COVID Relief — Fail

The first absurd assumption is that people who need income assistance during COVID have computers or access to the internet. They might have had smart phones at one point, but not now when they don’t have food.

I can only hope that other states are more skilled in dispensing unemployment assistance than Arkansas. The Arkansas Department of Workforce Services (DWS) has lots of problems, in particular with COVID unemployment money meant for people who are (were) self-employed.

Traditionally, unemployment benefits have never applied to the self-employed. State law requires employers to buy unemployment compensation policies for their employees. No law requires such backup for those who work for themselves.

I got into this issue because I’m helping a neighbor, a 58-year-old man [I’ll call him Bill] skilled in building trades, specifically carpentry, drywall finishing, and painting. Bill owns no property, has no savings, and possesses a few tools of his trade plus a 2001 Dodge Dakota that’s one wheeze away from vehicular death. He lives hand to mouth. He can do just about anything, his livelihood forged over decades of getting by any way he could.

By June 2020 when the CARES Act passed Congress, he told me he didn’t know how to get money through the program even though it promised unemployment income for the self-employed. I agreed to help.

The information, application, and weekly claims go through the DWS website in the PUA special page for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. But Bill doesn’t have a computer. His phone doesn’t have data – he can’t afford it. So on my computer, I’ve filled out his information and filed weekly claims. At first, the process involved stating what aspects of COVID kept him from working, in his case that his workplaces were shut down and jobs he was supposed to start had been cancelled. The application then required him to state whether he was receiving benefits from any other source. Then he had to verify the information was accurate.

It was a huge relief for Bill (and me) when he received a debit card with money flowing in from the claims we filed weekly. He could buy groceries, pay rent, and repair his truck.

About three or four months in, the state suddenly started requiring him to name at least three job contacts he had made that week and any work he’d done. There was no statement in advance that he would have to make job contacts in order to receive benefits, so a few weeks of claims were denied. Once I figured out the requirement, I let him know and he started making phone calls and checking in with people he had worked for.

Nothing had changed. Nobody was hiring interior labor and damn few outside construction jobs were hiring. Still, he made the required effort so we could state on the unemployment claim forms that he met those requirements.

Then he fell and cracked a bone in his arm, so for three weeks I noted on his claim form that he had broken his arm and couldn’t work. Well, that’s not COVID related, so they didn’t pay him for those weeks.  

Once he got better enough to handle his tools, we filed more claims but they didn’t send any money. Blank claims forms did not appear on his PUA page and there was nothing to fill out. He had no other income and the infection rate in our area was in the top five worst of the entire nation. Afraid to try to work even if jobs had been open, he began pawning his tools. His phone shut off. His truck insurance expired. He went to a church for food handouts and I gave him sacks of groceries to keep him from starving during the holidays.

In early January, I went again to the PUA page and found claim forms available back to November. So I filed claims for him through mid-December. So far he’s received just over $700.

He now has a working phone again, but he’s three months behind on his electricity bill. His arm is permanently bent from the cracked bone near his elbow because he had to cut and split firewood before it was fully healed in order to keep himself, his dog, and the plumbing in the house where he lives from freezing. Fortunately, his rental is on wooded property where he could cut trees. He did receive the recent $600 stimulus check and is using it to reinstate insurance on his truck and get some of his tools out of pawn.

But I can’t file any more claims for the new round of PUA unemployment because the AR DWS is apparently incapable of providing coherent support for the process. After a delay throughout most of January 2021, citing technological issues, their website offers now PUA information with instructions as follows:

“…PUA has been extended under the Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act. The PUA extension will provide additional weeks of benefits, to a maximum of 50 weeks, ending with the week of March 13, 2021. Weekly certification, identification, and documentation will be required.

“If your application is approved, you will need to file continued claims for each week you are unemployed to receive benefits. The work search requirement is now in effect, and you must report the number of job contacts when filing your weekly claim. The one-week waiting period is also back in effect.

“Submit your application and file weekly claims for PUA benefits online at www.pua.arkansas.gov/home   Sunday – Saturday: 6 am – 6 pm

“If you have trouble filing online, or if you have questions regarding your account, you may call the hotline 844-908-2178 Monday – Saturday 6 am – 6 pm

“Those eligible will also receive the additional $300 FPUC for weeks claimed starting with the week ending January 2, 2021 and ending with the week ending March 13, 2021.

“You will be required to verify your ID to receive PUA benefits. You will receive notice in the mail and/or via email with instructions on how to complete the process. If you have already verified your ID, you do not have to do it again. If you are unable to verify your ID online, you may present your identification in person at a local DWS office or at an Arkansas Workforce Center.

“You will be required to provide documentation showing proof of employment/self-employment or planned employment/self-employment. You must submit the following supporting documents:

“1. Proof of earning from the last tax year or other financial documents. Until documents are received, the minimum PUA benefit amount will be applied.

“2. Documentation substantiating employment or self-employment or the planned commencement of employment or self-employment.

Needless to say, there is no hope of actually speaking with someone at that hotline number. The laconic voice on the recording remarks on ‘the high call volume’ and regrets there is no one who can take the call at this time. The caller is referred to their website.

To date, Bill has received no mail or email instructing him how to verify his identification.

The website allows no entry to Bill’s previous account, claiming the password is wrong. We did not change his password. Attempts to obtain password assistance are supposed to result in an email with instructions, but no emails have been forthcoming.

The website does not provide any information about what exactly they meant in item #2, “documentation substantiating self-employment” or “plans to commence self-employment.” If Bill had self-employment or plans for work, he wouldn’t need PUA money. More to the point, would it have killed them provide an EXAMPLE of how to document “plans to commence self-employment”???????

Without any further explanation of what exactly the documentation for such ‘plans’ might comprise, how is one to meet the requirement?

The PUA Handbook states that: “The PUA weekly assistance amount will be calculated in accordance with Arkansas Employment Security law. The weekly assistance minimum is $133 per week and the maximum is $451 per week. The weekly amount shall be the weekly amount of compensation that individual would have been paid as a regular unemployment insurance compensation unless the weekly benefit amount is less than 50% of the average weekly payment of regular unemployment insurance benefits. The maximum weekly benefit amount shall not exceed the maximum weekly benefit amount of regular unemployment insurance benefits payable in the state. … [and on and on with more incomprehensible drivel]

At one point in their PUA handbook, DWS states that “The weekly assistance amount payable to you will be reduced by the amount that you have received for a week or will receive for a week based on the following criteria: [four income sources that don’t apply to Bill] and…Gross earnings in excess of 40% of your Weekly Assistance Amount.” So, apparently, if your weekly assistance amount is $133 and you earn $55 that week, your assistance will be $78 which tops out your $133. Or not?

We won’t know from one week to the next whether Bill will find work or whether his “plans to commence work” will be considered adequate by whatever mysterious criteria they use.

I’m a college graduate and fairly skilled dealing with bureaucracy. I’ve plowed through the formation of more than one small business corporation and a couple of nonprofits. If I can’t make sense of this bullshit, how is a man of limited resources and a high school education supposed to negotiate the process?

Answer: He’s not.

That’s the entire point. Throw up as many barriers as possible – lack of access, incomprehensible “information,” verification requirements that are impossible to meet – and voila you have a program that is just about as worthless as the paper it’s written on.

I’m outraged for him. I’m outraged for all the other self-employed people who make up a huge segment of our economy who have been left in the ditch by COVID – gig-workers like musicians, audio guys, recording studios etc., as well as carpenters, painters, and other repair folks, plus restaurants and night clubs and other venues that have been forced to close. These people are losing their homes, their vital services, everything that they depended on to earn a living and survive.

As I said at the start of this rant, I hope other states are far better in providing PUA funding to the people who need it. This isn’t the first time I’m been ashamed and outraged by the failures of Arkansas government. I don’t have any hope that things will improve in the near term. But I just wanted to make people aware that despite federal efforts to extend a helping hand, many of those in Arkansas who need help AREN’T GETTING IT.

Change: It’s Up to Us

The current conservative narrative revolves around the imagined horrors of Socialism. Apparently without awareness of the many socialist programs upon which they depend, the reactionary segment of the U.S. voting population has taken up the latest incarnation of the old Red Scare.

A “Red Scare” is promotion of widespread fear by a society or state about a potential rise of communism, anarchism, or radical leftism. The term is most often used to refer to two periods in the history of the United States with this name. The First Red Scare, which occurred immediately after World War I, revolved around a perceived threat from the American labor movement, anarchist revolution, and political radicalism.  The Second Red Scare, which occurred immediately after World War II, was preoccupied with national or foreign communists infiltrating or subverting U.S. society or the federal government…

…the Red Scare was “a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of life”…[1]

If any of this sounds familiar within the context of current political debate in the U.S., well, it should. The same argument has been fomented now for 100 years. Hysteria about the creeping plague of socialism undergirded the Cold War, our disastrous policies in Latin America, and the war in Vietnam. The hue and cry of those terrified of socialism and its big brother communism has motivated the expenditure of trillions of U.S. dollars and spilled the blood of tens of thousands of our young men. The damage worldwide is incalculable.

So what exactly should we fear about these philosophies of social order? For one thing, we should avoid conflating the differing ideas. Socialism is not communism. Democratic Socialism is not Socialism. All Societies employ socialism to some degree. For example as a minimum in the United States: the public library, public works, social security, the military, the fire department, police, health care (state hospitals, Medicaid, and Medicare). All of these functions and more can operate quite well under a capitalistic democracy.

Countries that have a strong central government tend to exhibit more acceptance to social programs. The idea that people can do more as a group rather than as individuals is accepted by the population under a strong central government and are more willing to surrender certain personal rights. In North America, two similar countries can be compared. Canada, for example, has a strong central government as evident in her national gun laws and criminal codes applied across all provinces and territories, and at the political level a healthy socialist political party…

The United States, on the other hand, has strong state rights over a central government resulting in various gun laws and criminal codes across the country, and does not have a party with socialist leanings (although the Democratic Party is often referred to as liberal). Therefore, individualism is a characteristic in the United States that is highly regarded and individuals are less likely to surrender certain personal rights. Social programs greater than the absolute minimum are considered charity at best and at its worst seen as diluting individualism and reducing personal wealth.

Americans, therefore, view socialism as a threat to their individualism and coupled with the McCarthy Era’s effective propaganda have developed an unrealistic definition between it and communism supported by fear.[2]

Face it. We’re no longer a society dominated by small close-knit communities where caring neighbors or a church provided care for those in need. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors. Neither churches nor charitable giving offer systematic methods of determining whether someone is truly needy or simply playing on sympathies. Nor do local charities have a method to ensure that assistance is available to all who might need it rather than the select few who appear at the church house door. Nor is there any assurance that the amount of support provided by a charity is appropriate to the need at hand. Charities themselves are often cookies jars raided by their operators.These are the exact reasons a federal system became vitally important as our nation grew beyond its early days of small rural communities.

While we thumb through our Twitter feed or view video from around the world, why do we expect that despite all the advances in technology and global economies that we’re somehow able to exist socially in a previous century? We are not what we were in 1850 or 1900 or even 1950.

As for that mythical freedom to pursue our fortunes, it’s time to recognize that those days are long gone – if, indeed they ever existed. There is no free land given to veterans of war or government projects, no expanses of virgin timber, no undiscovered gold. Our population in 1800 was 5,308,483. Now it’s 291,421,906.

If a rich man can afford five houses, two yachts, and countless other luxuries, why is it a hardship to take enough of his money so that he can only afford two houses and one yacht? Chances are high that he didn’t create that wealth by himself but rather workers hired at the lowest possible rate of pay in order to profit off their labor. Or he inherited his fortune from someone who did the same.

If a poor man is homeless, what do we do about it—let him die on the street?

If a newborn is the one out of 33 born with a medical problem like a heart defect, spina bifida, cleft palate, clubfoot, or congenital dislocated hip, and her parents have no medical insurance, what’s the right thing to do?

If people don’t have enough to eat, do we feed them?

If we are faced with a life-threatening illness, should we lose our home and everything we own to get medical care?

Is it truly our morality as a nation to allow the pharmaceutical industry to gain billions in profits while forcing the poor to die without the medication they need to survive? To allow doctors to live like royalty? To allow hospitals to generate profit off the sick and dying?

What is socialism, anyway? By its old definition, a socialist economy was owned by the people. Factories, offices, and industry in general were either worker cooperatives or government owned. No one in the U.S. except perhaps the extreme left advocates for such a system. The problems of this approach included worker apathy and potential for corruption, not that capitalist systems don’t suffer similar downsides. The benefit was that everyone had means of support and a job to do.

A new approach to social problems is called democratic socialism. Let’s look at what that means.

…in many of the societies of Western Europe which have adopted progress toward democratic socialism, productivity, standards of living, incentives, and markers of personal happiness and security are very high. Social democracy is a kind of socialism that tries to mix parts of socialism with capitalism. In this system, the government takes wealth (money) from the rich and gives it to the poor… but despite there being more government control and less chance to make a very large amount of money, people can still run their own businesses and own private property. Unlike communism, where all private property is taken to be owned publicly, people and businesses pay taxes on their property, and this money is spent on public services after taking out the costs of running the government and collecting the taxes. [3]

We as a democratic nation have an ongoing opportunity to craft a society that allows for entrepreneurship while also providing a safety net for those who need our help. We’re already pretty far along this path but much more work remains to be done. The question is, do we go backwards now, undo laws governing labor (sick leave, vacation time, 40-hour work week, workplace safety, retirement benefits)? Cancel policies providing food, medical care, and minimal living support for the disabled and poor? Do we go back to subscription schools where only those who can afford it are able to educate their children?

Or do we make clear-eyed decisions about how to best provide an equitable existence for our fellow man? Because, yes, we are our brothers’ keepers. We live in a nation still rich in opportunity. We’re not stupid. We need to approach these questions with open minds and do what we as Americans do best – move forward with meaningful solutions. That’s what will make America great.

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare

[2] https://www.quora.com/Why-are-Americans-so-scared-of-socialism

[3] https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism

 

Further reading: Saving Capitalism, by Robert Reich 

“Perhaps no one is better acquainted with the intersection of economics and politics than Robert B. Reich, and now he reveals how power and influence have created a new American oligarchy, a shrinking middle class, and the greatest income inequality and wealth disparity in eighty years. He makes clear how centrally problematic our veneration of the “free market” is, and how it has masked the power of moneyed interests to tilt the market to their benefit.

“Reich exposes the falsehoods that have been bolstered by the corruption of our democracy by huge corporations and the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street: that all workers are paid what they’re “worth,” that a higher minimum wage equals fewer jobs, and that corporations must serve shareholders before employees. He shows that the critical choices ahead are not about the size of government but about who government is for: that we must choose not between a free market and “big” government but between a market organized for broadly based prosperity and one designed to deliver the most gains to the top. Ever the pragmatist, ever the optimist, Reich sees hope for reversing our slide toward inequality and diminished opportunity when we shore up the countervailing power of everyone else.

“Passionate yet practical, sweeping yet exactingly argued, Saving Capitalism is a revelatory indictment of our economic status quo and an empowering call to civic action.”


“What Causes Poverty” by Mike Sosteric

July 8, 2015

“…Poverty causes nothing but hardship and struggle for the people. Children who grow up in poverty have poor health, poor hygiene, poor diet, poor housing, lousy experiences at school (as evinced by higher absenteeism and lower scholastic achievement), more behavioural and mental problems, and long term employment difficulties. Adults who are poor have the same difficulties as their children, getting sicker more often, being unemployed for longer periods, taking more time off work, living shorter lives, and so on. There is no doubt about it, being poor is a liability: it causes disability, disease, and even death…”