Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks about the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distributions during a at a news conference at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.
( AP Photo/Andrew Demillo
Melissa: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and you're listening to The Takeaway. On September 5th, 2021, several of the CARES Act unemployment benefits are set to expire, but many Republican-led states have already halted the extra $300 a month in unemployment insurance payments. Lawsuits against this halt have been filed across the country. In Indiana and Maryland, the courts sided with the unemployed workers, and the states were compelled to accept the additional 300 in federal unemployment insurance for their residents. On Thursday, another court sided with the unemployed residents of Arkansas. I spoke with Kevin De Liban, an attorney with Legal Aid in Arkansas, right after he got the news.
Kevin: We just got word from the judge that we've won our lawsuit at least the preliminary step, forcing the state to reinstate all of these federal unemployment benefits for basically 69,000 people here in Arkansas. It's thrilling news.
Melissa: Tell me when and why you filed a lawsuit.
Kevin: We just filed the lawsuit last week. What's happened is, of course, with the pandemic, the federal government passed several new unemployment programs that extended and expanded upon those that were preexisting, and the state of Arkansas as well as basically half of the states in the country decided to terminate those over two months early. That meant cutting off millions and millions of people of these vital benefits that folks need to keep the lights on and pay rent and have enough food to eat and all of those things. We sued the state of Arkansas here to say, ''No, you couldn't cut these benefits off. You have to resume participating in them until they expire at the federal level,'' which happens right now as in early September.
Melissa: Now, help me to understand this because like political science 101 says, ''If you're a governor, you take dollars from the federal government to provide goodies for your constituents.'' Why in the world are so many of you having to sue your governors in order to keep the federal government's unemployment benefits?
Kevin: Well, it's a mystery because as you say, like in Arkansas, for example, the value of these benefits for just the 69,000 people who are here in our state is something like $30 million per week that would be fully federally funded coming into our economy. The stated reasons that the governors are doing this are actually based on false premises. The truth is that if you're receiving any of these unemployment benefits, you have to be making your best efforts to get back to work. You have stringent work search requirements, and if you are offered a suitable job, you have to take it. If you don't, you lose your benefits.
The unemployment programs, as they're currently working are already meant to help people get back into the economy or to drive people back into the workforce to the extent that they're able to. The fact is is that the economy isn't good for so many people and that despite their best efforts, folks are not able to get new jobs despite searching and being required to search.
Melissa: How are we to understand that over and against what we so often have been hearing in the political discourse lately, which is the problem is we've got a work shortage, right? We've got plenty of jobs, not enough people to fill them, and the main reason we don't have enough people to fill them is because folks are sitting home on unemployment.
Kevin: That's patently false and it just comes from either willful ignorance or maybe innocent ignorance, neither of which is acceptable. The fact is that program rules have been in effect for a long time. They were extended to these programs that require people to search for work, report their work search efforts, and to accept any suitable job that's offered. If you don't do those things, you lose your benefits. Anybody saying otherwise just is either pushing a false narrative or simply doesn't understand how these programs work.
Melissa: I know there were some states and even Arkansas who at least briefly decided to end these benefits. Have we seen a surge in unemployment as a result of those benefits ending in the states where it did end?
Kevin: No. There's been some studies that have come out these last couple of weeks that show that terminating these programs is not meaningfully affecting employment numbers in these states and may actually be doing the opposite.
Melissa: Now, help us to understand, I want to go back to the 69,000 people, and I think you said 30 million a week, is that right?
Kevin: Yes, roughly 30 million a week.
Melissa: Okay. Help us to understand, those are big numbers or they feel like big numbers. What does that mean in a household? How many dollars are people receiving and what are those dollars going to purchase?
Kevin: For at least most of our clients at Legal Aid we serve the lowest of low-income folks. It means $400 to $500 a week for most of our folks, maybe up to $600 a week. This is people paying their rent, paying their mortgage, buying food, having enough gas so they can drive. It's just basic life necessities that people are going without. Apart from the material like suffering of not having enough to eat, you can imagine all the constant stress and worry of not knowing, ''Okay, what's going to happen next month? Oh, the eviction moratorium is end date. Am I going to have a place to live? Is my school starting up? Am I going to be able to buy my kids the school supplies they need? Are we going to have enough to eat?''
$400, $500, $600 a week is the difference between abject poverty and homelessness and immense human suffering, and at least a very basic level of survival. Nobody's living large off those amounts. It's just basic survival.
Melissa: Clearly part of the reason that unemployment surge ended so swiftly in Arkansas and across the country is the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 shutdown. Gosh, 18 months ago now. Quite some time ago, but we're now watching COVID numbers surge again, with the Delta variant. We know that places like Arkansas are also under-vaccinated relative to the rest of the nation. Any conversations with either the people who you're serving or with other folks who are decision-makers and the communities that you're moving in about what you're expecting in terms of the economic and health impact of COVID going forward?
Kevin: On the part of the people that we serve, very much so. All of our folks are concerned about what COVID exposure again would mean. Arkansas is one of the leading hotspots, if not the leading hotspot of COVID right now, and we are in the bottom three to five states of vaccination rates. All of our folks who we're serving know, ''Hey, work is dangerous right now for many of their jobs.'' They're willing to go and do it if they have to, but it's risk of exposure. From the people who are making the decisions in the political class, we see markedly little interest or attention on the human impact of what this means for people who are trying to go back to work, take care of themselves and their families.
Melissa: Kevin De Liban is an attorney with Legal Aid of Arkansas, and he just got a big win. Kevin, thanks so much for coming back on the show.
Kevin: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa. It's a delight.
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