COVID-19 is changing the world around us very rapidly. Watching the world change before our eyes is unnerving, and watching our way of life change from afar is even more disconcerting. When I left New Jersey two weeks ago to discuss the importance of evidence with policymakers and academic leaders in Australia, we were just beginning to grasp the threat that COVID-19 could pose to public health and the global economy. My trip was meant to be a chance to share what Mathematica has learned over more than 50 years applying the best available science and technology to inform policy and improve social programs. It was meant to be an opportunity for sharing true knowledge, for me to learn from my Australian counterparts while they would learn from me.
But as I watched normal life in the United States and around the world come to a halt, I was reminded that when it comes to reaching people with evidence about what works to address the challenges they face today, and when it comes to helping them prepare for the larger challenges ahead, our evidence movement has to be about a lot more than sharing knowledge. We must continue to focus on making an impact with our work.
Although Mathematica might have limited expertise in infectious diseases like COVID-19, we have vast knowledge and experience with the policies and programs that can help our public health system and our economy recover from the unfolding impact this virus is having around the world.
Based on the early numbers coming out of state unemployment insurance (UI) systems and private-sector estimates, the impact on America’s workforce is going to be unprecedented. The policy response likely will be as well. But as federal legislators and policymakers finalize the details of a package designed to provide a critical safety net for America’s workforce and a much-needed boost to industries crippled by COVID-19, we can learn important lessons from the evidence that already exists regarding what works.
Federal incentives will be critical to states as they try to update their UI policies and systems to better respond to the tsunami of new COVID-19 related claims.
Our review of unemployment compensation provisions under the Recovery Act found that federal funds specifically tied to modernizing UI policies and systems played a big role in determining whether states adopted them. Many states specifically weighed the value of the potential federal incentives against the costs—both in terms of administrative burden and in terms of additional benefit payments—before deciding to adopt the new policies. But even with these updates, the state and federal agencies responsible for administering and overseeing UI have faced constrained funding for years, and many of the processes and computer systems they use to administer their programs haven’t kept up as a result. A new set of targeted incentives will be critical to whether these same staff and systems have a realistic shot at handling an unprecedented surge of new claims from workers affected by layoffs related to COVID-19, while also implementing yet another rapid expansion of eligibility requirements and fluctuating benefit amounts designed to adequately respond to the unique nature of the current crisis.
Cutting off unemployment benefits before workers are able to find new jobs risks people dropping out of the labor force entirely and puts additional strain on other benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
Our analysis of workers who used the Extended Benefits programs put in place during the Great Recession found that workers who exhausted all of their benefits before finding a job were less likely to be employed; more likely to give up looking for work entirely; and more likely to participate in SNAP, Social Security retirement, and disability-related income support programs. As policymakers brace for the expected surge in UI recipients, they should carefully consider the implications of a safety net that is predominantly focused on immediate needs. Despite the thinking among some that work interruptions related to COVID-19 might be relatively short in tenure, it’s likely that many of those laid off will encounter longer spells of unemployment as entire industries try to bounce back. The provisions put in place during the Great Recession provided the longest coverage on record, but even that wasn’t enough to address the needs of millions of workers who continued facing long-term unemployment. And once workers fall out of the labor force and enter programs like SSDI, they rarely come back. That could spell trouble for these other programs already facing their own financial and administrative challenges.
Traditionally, many unemployed workers hold out hope of returning to their same jobs. But if the initial layoffs related to COVID-19 are so concentrated in service industries, will these workers have jobs to return to?
A 2015 survey of UI recipients in California found that about a third of those who had returned to work in Los Angeles went back to their previous employer. In the Central Valley, about 60 percent did so. But workers in our lifetimes have never experienced a situation in which firms in specific industries were forced to close because of government interventions. Very few of these small businesses have capital reserves to weather prolonged closures. According to a 2015 study from the JPMorgan Chase Institute, the average small business has only 27 so-called cash buffer days. The numbers are even more grim for the industries most directly affected by COVID-19 closures, with restaurants (16 days), retail (19 days), and personal services (21 days) all falling well below the average. That means that without additional interventions from local, state, and federal government, many of the stores and restaurants that closed aren’t likely to reopen and won’t be able to rehire their employees.
As workers impacted by closures related to COVID-19 enter the workforce system, there’s an opportunity to do better with providing resources about education and training programs.
The same 2015 California survey found that even after six to nine months of first receiving benefits, less than 43 percent of recipients reported getting information from their American Job Center on education or job-training programs. Even if contraction in certain service industries is balanced out by growth in others (like warehousing and transportation), workers will likely need different skills to excel in these new positions. Leaders in the workforce system have the opportunity to meet this moment, but to do so they will likely have to learn from advancements in human-centered design and rapid-cycle evaluation to reach their audience with the right message at the right time to make a difference.
Even as COVID-19 has shuttered schools for more than 50 million children in the United States, there are promising models to ensure kids have access to the food they need while schools are closed.
At least 46 states have shut down their schools, sending more than 50 million children home. Prolonged closures could lead to serious nutritional setbacks for the millions of children in the United States that traditionally count on school nutrition programs for at least one meal a day. Yet, during the summer when schools are usually out, federal summer meals programs serve less than one-sixth of children that typically receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year. With so many schools closed for such a prolonged period, we must find a better way to reach these children with the support they and their families need. A pilot program using electronic benefits transfer cards reduced the prevalence of very low food security among children by one-third and positively impacted six of the eight child nutrition outcomes measured. Meanwhile, in states across the country, school bus drivers are stepping in to provide home delivery. These emerging approaches should be evaluated further to determine if they should be scaled.
In response to closures related to COVID-19, more parents are relying on informal child care arrangements that meet immediate needs but could have long-term implications for child development and early learning.
A study of informal child care in Detroit, done in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, highlighted the important role that these informal arrangements play in supporting many families and underscored the way these informal arrangements often fall short in providing developmentally appropriate learning materials and activities. As more and more licensed child care facilities close around the country because of COVID-19, families are increasingly leaning on family, friends, neighbors, and other community members to provide needed care. Although these arrangements can provide basic coverage for parents, it isn’t hard to imagine that a decrease in access to accredited child development professionals could have negative longer-term implications for early childhood development, the programs put in place to support early learning, and the teachers expecting early learners (hopefully) to start school in the fall.
New data sources and analytics will be critical to shaping the global policy response.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has underscored the limitations of many of our most reliable sources of information on the state of our health care system, our workforce, and our economy. When entire cities and industries are shuttered overnight, a monthly view of unemployment begins to seem rather quaint. Interestingly, the convergence of data science and social science, and the application of new technology at this intersection, means that we can glean important insights in closer to real time by looking at indicators like restaurant reservations and Google searches for “unemployment.” We are also beginning to see how smart phone app data can tell us where people are and are not social distancing, which could have critical implications for future public health guidance. It is crucial that we find a balance between engaging in rigorous methodologies that simply take a bit more time and responding to each new bit of data that emerges, but we ignore the latter at our own peril.
The public health impact of COVID-19 will be felt for many days, months, and years to come, as will the impact of this virus on our government institutions, our communities, and our way of life. As we all adapt to these challenges and continue to juggle increasing demands on work, family, and community, I’m grateful to be doing so alongside my colleagues at Mathematica.
We will get beyond this threat, and, at that point, we and the rest of the scientific community will use our experience and the data it generates to help discover better ways to manage pandemics that might threaten us in the future. For now, if we continue to treat each other with love, empathy, and respect, we will eventually become stronger, having made it through difficult circumstances together.