What Happens to the Unemployed When the Checks Run Out


Poverty, which actually declined in the first months of the pandemic — reflecting the extraordinary relief offered by the CARES Act through the spring and early summer — has snapped back with a vengeance. According to estimates by Bruce D. Meyer of the University of Chicago, James X. Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame and Jeehoon Han of Zhejiang University, 11.4 percent of Americans subsisted with incomes below the official poverty line by October, up from 9.3 percent in June.

The checking accounts of the unemployed also reflect this reversal of fortunes since the early phases of CARES Act relief, according to an analysis by researchers at the JPMorgan Chase Institute and the University of Chicago. Their account balances more than doubled from January to July, helped by the supplemental unemployment payments and the economic impact check. In percentage terms, their gain was vastly greater even than for workers who kept their jobs. Their spending also surged, peaking in July.

By the end of August, however, the last month in which the researchers tracked the finances of the unemployed, their median bank balances had shrunk by about a third since July, losing most of the cushion built up since March.

“The typical family does still have somewhat of a cash buffer,” said Fiona Greig, co-president of the JPMorgan Chase Institute, “but it is declining precipitously.”

Regular unemployment insurance in the United States remains among the least generous in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, typically falling to zero after six months, barring extraordinary legislation. In Denmark or Portugal, by contrast, unemployment benefits replace around 80 percent of the lost wages of workers even two years after they lose their jobs.

In the United States, jobless benefits add up to about 20 percent of the median income for a family with two children, according to data from the O.E.C.D. In Germany and Ireland, they amount to over 50 percent.

Emergency legislation like the CARES Act has provided an intermittent boost to unemployed American workers during crises. But barring new action by Congress in the coming days, the safety net will revert to its previous state. Millions will fall through the cracks.



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