she's the breadwinner for her family, that she's a mother with teenage children trying to provide. So I can only imagine the miracles she was making in terms of providing for her teenage children while making less than $2,500 a month.
Lee: Wow. University of Chicago had a recent study that showed that two in three eligible unemployment insurance recipients would actually also make more than they were before the $600 boost, like Selena. What do you think that says? I mean, you touched on this, but what does that say about, you know, wages nationwide and the way we treat workers?
Tubbs: We are a nation that calls workers essential but pay them like they're disposable. The fact that two out of three people who qualify for unemployment will make more in unemployment than they would working doesn't suggest there's an issue with unemployment insurance or an issue with the workers.
It's an issue with wages. And wages, as we know in 99% of counties, minimum wage or just above minimum wage isn't enough to pay for a two-bedroom apartment for a breadwinner. So we just have so much work to do. And we have to understand that those who work, those who produce, they are essential all the time for our economy, for our country and not just during the pandemic, right? Like, they should always be treated as essential.
Lee: You know, we're seeing this all across the country, certainly not just in Stockton. But we did talk to some people in Stockton who told us that, you know, job openings they're seeing now are actually paying less than they were before. Have you heard of this?
Tubbs: I feel so ignorant. I have not heard of that directly. And that also just points to just the crazy moment we're in. And that's why I'm all in on things like guaranteed income and things of that sort while also saying we need to lift the floor and raise wages. And I think I've heard from small business owners about how COVID-19 has impacted them, but I didn't realize they were reducing wages.
Lee: I almost wanted to ask you right there, you know, what can be done about it, but you've already in Stockton had this pilot program, guaranteed basic income. And that was long before the pandemic hit. Could you describe a little bit more about the program, what it is, and how it's affected folks in your community?
Tubbs: Yeah. So our guaranteed income pilot, called SEED, was born out of the fact that when I first became mayor I realized that economic insecurity made our whole community insecure and it was the crux of most, if not all of our issues. So we randomly selected 125 families to receive $500 a month for 18 months with no strings attached as to how to spend it.
And what we saw was that folks were using the money in the ways you and I use money. It was a real tool of economic resilience. And then when COVID-19 hit, we heard from so many folks in the program about how their unemployment insurance check took too long to come but thankfully they had the basic income, or that they had fevers and had coughs and they were able to stay home actually and shelter in place because they had the $500 that the loss of two weeks' work, the wages wouldn't impact them as adversely.
So thanks to a philanthropist named Carol Tolan, we were able to extend the pilot till January. And that's great for the 125 families. But as you mentioned, from my folks you've talked to, we have 300,000-plus others who are still having to pay bills, still worry about their health, still dealing with increasing food and utility costs as they're sheltering in place with their children who deserve the dignity of a wage that allows 'em to meet basic necessities and also the dignity of a income floor.
So we actually started a group called Mayors for Guaranteed Income, which now has about 24 mayors from throughout this country who are saying, "Now is the time for guaranteed income," at least during COVID-19. And I'm hoping that the federal government responds with a relief act that includes monthly checks to most people so that we can get through this time and then continue to address the underlying structural issues along the way.
Lee: Now, Selena told us that she was actually able to pay down some debt during this period using the federal unemployment, that extra little boost. And it sounds like your pilot program is aimed at doing just that, helping folks kinda chip down on those debts. Is that the whole point?
Tubbs: Yeah, so the whole point was to give folks the agency and the freedom to make the right choices for them. So for some people, it was paying down a little bit of credit card debt or other debt they may have had. For some people, it was allowing them to pay for things like dentures, or at the time, football camps, things of that sort for their kids.
For some people, it's allowed them to save for a rainy day. For some people, it was allowing them to go to the doctor and get some sicknesses and things checked 'cause they could afford the co-pay or pay for the medicines and treatments. So it's really absolutely around providing agency and options for people to make the right economic decisions for themselves and their family, which oftentimes included paying off a little bit of debt.
Lee: You know, there is this argument in Congress over this $600 a week extra amount of unemployment. And there are Republicans, they argue that, you know, people like Selena, "You shouldn't be using that money to pay off debt," you know, or, "You'd be less likely to return to work because of the benefit." In economics, they call it a "moral hazard," that there is this incentive to stay home and not look for work. How do you respond to that argument?
Tubbs: Yeah, I think that the moral hazard is incentivizing people to go to work when there's a chance they could contract a deadly illness and die or infect their family. Like, that to me seems to be so clear the moral hazard in this moment. The second argument I would make is that we see that $600 a week, $2,400 a month seems to be more able to meet basic needs and to meet basic human needs than the current minimum wage, so maybe that should be where the floor is.
And maybe if the floor was higher, then maybe so many people wouldn't see this unemployment, $2,400 a month as a reason not to return to work. If things have to be open, if it's essential for things to be open, nothing's more essential than life. So where are the incentives we're putting in place to making it worth the risk that people are really taking when they work?
And it has to be more than $7.25 an hour, or even $15 an hour, I think to get to that $2,400-a-month floor. So I think for me it's just a great example like, "Oh, maybe this is where the floor needs to be." And then, number three, the idea that dignity has to be attached to work has just been proven to be false because we force people to work without the dignity of wages that pay more than being unemployed. (LAUGH) Like, that dignity's attached to humanity and personhood first. And once we do that, then we're able to make sure when folks get to work they're also treated with dignity.
Lee: Is there anything you think from your program that you all have learned that might help inform folks now? One thing that I heard that kinda stuck with me for some reason is that folks who got this money, they didn't quit working altogether, but they were able to, you know, quit their second and third jobs.
Tubbs: Thank you for calling that out. That was also a big sorta ah-ha moment for me, was just understanding that this money was allowing people to be parents, was allowing people to be present. And we saw people who were able to use the money to interview for better, more stable jobs with better union protection.
We were able to see people who were able to stop driving Uber and Lyft and actually spend time with their kids. All from something as small as $500 a month, which is an important sum of money for a whole lotta people, when one in two people can't afford a $1,000 emergency. But in the grand scheme of things, it's not that huge of a societal expense for us to do for all the benefits we'll be able to see.
Lee: You know, I do want to ask you this. With that $600 a week, that is a lot more money than many folks were making. So how does it change their behavior?
Tubbs: Yeah. Hope it alters people to demand more. I hope it alters a movement of folks throughout this country who would demand higher wages, and better protections, and more agency. I hope it spurs a change in terms of how we should have universal family leave in this country. We should have paid time off when they're sick.
Like, I think, I hope that this reckoning we're having and this discomfort, 'cause on paper it does look ridiculous that so many more people make more unemployed than employed, I hope that question causes us to seek the right answers, which isn't to bring the floor down. Particularly in a time of pandemics, you always want to raise the floor and give people more of a foundation.
Lee: (MUSIC) Mayor Tubbs, thank you so much. We really do appreciate this. I know you're busy running that city, so thank you for taking time for us.
Tubbs: No, thank you, brother. Thank you for talking to my people and lifting up their stories.
Lee: That was Mayor Michael Tubbs, who's been mayor of Stockton, California since 2017. And a heads-up. We're spending all next week focusing on one of the most important issues of 2020, school. Millions of Americans are facing the reality that school isn't going to look anything like it did before coronavirus hit.
The San Diego Unified School District was one of the first to announce that learning will be fully online this fall. So next week, we're talking to families, teachers, and experts to find out whether this district and others like it are prepared for a future without in-person education. Episodes drop Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Be sure to check it out.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Monday.