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Policy Basics: Unemployment Insurance

The federal-state unemployment insurance (UI) system helps people who have lost their jobs and are eligible for benefits by temporarily replacing part of their wages.

March 18, 2020

Created in 1935, unemployment insurance is a form of social insurance, with contributions paid into the system on behalf of working people so that they have income support if they lose their jobs. The system also helps sustain consumer demand during economic downturns by providing a continuing stream of dollars for families to spend.

The states run the basic unemployment insurance program, although the U.S. Department of Labor oversees the system. The basic program in most states provides up to 26 weeks of benefits to unemployed workers, replacing about half of their previous wages, up to a maximum benefit amount. States provide most of the funding and pay for the actual benefits provided to workers; the federal government pays only the administrative costs. In January 2020, average weekly benefits were about $385 nationwide but ranged from a low of $213 in Mississippi to $546 in Massachusetts. (Weekly benefits were $163 in Puerto Rico.)

Although states are subject to a few federal requirements, they are generally able to set their own eligibility criteria and benefit levels. In recent years, for example, a handful of states have reduced their maximum number of weeks of regular UI benefits below 26 weeks. For more information about the UI benefits available in each state, see Policy Basics: How Many Weeks of Unemployment Compensation Are Available?

Extra Weeks Available When Unemployment Is High

The permanent Extended Benefits (EB) program provides an additional 13 or 20 weeks of compensation to jobless workers who have exhausted their regular UI benefits in states where the unemployment situation has worsened dramatically (regardless of whether the national economy is in recession). The total number of weeks available depends on a state's unemployment rate and its unemployment insurance laws. Normally, the federal government and the states split the cost of EB.

Design flaws have prevented the EB program from responding rapidly and effectively in recessions, which has led federal lawmakers to enact temporary programs providing additional weeks of UI benefits in recessions on an ad hoc basis since the late 1970s. Measures enacted in the Great Recession of 2007-09 included not only extra weeks of benefits from mid-2008 through 2013, but also full federal funding of EB and a $25 increase in weekly UI benefits. Combatting the human hardship and economic effects flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic will require similar measures.

UI Needs Strengthening and Modernization

Unemployment insurance helps eligible workers weather a bout of joblessness, and UI benefits score high in “bang-for-the-buck” calculations of their economic impact as stimulus in fighting recessions, but UI has not adapted to changes in the labor market since it was established. When UI was designed, the typical job loser was a married male breadwinner laid off from a full-time job to which he could expect to return when business picked up. In the 21st century labor market, the program’s outdated eligibility requirements exclude people such as part-time workers and those who leave work for compelling family reasons, like caring for an ill family member. This prevents large numbers of unemployed workers, many of whom are women and people of color, from receiving UI benefits.

Comprehensive UI reform, such as President Obama’s 2016 proposal, would expand eligibility and improve the EB program’s ability to respond automatically to rising unemployment in a weakening economy. Including UI reforms in legislation responding to COVID-19 will enhance UI’s ability to reduce hardship and stimulate economic activity.