Gaps in Covid Vaccine Rollout and Unemployment Insurance : The Indicator from Planet Money Two of the most important ways the government is supporting Americans right now is through distributing vaccines and providing unemployment insurance. But are there cracks in the system?
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Unemployment Insurance And Vaccines: Who's Left Behind?

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Unemployment Insurance And Vaccines: Who's Left Behind?

Unemployment Insurance And Vaccines: Who's Left Behind?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Today is Friday...

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Yes.

GARCIA: ...Which means it's time for...

SMITH: The indicators of the week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: Yes, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: I was worried there was going to be a long pause, and it was going to be like, wow, Stacey and I know each other so well we practically finish each other's...

SMITH: Sentences.

GARCIA: ...French fries (laughter).

SMITH: I won't leave you hanging, Cardiff Garcia. It is time for indicators of the week, and that is when Cardiff and I each choose an indicator that particularly struck us in the news this week, and we surprise each other with it.

GARCIA: That's right. Indicators that could be illuminating, counterintuitive, insightful or just plain fun and unexpected. So...

SMITH: Yes.

GARCIA: ...Yeah. Stacey and I ambush each other with these indicators right after a quick break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: OK. So, Cardiff, there is a problem because we don't know who's doing what indicator, so we don't know who should go first.

GARCIA: Rock, paper, scissors on three?

SMITH: All right, let's rock, paper, scissors.

GARCIA: One, two, three.

SMITH: Paper covers rock.

GARCIA: You win. You get to go first.

SMITH: I always pick paper because no one ever does scissors. Everyone does rock.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Good point.

SMITH: Now I've completely given away my rock, paper, scissors strategy.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

SMITH: So my indicator of the week - it's not very fancy or counterintuitive or anything like that, but it is an indicator that I think a lot of people have been watching. It's a really important one, I think, maybe the key to the economy recovering.

GARCIA: Well, I'm all ears.

SMITH: It is vaccinations.

GARCIA: OK.

SMITH: So according to the CDC, almost 14% of people in the U.S. have gotten at least one vaccination shot.

GARCIA: It's a start.

SMITH: Yes. And, I mean, there's a lot of debate around what will constitute herd immunity, but Dr. Fauci thinks it's about 80%, 85% of the population needs antibodies. And so we're pretty far away from that right now.

GARCIA: Yeah, not there. It's definitely a lot higher than 14%. That's for sure.

SMITH: But it's progress, right? Like, people are getting vaccinated every day. My parents just got their vaccines, by the way, I'm very, very happy...

GARCIA: Oh, excellent.

SMITH: ...Incredibly relieved to report.

GARCIA: Congrats.

SMITH: I felt so much, like, personal relief, and I almost cried when I heard. And the fact that they've been vaccinated now means I can probably go visit them. And of course, Cardiff, you know, like, getting vaccines enables people or at least maybe makes them feel more comfortable going to restaurants, going to the theater, visiting each other - all that good stuff that helps the economy grow. All told, vaccines are going out every day to about 1.5 million people, which is really good news, and things are moving, which is great.

There are some indicators that are less encouraging, which is that the vaccines are not being distributed equally. There's just been a lot of news about how bad the numbers are in terms of minorities getting vaccinated. This is happening pretty much everywhere across the country. States like California, Florida and New Jersey are vaccinating Black residents at a rate far lower than the rate at which they're vaccinating white residents. For example, in New Jersey, only 4% of vaccines have gone to Black residents, but Black residents make up 15% of the state's population.

But, you know, New Jersey is, like, absolutely not alone. Overall, across the country, there's a lot of inequality in how the vaccines are getting distributed. That's obviously a big issue.

GARCIA: Yeah. And it's fascinating, too, because, as we've discussed on the show so many times, the pandemic really has kind of exposed a lot of pre-existing fissures in the economy.

SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: Big racial and ethnic gaps in terms of employment, in terms of wages and, also, just a difference in how high-wage earners versus low-wage earners have suffered throughout the pandemic. Way more job losses for low-wage earners than for people who make more money. And I think it has sort of brought to light some things that were there before but that now are being sort of newly understood, newly emphasized and more widely debated and thought about, you know, how to address.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. So wish it was better news, but in general, vaccines are getting out there. That is a good thing.

GARCIA: Yeah.

SMITH: So that is my indicator of the week.

GARCIA: All right. And definitely also relieved for Papa and Mama Vanek Smith. That's great (laughter).

SMITH: Oh, me, too. Yes. They're just the Smiths. Vanek's my middle name. But yes, me too, me too. I'm just - yeah, I am very thrilled.

GARCIA: Awesome.

SMITH: OK. So, Cardiff, don't hold out - what's your indicator of the week?

GARCIA: My indicator of the week is 70% - that is an estimate for the share of all the people who are unemployed who are not receiving unemployment insurance benefits or who won't be receiving them shortly, which is just a huge number that I think a lot of people aren't aware of.

And that estimate comes from an economist named Eliza Forsythe of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. And basically, what she did was she looked at this panel of people who'd been surveyed ever since the start of the pandemic, and she looked at what they said to this survey between the end of December and the start of January. And she found that 70% of unemployed people are not being reached...

SMITH: Wow.

GARCIA: ...By the unemployment insurance system.

SMITH: So, like, what's going on? Why aren't people getting their unemployment checks?

GARCIA: The overwhelming majority of the people who are not receiving these benefits, even though they are unemployed, is because they have not applied. So more than 9 out of 10 people have said that the reason they're not getting those checks is because they have not applied. And of those, most of them say that the reason they have not applied is because they believe that they are not eligible. And the rest have said that they just couldn't figure it out. They didn't know how to apply, and so they haven't applied.

SMITH: Oh, it's just, like, a confusing process?

GARCIA: Yeah. And in many cases, like, they might be right. Maybe they're not eligible. In a lot of cases, they're probably getting it wrong. They might be eligible, and they're simply not applying. Whatever the case, this is a massive, massive gap in the share of people who could use the help and who are not getting it.

And I think it kind of emphasizes a couple of different things. One is a kind of long-standing problem with the way that unemployment insurance benefits are administered, right? So this goes back before the pandemic. You know, a lot of states are underfunded when it comes to unemployment benefits. A lot of them have very archaic systems...

SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: ...Like the software they use for it is kind of creaky.

SMITH: Yeah, I heard about that. Like, the software's, like, from the '80s.

GARCIA: Yeah. Bad software, and also, in a lot of cases, they just don't have enough people...

SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: ...Working there to handle a big influx of applications for unemployment when there is actually a recession. The more immediately relevant issue here, though, is about how to design proper aid and stimulus packages that are sent out by the government, OK?

SMITH: Right.

GARCIA: Because some people think that it's a good idea to mainly target those benefits to people who are unemployed because they are the people who most need the help, right? Other people say, well, that's great in theory, but in practice, we should be sending out near-universal checks to everybody precisely because the way that unemployment is administered has a lot of cracks, and so people who could still use the help may not get it if we try to target it - so better to sort of send checks out to everybody, even if there's a lot of people who keep their jobs and keep their income and still get the checks, to make sure that the people who really need the help are at least getting something. So that is my indicator of the week, yeah.

SMITH: Well, I know that we've talked to people who had trouble, like, even, like, accessing the portals. I know the unemployment offices are totally overwhelmed. It makes sense. But just that number, 70% - like, that's most of the people who need the help are not getting it by a lot.

GARCIA: Yeah, yeah.

SMITH: I mean, that's, like, a crisis.

GARCIA: It's staggering.

SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: I think a lot of people are just not aware of how big of a hole there is and how many people who are unemployed and are not getting unemployment benefits. And remember - if you're unemployed, then by definition, it means that you are looking for a job and just haven't found one. So it's not like these are people who are just out there and, for whatever reason, are not seeking work; these are people who want work, presumably want the income...

SMITH: Right.

GARCIA: ...OK, maybe need the income and are not getting the help. And I think that's important to emphasize, too. So I was staggered by this. I think it's a huge number and a sort of deeply informative number about what the benefits system looks like in the U.S.

SMITH: That's a sad indicator but a really, really important one.

GARCIA: Yeah. And so those are our two indicators of the week. And we want to invite you, our listeners, to also send us ideas that we can use for indicators of the week...

SMITH: Yes, please.

GARCIA: ...To indicator@npr.org, so that Stacey and I can potentially steal them or, you know, use with credit - whatever (laughter).

SMITH: Also, if you have rock, paper, scissors strategies, I think you should email those to Cardiff because he needs some help with his game.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: Yes, yes. Definitely don't send them to Stacey. She might be tempted to change her strategy, whereas right now I feel like I have the advantage now.

SMITH: (Laughter) I'm already too good. I'm almost at a professional level.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced expertly by Brittany Cronin and fact-checked by Sam Tsai (ph). It was edited by Jolie Myers. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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