The Pandemic Is Exposing the Cruelty of America’s Workhouse Economy

American workers are sharing their stories of life on unemployment benefits. The horrors of our collective surrender to the market are on full display.

House majority leader Steny Hoyer stops to talk to reporters as he leaves the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the eve of the expiration of the CARES Act on July 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum / Getty Images)

Congress has now resoundingly failed to reach an agreement to extend COVID-19–related relief and benefits for millions of Americans facing the cruelest economic calamity since the Great Depression. Even if lawmakers do forge some kind of arrangement in the coming days, the sluggishness of America’s withered state bureaucracies will ensure that whatever benefits do arrive will probably be too little — and will certainly be too late. The $600 a week unemployment checks that have supported so many workers during the pandemic expired just over a week ago and there is, as of yet, no clear timeline for when they might be restored, if indeed they’re restored at all.

Republicans, in true neo-Dickensian form, want the already meager benefits slashed by more than 60 percent. Ahead of the negotiations House majority leader Steny Hoyer seemed to have already capitulated in spirit, signaling that the Democrats were more than willing to budge on the extension of weekly unemployment benefits. Rounding off this tour de force of liberal fecklessness, Hoyer even offered a perfunctory nod to the popular right-wing idea that further benefits could serve as a disincentive to work — pointing to a report from the Congressional Budget Office which found that five out of six recipients of expanded unemployment would receive more money from the program than they would at their jobs.

It’s all pretty contemptible, if unsurprising. Since the 1990s at least, leaders in both parties have basically agreed that the purpose of most government benefits is to get workers back into the daily toil of call centers and bargain-basement retail jobs as quickly and efficiently as possible. During the early weeks of the pandemic, it briefly seemed like elements of the political class might actually be forced to rise to the occasion, if only thanks to the magnitude of the crisis. Any hope on that score has long since melted away as millions of desperate and struggling Americans watch their would-be tribunes calmly negotiate over the precise terms of their misery.

It’s widely understood that the country’s official response to the pandemic, both as a health and an economic emergency, has been inadequate: meager unemployment benefits cut while millions remain out of work and the bulk of direct cash support arriving in occasional $1,200 payments that may or may not be renewed whenever the next stimulus bill is finally cobbled together. What we do know is that even this paltry relief has prevented, or at least delayed, a catastrophic spike in poverty that would have occurred in its absence — the various benefits given to laid-off workers actually giving many of them a better standard of living than they had before the pandemic.

This shouldn’t be taken as praise, but rather as an indictment of just how bad things actually were for millions of Americans under circumstances still officially considered “normal.”

Scratch the surface of the day’s unemployment statistics and you’ll discover a bottomless reservoir of human suffering too profound for any single person to comprehend. The plural of anecdote may not be data, but the accounts emerging from an online community originally set up for laid-off workers to discuss unemployment benefits are but one example among many showcasing the needless cruelty of America’s economic system — and the tyranny exercised by the market over daily life.

One particularly striking discussion begins as follows:

I’m 23 years old and I have been working shitty minimum wage jobs the past 5 years to be able to get by and pay rent. I’ve put up with so much mental abuse from co-workers and customers working customer service jobs, and all to bring home barely enough to pay my bills and eat. It’s put me in a several year long stretch of depression. But the past 4 months have been the happiest time of my life. I am able to feel comfortable with money, and do what I want with my time, including studying and researching things that interest me. If the $600 unemployment gets extended I have made my mind up that I will be going to school as well to learn a trade so I can do something I enjoy and make a decent living. If unemployment doesn’t get extended, it’s back to working for $11 an hour and being told I’m a piece of garbage by customers while I take their orders.

There are, conservatively, dozens of more comments replying in exactly this vein — recently laid-off workers explaining how even a momentary break in the economic grind that has dominated their adult lives has afforded them an occasion to breath, feel secure, and seize the opportunity to pursue their ambitions and interests with the burden of low-paid work temporarily put on pause. All told, there are simply too many replies to list. But here are a few more which capture the general spirit of the discussion:

“I haven’t had this long a break from work in 9 years. I just started a career as a contractor, working long weeks, upwards to 84 hours. While I appreciated the pay, I could tell it was already being draining. This time on UI has had me: hiking more, cooking at home more, exercising more, losing weight. I’ve lost 30lbs since May!! I’m literally the lowest weight I’ve been since I was at least 13 (240 Freshman year, 260 until 2017, 214lbs today). I’m happy, I’ve been more frugal, and making better decisions with regards to my life. And it feels great. I’m not being reckless with money, I’ve given myself a budget to rack up my savings, my ‘welfare queen’ money has gone straight to savings and taking care of myself first and foremost. And it’s wonderful.”

“I just wanna work for my money. I don’t want to be rich. I can drive a 15 year old car, I can live in a modest apartment. I want to buy a couple of toys like musical instruments to make my short life here on earth feel kinda good sometimes. Nothing crazy. I want real food, too. Again, nothing crazy. I don’t wanna get illnesses because my body is broken for 40 hours a week just to come home and pass out next to my pets that were alone all day.”

“I needed this break. My family and I have been going through a tough time these past couple years for things unrelated to the pandemic. It’s been nice not to worry about finances and getting stressed from working.”

“It’s so odd to say but this pandemic weirdly improved my life. Not having to work yet being twice as financially stable as when I was working? I quit biting my nails after 20 years. I finally applied (and got into) college after being too depressed to bother for the past 2 years since HS. This is the first time in my entire life I’ve been able to go days, and even a week or two without anxiety attacks. And for someone who wasn’t much for going out in the first place, I don’t mind staying home and limiting the people I’m seeing to my loved ones…This is the very first time I’ve ever felt safe and secure enough to enjoy my life, even if at a distance from those around me. This pandemic is an absolute tragedy, but the influx of support for poor people like me has been nothing short of life changing, in my experience.”

“It’s been the best time of my life not having to be yelled at by customers and feel anxious and depressed. I’ve been learning how to make earrings with my free time and I’m trying really hard to use my time (before the $600 expires) to work on my craft so that I don’t have to go back to minimum wage and being ridiculed.”

“Since getting employment it’s opened up my creative side, I’ve been working on Blender a lot, learning how to make 3d renders, and learning more JavaScript. Before I was just too tired to do anything mentally and was always anxious/mad about something that happened in my job.”

“I’m 23 myself, and I’m a store manager for a video game retailer. I’m making a little more on unemployment than I do from my actual paychecks. I have money to invest in my other hobbies! Writing is my passion, and I’ve had the time and energy to actually write. The stress from work and overwhelming schedule made it near impossible to write anything. I started going to school right around the same time as the quarantine began, and I’ve been able to focus on schoolwork and find time for myself. This whole situation is simultaneously a gift and a nightmare. I’m scared to see what will happen when all of this is over and life is back to normal. I don’t want to go back to that normal.”

“I’m 37 & have had a series of crappy customer service jobs. I never had time to go get that elusive “better job” people yell at poor people to go get. I was making less working 50 hour weeks, night shift, very stressed out. I didn’t even realize the toll it took until laid off and forced to slow down. My sleep schedule is still messed up but my bills are paid, I have food stocked, I replaced my old computer and am learning programming. It’s something I tried to do for awhile, but when all you have time for is working, eating and sleeping, I just couldn’t. I hope I never have to go back to any customer service job.”

“Being paid a livable wage allows me to just…breathe for the first time since I started working.”

Though it’s impossible to verify the details of each of these stories, it’s safe to assume there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions more, exactly like them given the number of people who have claimed benefits — and the apparent zeal in Congress to make sure they expire in weeks or months, lest the working poor find themselves a bit too comfortable.

In a perverse sort of way, the bipartisan credo that giving people social entitlements will make work less attractive is entirely correct. Few among us, after all, would voluntarily sign up to put nose to the grindstone for forty, fifty, or sixty hours a week — particularly if the clauses in our hypothetical contract came with implicit provisions for low pay and abusive management, as so many jobs on the depraved conveyer belt that is so laughably called the American economy invariably do. The market forces this bargain on people, giving many the choice to work long hours for poor compensation or starve. Not content with coercing millions into this punishing arrangement, its apologists then have the audacity to call it freedom.

Crisis or no crisis, for the majority of America’s politicians — both liberal and conservative — the market remains sacrosanct. Ironically enough, the inadequate benefits doled out by Congress in the wake of the pandemic paint us a picture of what life can be for average people when the majority of waking hours are no longer sacrificed to the relentless pressures and degradations of low-wage work.

If only for a fleeting moment, COVID-19 has snapped shut the economic maw into which so many lives are needlessly fed during what is called “normal.” By all appearances, most of America’s political leadership can’t wait to pry it open once again.