For American workers displaced by recession, widespread public sympathy soon gives way to moralizing anger.
In the past few weeks the United States has witnessed an unprecedented spike in jobless claims that has overwhelmed state agencies. Alongside a health crisis and an economic crisis, we are now entering into a devastating period of mass unemployment, one that—decades of research tell us—will leave deep financial and psychological scars for the workers and families trapped within it.
Today, Americans across party lines recognize the need to act quickly to minimize this harm, but that bipartisan support will soon fade, as it has in past recessions. If Congress and state governments are going to pass forward-thinking legislation to help unemployed and precariously employed workers, now is the time.
Having researched the experiences of unemployed workers over the past 20 years, we expect that the coming unemployment crisis will have two distinct phases. In the first phase, the country will largely respond with a sense of solidarity and compassion for the millions who have lost their jobs. Americans will recognize that external forces—the coronavirus and government policies to create social distance—have triggered these mass layoffs, and they will see the plight of unemployed workers in that light.
Those who lose their jobs will struggle to make ends meet in a stand-still economy, but they will at least be spared some of the blame leveled against the jobless in other economic downturns. When more than 20 million people file for unemployment in a month, even the hard-hearted will have trouble casting them as idlers or parasites. As a result, there should be sufficient political will to continue generous government support—perhaps even expanding upon the $2 trillion stimulus package that Congress recently passed, which dramatically boosts unemployment benefits and extends them to gig workers and other people who normally don’t qualify.