Who Is Best at Getting COVID-19 Unemployment Benefits? Wealthy White People, Of Course.

I think I’ve written before about the Household Pulse survey from the Census Bureau, an “experimental data” product that was created and put into the field very quickly near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was to collect frequent data that allowed us to see the impact of the pandemic in near real time. It started in late April and the latest survey finished up at the end of August.

A new question was added to the survey this time around, asking people if they’ve received unemployment benefits. This is, as far as I know, the first time we’ve gotten fairly firm figures on this, and overall it turns out that 50 million people applied for benefits and 38 million received them. This means that about 24 percent of the people who applied never received anything. Here’s how that broke down by income:

Most income groups had about the same success rate with one exception: the lowest income group, which is the one that needed it the most. Here’s the breakdown by race:

Again, not too much of a difference except for one group: Black applicants, who were turned down at a substantially higher rate than other groups.

There’s not enough information in this survey to tell us what caused these discrepancies. Maybe low-income applicants tended to misunderstand the criteria for benefits more often. Maybe a lot of qualified low-income applicants didn’t apply at all, which made the denial number artificially bigger. Or maybe they didn’t get the help they needed to fill out all the forms correctly. More research, please.

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