News Brief: Jobless Benefits, Voter Registration, School Budgets
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Much of the country is reopening slowly. But it's not like businesses are just jumping back in at full force.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Right. Tens of millions of people are still out of work, many of them still collecting unemployment. And here's a reality for some workers - they are earning more now than when they were working. That's because the federal government is paying an extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance. Lawmakers set that flat rate to get money out the door quickly hoping to keep the economy afloat. That benefit is set to expire in July. And Congress is figuring out what to do next.
GREENE: And let's talk about this with NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So you have some Republicans now arguing that this extra $600 a week could be an incentive for workers to stay out of work even as the economy slowly starts reopening. I mean, is there any truth to that argument?
HORSLEY: Well, this is an argument lawmakers are having right now. The House passed a big $3 trillion relief bill that would, among other things, extend these extra unemployment benefits through January. But Senate Republicans are resistant. For a lot of workers, these expanded benefits have been a critical lifeline at a time when they've suddenly been forced to stop the work they were doing. And a lot of them are uncertain about whether it's safe to go back to work.
I spoke with Lainie Morris (ph), who's a preschool teacher in Portland, Ore. You know, she says the infants and toddlers don't really understand social distancing. The classroom is kind of a petri dish for infection even in the best of times. And because preschool teachers don't make a lot of money, she and her colleagues have actually been able to buy more groceries with their unemployment benefits than their old paychecks.
LAINIE MORRIS: It's terrible to say, but we're all doing better now. It's hard to think about going back to work in this pandemic and getting paid less (laughter) than we are right now where we're safe and at home and in quarantine.
HORSLEY: So as you hear from Morris, it's not just about money, it's also about safety. We should say, workers who are offered their old job back and turn it down may lose their eligibility for unemployment. But a lot of workers might not be going back to their old jobs. And for them, the question becomes, are unemployment benefits bigger than what they could earn in a new position?
GREENE: Well, can you talk about why the bill was structured this way? And how many people are actually in this reality, maybe making more money from unemployment benefits than they were actually doing when they were on the job?
HORSLEY: Lawmakers' goal was to set federal unemployment benefits high enough so that, in combination with state benefits, they would match the wages of an average worker. And they chose a flat rate to make it easy to administer. We know that, obviously, state insurance offices have been overwhelmed during this time.
Because so many of the people who lost jobs are on the lower rungs of the income ladder, economists at the University of Chicago estimate more than two-thirds are collecting more in unemployment benefits than they did working - in some cases, two or three times as much. And Peter Ganong says that does raise some questions of fairness when you have other low-wage workers still on the job doing essential work.
PETER GANONG: If you're a janitor and you work at a hospital, you're facing increased risk at your job and likely have not received a pay raise. But if you're a janitor and you worked at a school that's shut down, then you actually get a 50% raise from claiming unemployment benefits.
HORSLEY: Now Ganong and his colleagues stress that with double-digit unemployment, some kind of expanded benefits is vital. But, they argue, there might be better ways to structure those benefits so they match but don't exceed workers old pay.
GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks so much, Scott. You're welcome.
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GREENE: Here's a big question - right? - how do you conduct democracy in the midst of a pandemic?
MARTIN: And more specifically, how do you carry out an election? Mail-in ballots that keep voters away from crowded polling stations, that's one way to keep people safe. But President Trump and some of his allies have been trying to undermine trust in that system. Though, we should stress, there is little evidence of the massive fraud that Trump has alleged.
GREENE: Let's talk this through with NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers voting issues for NPR. Hi, Pam.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: I just want to ask some of what President Trump and others have said, that fraud could be a real risk if there's a lot of mail-in voting happening in this election season. Truth Squad that for me, if you can.
FESSLER: Yeah. I mean, basically, voter fraud in the U.S. is extremely rare these days. It's a little bit more susceptible when it comes to mail-in voting because you're sending that ballot out. You don't really know all the time whether or not the voter might be getting some kind of pressure to vote one way or the other or if someone's filling out the ballot for them.
But there's no evidence that this occurs beyond maybe a few isolated cases - and nothing like what the president has alleged, which is that people are forging thousands of ballots and forcing people to sign them. There's just no evidence of that. And that's because there are protections in place. Election offices match voters' signatures up with the ones they have on record. There are also bar codes on lots of mail-in ballots so that election offices and even the voter can track where that ballot is just like a package that's been ordered online.
GREENE: But, I mean, we're seeing legal challenges around the country already. So what is the likelihood we're going to see a lot of mail-in voting? Will it be an option for people when they cast votes in the fall?
FESSLER: Well, there's no question that many more people are going to be able to vote by mail in November. Almost every state is expanding absentee voting because of the pandemic for the primaries right now, but also, in some places, for the general election. And this is in states that are run by both Republicans and Democrats. But as you mentioned, there are dozens of lawsuits that have been filed recently over just how much it's going to be expanded and what the rules are going to be.
Democrats want to get rid of a lot of the things that they see as barriers, such as requirements in some places that voters get witnesses to sign their ballots. And Republicans want to keep those rules. They argue that they're needed to protect the integrity of the election. And the RNC just filed a lawsuit this past weekend claiming that a plan in California to send ballots in November to every voter in the state is illegal and could lead to fraud.
GREENE: And briefly, Pam, I mean, we were expecting this big turnout this year. Could the pandemic really change that?
FESSLER: Well, it's really too soon to tell. I mean, a lot of it depends, obviously, on the coronavirus, but also on what states end up doing in terms of offering more options like mail-in voting. We've seen a lot of interest in the election. And one thing is that voter registrations are down a lot because a lot of the places that we usually register to vote - things like, you know, door-to-door campaigns, rallies, motor vehicle offices - are shut down.
GREENE: NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting for us. Pam, thanks a lot.
FESSLER: Thanks a lot, David.
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GREENE: We're going to talk about another massive disruption that has been caused by this pandemic, and that's, of course, in the field of education.
MARTIN: Right. So the reality is that many K-12 schools could be in awful financial shape coming out of this whole thing. Much of their funding comes from the states. And state budgets are really thin because of the coronavirus outbreak. So how can schools cope with this? What can be done for them?
GREENE: Well, we have NPR education correspondent Cory Turner with us. Hi, Cory.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, David.
GREENE: Walk us through what is happening here and this crisis that schools are facing around the country?
TURNER: Schools get nearly half of their funding from states. But state tax revenues are plunging. So governors and state lawmakers are, right now, racing to make cuts. We saw recently Georgia's governor asked educators to prepare for a 14% cut. A top Republican in Michigan Senate warned schools there could see as much as a 25% cut. I spoke with several school funding experts. And they all painted a pretty dire picture. Here's one of them, Rebecca Sibilia. She studies school funding and runs an advocacy group called EdBuild.
REBECCA SIBILIA: I think we're about to see a school funding crisis unlike we have ever seen in modern history. We are looking at devastation that we could not have imagined a year ago.
GREENE: Well, how does this compare to something like the Great Recession? I mean, schools took a big hit then as well, right?
TURNER: They did, absolutely. But listen to this, David. So in April, last month - the first full month of the coronavirus lockdowns - school districts furloughed or laid off nearly half a million workers. Now, that's more than lost their jobs through the entire Great Recession. Now, obviously, many of them are bus drivers and school staff workers who expect to get their jobs back. But if budget cuts are deep enough, many may not. Another expert I talked with told me that this coming year could actually be twice as bad as the worst year of the Great Recession.
GREENE: Well, so what role is the U.S. government playing in all of this to try and help schools?
TURNER: Well, so it's evolving. Everyone I spoke to said, really, the only way out of this is for Congress to help schools the way that it's already tried to bailout businesses. A consortium of teachers, principals and parents is asking for at least $175 billion. House Democrats recently wrote a bill we heard Scott mention earlier that would send about a third of that - $60 billion - to schools. But then Republicans say, that bill doesn't have a chance of passing the Senate.
GREENE: And what about the CARES Act? Wasn't there money in there for schools to deal with a lot of these problems?
TURNER: There was. But experts say it's not nearly enough. It was just about $13 billion. And spending it has gotten kind of complicated because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, she issued controversial guidance - basically, telling districts that they need to spend a lot more of that money than they had planned to on students in private schools.
Now, most people I've spoken with say, that's not what Congress intended - or it doesn't seem to be. But states really don't want to run afoul of the Education Department. For now, though, it is just guidance. It's not legally binding. In fact, Indiana's Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction tweeted recently, I will not play political agenda games with COVID relief funds, and says, she's not going to follow the guidance.
GREENE: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Cory, thanks as always.
TURNER: Thank you, David.
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