Congress Is Hanging Single Parents Out to Dry

Willie Mae Daniels makes melted-cheese sandwiches with her granddaughter, Karyah Davis, 6, after being laid off from her job as a food-service cashier at the University of Miami on March 17. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Congress allowed enhanced unemployment insurance to expire on July 31. That negligence deprives households of an extra $600 per week — money that has demonstrably kept families and individuals from falling more deeply into poverty in the middle of a historic recession. The lapse returns households to standard state unemployment benefits, which may impose particularly severe burdens on single parents. New data from the Economic Policy Institute, the Center for American Progress, and the Progressive Caucus Action Fund shows that standard unemployment insurance isn’t enough to help single parents pay the bills.

State unemployment benefits are relatively low: Previous research from the Economic Policy Institute puts the average state payment at $320 per week. In areas with a higher cost of living, that payment frequently fails to cover a family’s actual needs. According to the new data, a single parent with one child who receives unemployment in Nassau County, Florida, falls “$3,936 short of what they need to pay for basic monthly expenses,” including rent, groceries, and child-care needs. (Estimates are based on EPI’s family-budget calculator, and the precise shortfall varies from locality to locality.)

The discrepancy between a state’s standard unemployment benefit and a single parent’s weekly needs has widespread consequences. One-quarter of all parents are unmarried, Pew Research Center reported in 2018, and of that figure, nearly two-thirds live without a partner. Single parents are also more likely to experience economic hardship, with poverty concentrated among single mothers. A 2015 study from researchers at the University of Illinois and the University of Minnesota found that single mothers on average earn “two-thirds of what single fathers earn,” and the gender gap does not decrease over time. The recession now reinforces the gendered inequalities that single mothers already faced. Women account for a majority of job losses this year.

Without an enhanced UI, single parents are again hostages to a failing status quo, and their economic reality illustrates the more ghoulish qualities of the conservative argument against the $600 weekly bonus. Congressional Republicans proposed a scaled-down version of the original provisions: The HEALS Act, their riposte to the Democratic Party’s stalled HEROES Act, provides for only a $200 supplement. Single parents can’t expect much help from President Trump’s executive orders, either. Though Trump authorized an extra $300 UI benefit, the fine print is troublesome. Experts agree that the order is potentially unenforceable, and Trump has allocated only enough federal funding to pay for a probable five weeks of coverage. States will then have to fend for themselves, just as they’re facing massive budget shortfalls due to the pandemic. Congressional legislation could solve the problem, but Senate Republicans and Democrats have yet to agree on a compromise, largely because the GOP is reluctant to reauthorize another $600 per week.

Congressional Republicans and White House officials alike have argued that the enhanced UI disincentivizes work, though a handful of recent studies contradict these claims. In the absence of any real evidence in favor of their position, a deeper truth becomes clear. Republicans’ intransigence is partly dogmatic. They don’t want to spend money on the needy, even if doing so keeps children fed and clothed. Beyond this, conservatives had already backed themselves into an indefensible position. Not only is government spending the only barrier between the unemployed and the abyss, a bigger welfare state might have helped cushion the initial shock of the recession. Unemployment insurance was already inadequate when the pandemic began. Single parents, like everyone else on the brink, needed more from their government a long time ago.

Congress Is Hanging Single Parents Out to Dry