As congressional negotiations over a new round of stimulus heat up, cash aid has emerged as a major sticking point. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has joined with Republican Josh Hawley to demand another round of $1,200 checks, arguing that bailouts for state governments and the airlines aren’t enough for people suffering from the pandemic’s dire economic effects. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have gone even higher, demanding $2,000 checks this time around.
The campaign for more checks has won wide support, and it’s been heartening to see broad swathes of workers demanding the government give them what they deserve. Yet the issue of direct cash aid has tended to obscure other parts of the CARES Act that were actually more significant. It’s common, for instance, to hear people argue that “the only thing the government has done for workers in a pandemic is a measly $1,200.” But that isn’t true.
The CARES Act, passed at the beginning of the pandemic, provided $1,200 for each adult making less than $99,000 a year and $500 for each child under seventeen in the household. All told, these Economic Impact Payments cost nearly $300 billion. Almost as much, however, went to expanding unemployment insurance, an initiative that some have jokingly called “the superdole.”
The superdole had three primary components: first, it extended unemployment insurance beyond the normal twenty-six weeks, offering workers an additional thirteen weeks of coverage. Second, it upped the amount of money by $600 a week. Finally, it significantly broadened eligibility, including workers who judged their jobs too unsafe as well as independent contractors normally excluded from coverage.
Together, these measures had a huge effect on cushioning the financial blow of the pandemic for the working class. An extra $600 a week, on top of the normal unemployment coverage, bumped many low-wage workers above what they’d been making while on the job.
On average, unemployment insurance replaces about 40 percent of lost wages, meaning a worker making $15 an hour, or about $600 a week before taxes, could normally expect about $240 a week in unemployment insurance. On the superdole, that same worker would pull in $840 a week.
Simply put, this kind of generosity is unheard of in the history of the famously stingy US welfare state. It was a remarkable policy win for the Left, one of its biggest in recent history.
Even as joblessness surged, with millions of workers every week filing new unemployment claims, the superdole raised incomes for low-income workers. In April, when the $1,200 checks were going out and workers were receiving the enhanced unemployment benefits, personal income in the United States jumped by 10 percent. After April, incomes fell without the $1,200 checks, but still stayed above their pre-pandemic levels thanks to the superdole.
The US response to the pandemic has been absolutely catastrophic compared to other countries’. But the superdole was one thing it got right. No other country was filling in 150 percent or more of low-wage workers’ pre-pandemic income.
The superdole only happened because of a unique set of circumstances: the massive pressure to pass stimulus legislation, the acquiescence of Republican austerity-mongers who assumed the relief was temporary, and, perhaps most crucially, Bernie Sanders’s threat to hold up the bill unless the GOP agreed to the full $600 for all workers.
These benefits expired on July 31. Now, as Congress debates another stimulus bill, the superdole has seemingly been forgotten, with the focus almost entirely on more universal stimulus checks. That’s a huge problem.
It’s not that the superdole is inherently better than the stimulus checks. As Matt Bruenig has argued, both accomplish different things well, and it’s foolish to parse out whether sending a stimulus check to someone with a disability living on Social Security is more important than a laid-off hotel worker getting their bonus payment. In a sane system, we would get both.
But the superdole was a striking success of the US welfare state that should be recognized as such. Many people enjoyed levels of financial security they’d never experienced before. As the pandemic reaches new levels of virulence, the superdole is exactly the kind of policy that the Left should be touting as its own — and that we should be fighting to bring back.