Here Comes the Pain, Shared and Otherwise
“There is no new experience in life,” wrote Horace McCoy, bed-rocking the brutal fatalism of his Great Depression-era story They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? “Something may happen to you that you think has never happened before, that you think is brand new, but you are mistaken. You have only to see or smell or hear or feel a certain something and you will discover that this experience you thought was new has happened before.”
A global pandemic idling the engines of economy is a new variation on the theme, but the economic pain that will be the byproduct is not new. Neither are economic hard times, just the wide swath of folks that are experiencing them reaches farther. The current pandemic shutdown, similar to the Great Depression, has an effect on groups that usually do not have to consider such hard times. Such pain is newly discovered because instead of some group of “them” — the usual high risk groups that seem perpetually poor such as the disadvantaged, the elderly, the disabled, the troubled, the demographics most prefer to not consider outside of charity reasons a few times a year, if at all — this period of troubles will be shared by many, many more.
James T. Patterson referred to it as “old poverty” vs “new poverty”, the latter term meaning working and middle class folks, and higher, who suddenly find themselves without income just as the former are the folks who always lived under that cloud. As in the past, the cries for provide relief to those who are hurting “through no fault of their own” means the “new poverty” and will reignite the age old debate over who is and isn’t the “worthy poor.” That rabbit hole should wait for another day, if ever, since philosophical nomenclature doesn’t put food on anyone’s table. New or old, worthy or not, a whole lot of people — and it looks as though the number will be tens of millions — will be out of work soon if they’re not already. Years of reporting and warnings that Americans have high debt loads and stories such as “40% of American’s couldn’t cover a $400 emergency” are becoming sharp, sudden realities.
When the unemployment numbers came out last week, the reaction on social media was varied. Of course there were the partisan hot takes, the econ numbers folks deep diving, and plenty of others in various stages of recoil from numbers no one has ever seen before. Thursday’s announcement of a staggering 6.6 million initial jobless claims, making a two week total of 10 million, was a realization moment for many.
This did not stop online snark from something that is new: social media. My own tweeting of the ghastly numbers elicited some sneering responses of “why were you surprised” and “what did you expect”. I, and many others, fully expected the worst. I, the person who spends an unhealthy amount of time online and consuming news and current events and is as informed as possible on the goings on of the world, was not surprised. I, the human being, was still appalled reading the horrific numbers on the page despite my foreknowledge. Because each and every one of those data points represents a real person.
Furthermore, I, the realist, understand this is just the beginning.
When you have to reach back to the Great Depression to find a comparison, things are not going well. While we don’t know where the current crisis is heading, we are hopeful that the economic crisis will last weeks or months and not the decade of soul crush the 1930s was. The human mind needs something as a measuring stick from history to help it comprehend what was unimaginable only a few weeks ago. So the Great Depression, though not a perfect comparison, it is. Only the massive wave of unemployment rippling across the land is on our live feeds, not just black and white pictures from the past.
While large parts of the national media and online commentariat are focusing on the president and the national responses, the immediate unemployment tsunami is lapping at the shores of the states. Under the best of circumstances, relief is a labyrinthine bureaucratic mess. Throw in a national crisis, and it’s unmitigated chaos.
From March 16 through Friday (April 3rd), there have been at least 381,637 claims filed, with 87.2% of applicants citing the COVID-19 virus as the reason for their job loss, layoff from work, reduced wages or furlough.
That’s an average of roughly 1,000 an hour for a system that had been handling about 3,300 a week just three weeks ago.
DES officials said Friday that more than $10 million in UI benefits have been paid related to about 41,000 claims related to COVID-19. Those claims were made between March 16 and March 20.
That averages to about $243.90 per week for those claimants who got through and were deemed eligible for benefits.
By comparison, for the fourth quarter of 2019, N.C. workers received an average weekly UI benefit of $277, with an average duration of 8.7 weeks — last in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,
Less than 10% of jobless workers in N.C. received UI benefits, also last in the country.
Currently, it’s likely there are just as many would-be applicants, if not more, who have been calling repeatedly daily, hanging on for as long as they can stand it to speak with a DES call center worker, or not being given the option and getting cut off.
They’ve been kicked off the online process, or been told they need to reset their password — which requires the help of, you guessed it — a DES call center employee.
Also of note: despite already sitting at home and knowing their jobs are all but ending soon, many folks can not file for unemployment until their current pay periods run out, they are officially laid off/terminated, or any of a number of other things happens. And this is North Carolina, one of the more fiscally sound states, sporting a $900 million budget surplus even after allocating rainy day funds for disaster relief several times over the last few years. The good news is, prior to the present crisis, the 11 year run of robust economic growth enabled 41 states to enter 2020 with growth in their “Rainy Day” funds:
States held a record $113.2 billion in total balances at the end of fiscal 2019, driving up the median number of days that they potentially could run government operations using this fiscal cushion to 48.1, or 13.2 percent of spending—at least a 20-year high. That is nearly seven days more—and 1.8 percentage points higher—than total balances held just before the downturn.
For the first time, a majority of states—at least 28—had enough in total balances to cover a greater share of government spending than they could heading into the 2007-09 recession.
But other states are not as well off going into the shutdown, with Pew finding that “Five states had less than a week’s worth of operating costs in reserve: Kentucky (4 days), New Jersey (3.9), Pennsylvania (0.3), Illinois (less than a tenth of a day), and Kansas, which had yet to make a deposit after creating its account in 2016.” States are made up of people. And just as people vary in preparedness, some are better prepared for the crisis than others.
The federal government has already passed three massive pieces of legislation in response, with talk that the next round or “Phase Four” bill will be heavy on relief to businesses and the states themselves that are bearing the burden for both emergency response to the virus and benefits such as unemployment for the sudden wave of economically endangered citizens.
But that isn’t new either, at least in concept. Many of the very government programs folks will rely on and the precedent for the federal government to oversee a nationwide response to crisis have their roots in the responses of FDR and the Great Depression. This crisis may be new to hear about, have a new smell, or a new feel to the pain. But the issue of sudden onset hardship is certainly not new.
So if the pain is not new and the solutions are not new, what is missing? With constant play-by-play and a deluge of graphs, charts and talking head show graphics, what is missing is humility and empathy.
Humility is critical. No one really knows the full scope of what is happening, or how it will play out. The best and most well-intentioned models, projections, predictions, and theories are not an infallible guide for us given how far off the map we are and are heading. There has never been a sudden, total, nationwide — not to mention worldwide — shutdown of the economy such as this. It is a true universal event, involving most facets of most folks’ lives simultaneously. While the economic effects of the COVID crisis will take time to reach their outer limits, they are coming. The running tallies of the infected and the dead will be what they are outside the hands of most of us — and we pray they are far less than worst case scenarios. But the basis of an economic catastrophe has been laid. There is no switch to “turn on” the economy, no magical booster to “get us back” once the crisis passes. The economy of the United States is far more oil tanker than speed boat: slow to turn, hard to get moving, and harder still to clean up once you suddenly crash it into something.
Empathy is needed for the same reason as humility will be: The unknown of millions of lives upended with little warning and no real timeline of how long the crisis will last. The United States has never seen work stoppage on the scale that is now occurring. The ripple effect of each person changing their spending habits overlapping with thousands of others in communities around the country is something there just isn’t precedent for. Many will rise to the occasion as best they can, trying to help others as much as they can, but with everyone hurting to various degrees at the same time, those bonds of charity will be severely tested and shorter than usual. The part that is new with this crisis from those of the past — interconnectivity through technology such as social media — can emphasize these events are not just numbers on page or screen graphic but a mapping of the previously uncharted waters of shared human suffering on a mass level in real time.
The real story of this crisis is not the numerical one, but the human one. The sick who suffer, the dead we lose, the families who mourn, the folks who find their very existence threatened, families and businesses racked with uncertainty for the future. Talking heads will fill their segments with their narratives, analysts will crunch the numbers, pundits will cast blame and demand credit, and politicians and officials will be exposed by the trial of crisis for posterity to judge. Come what may, the human story of both tragedy and triumph must be held as central to the narrative of the times we find ourselves in.
The temptation will be to dehumanize and sanitize the hard to understand, but that impulse must be put down. “The Media” is not a monolith of “them;” it is a bunch of people. “The Government” is not just a nameless, faceless bureaucracy; it is people at every level from local, to state, to federal who should be praised for rising to the occasion or held to account for their failures under fire. “The Unemployed” are not masses of whatever your priors were of the non-working seeking benefits; they will be friends, neighbors, and family members, many of whom never dreamed they would need such assistance. There will be plenty of “new poverty” of middle-class and higher joining the “old poverty” of the perpetually disadvantaged in need of assistance, but the wise among us should take the lessons that there were more similarities than differences all along, and circumstances could equalize us in shared pain and troubles at a moment’s notice.
Even if testing and containment allow an easing of quarantines and stay in place orders relatively quickly, there will be plenty of economic pain to go around. Businesses will use these events to reconsider their operations, both out of need and to take advantage of the situation. We’ve already seen the measures taken by the federal government and eye-popping spending programs that will be coming into effect even as we find out what else was buried in those 1400 pages. There will be no quick fixes, easy answers, or early exits here, and the public should be wary of anyone promising as much, whomever they may be or the reasons they are making them.
But there will be fixes, answers and an exit. If a steady hand, however imperfect, can be maintained, this crisis need not be the lost decade of the Great Depression. Modern technology and globalization should, at least theoretically, be much quicker to reform the economic order. The responses to the Great Depression will be studied and debated for as long as the republic and academia endure. But the country did get through it. While we hope there is no looming world war after this economic hardship, it is certain this crisis will pass and another, newer one will follow.
The coming months and years will bring plenty of pain, of both the economic and emotional variety. It will be widespread across the land and touch most folks in some way or another. It is best to steel ourselves to that reality now, in the beginning, as we both individually and collectively bear down for the trial at hand. Doing so will make the ending, when it does finally come, all the more welcome. We should never lose sight of that ending, even during our grimmest trials. This experience feels new, but it has happened before. And the people who emerged from it have been lauded for their accomplishments since; for turning the shared suffering of the depression into victories both of world consequence and for the spirit of the nation.
So can we. So should we. So must we.