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When COVID-19 began to rapidly spread across the United States in March 2020, the economy quickly shed more than 20 million jobs. Amid intense fear and hardship, federal policymakers responded, enacting five relief bills in 2020 that provided an estimated $3.3 trillion of relief and the American Rescue Plan in 2021, which added another $1.8 trillion. This robust policy response helped make the COVID-19 recession the shortest on record and helped fuel an economic recovery that has brought the unemployment rate, which peaked at 14.8 percent in April 2020, down to 4.0 percent. One measure of annual poverty declined by the most on record in 2020, in data back to 1967, and the number of uninsured people remained stable, rather than rising as typically happens with large-scale job loss. Various data indicate that in 2021, relief measures reduced poverty, helped people access health coverage, and reduced hardships like inability to afford food or meet other basic needs.These positive results contrast with the Great Recession of 2007-2009, when the federal response was large compared to measures taken in other post-World War II recessions but less than one-third as large as the fiscal policy measures adopted in 2020-2021, when measured as a share of the economy. While decried by some at the time as too large, the relief measures enacted during the Great Recession were undersized and ended too soon. As a result, the economy remained weak for longer than was necessary — and families suffered avoidable hardship. Two years after the Great Recession began, unemployment was still 9.9 percent and food insecurity remained one-third above its pre-recession level. While some of that difference stems from differences in the trigger to the downturn, some is clearly due to the strength of the policy response.
Contrary to stereotypes, there is no evidence that people on welfare are lazy. Indeed, surveys of welfare recipients consistently show their desire for a job. But there is also evidence that many are reluctant to accept available employment opportunities. Despite work requirements included in the 1996 welfare reform, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says less than 42% of adult welfare recipients participate in work activities nationwide. Why the contradiction?Perhaps it’s because, while poor people are not lazy, they are not stupid either. If you pay people more not to work than they can earn at a job, many won’t work.A new study by the Cato Institute found that in many states, it does indeed pay better to be on welfare than it does to work.Most reports on welfare focus on only a single program, the cash benefit program: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This focus leaves the mis-impression that welfare benefits are quite low, providing a bare, subsistence-level income. In reality, the federal government funds 126 separate programs for low-income people, 72 of which provide either cash or in-kind benefits to individuals.Because there are so many categories of welfare recipients and so many different types of benefits, it is extremely difficult to determine how many people get what combination of benefits. For the purposes of this study, we assumed a hypothetical family consisting of a mother with two children, ages 1 and 4, and calculated the combined total of seven benefits that family could receive in all 50 states.
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