Pollak: There’s a Tech Solution for the Unemployment Benefits Crunch

Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, a cashier and customer are separated by plexiglass at the city owned waterpark in Grand Prairie, Texas, Friday, May 29, 2020. Water parks in Texas were allowed to reopen today. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
AP File Photo/LM Otero

President Donald Trump and the Republicans are caught in a Catch-22, an apparent no-win scenario. The extended federal unemployment benefits of $600 per week is expiring.

The benefit has helped many families keep food on the table. On the other hand, it has also discouraged people from seeking jobs, since many jobs pay less. If Republicans try to end or reduce the benefit, they will look nasty — right before the election. If they agree to renew it, America may depend on it forever.

There is a way to cut through this Gordian knot, and it involves technology. A major problem thus far with unemployment benefits has been that they are provided through the states, each of which has a different system for filing and handling the claims. Some of the states have been overwhelmed by the flood of applications by newly-laid-off workers. Many have had to wait for weeks for their checks. (For this reason, Republicans initially preferred direct payments to households, but the Democrats wanted to use the clunky unemployment system because many economists on the left want to expand its role.)

President Trump could announce that the White House will launch an initiative to design a simple platform that all of the states can use to handle unemployment claims. It could be a “hackathon” inviting the best technological talent from across the country to participate. The result will be a system that delivers benefits far more quickly and reliably to households.

It is important to involve the private sector, including independent engineers from outside the usual vendors. Currently, government procurement is dominated by a few legacy players whose primary expertise is in jumping through regulatory hoops and winning the competitions for contracts — not necessarily in building user-friendly technology that is robust enough to withstand surges in demand. A “hackathon” will allow the White House to cut through lobbyists and red tape.

As to the amount of the benefits, the Trump administration should tell Republicans in Congress that a six-month renewal is necessary. Ending the $600-per-month lifeline is simply not an option, neither economically or politically.

To be blunt,  it would be political suicide for Republicans to be seen as the party that wants to take benefits away, mere weeks before the most important election of our lifetimes. (Democrats are gleeful at the prospect; the campaign ads write themselves.)

Next year, when the benefits come up for renewal again, Republicans should “mend, not end” the federal unemployment extension, as my colleague John Carney says. They should phase out the benefits so that people do not immediately lose them when they take a job, including part-time work. That will remove the disincentive to work without punishing those who do so. This approach may cost more money in the short term, but it will reduce economic suffering in the long term.

A sliding scale of benefits could be built into the new unemployment benefits platform, to reduce the complexity that may result if each state attempts to design its own version. To that end, the White House “hackathon” could involve economists and data analysts as well as software engineers and website developers.

This is a unique situation in which a very difficult political problem actually has a tech fix that can be directed by the White House alone. Trump should give it a thought.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.


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