How Much Good Did the $600 Unemployment Bonus Really Do?
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How Much Good Did the $600 Unemployment Bonus Really Do?

The $600 unemployment bonus initiated during the COVID-19 pandemic has been contentious. While some argue it discouraged workers from returning to their jobs, others say the $600 was necessary and that those who are now without it are feeling a severe financial pinch. How much help did the bonus really provide, and what should those who were counting on the funds do now? 

Remember, the news is constantly evolving as states are independently assessing the value of additional bonuses. If you are dependent on these funds, it would be wise to stay up to date on developments in states’ policies, as some jurisdictions are providing an extra $300 to $400 of weekly unemployment benefits. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the success of the program and how to find more money for daily expenses if you’re out of work. 

What was the goal of the bonus?

To help with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, made an additional $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits available to anyone who was also receiving state unemployment benefits. These funds were available to those who would not have ordinarily been eligible for unemployment, such as gig or contract workers. The program lasted until July 31, 2020, with the goal of assisting Americans who had difficulty paying for expenses such as groceries or rent as a result of the pandemic. U.S. unemployment rose from 3.8% in February 2020 to 13.0% in May 2020 — a proportion only topped during the Great Depression when unemployment hit 14.4%. 

Was the program successful?

Sometimes U.S. earners actually make more on unemployment than they do at their jobs. For example, data shows 9.4 million essential workers earned less than they would have on unemployment. While some feared the added unemployment benefit would discourage people from returning to the workforce, a study from researchers at Yale found the $600 did not decrease employment. The researchers used the scheduling and timesheet data of American small businesses and found that unemployment benefits didn’t encourage layoffs or discourage workers from returning. The report found that workers with more generously expanded unemployment benefits resumed work at the same pace as others, or at an even quicker pace.

Further research shows unemployment insurance has been an unprecedented lifeline for American households and the economy; unemployment benefits were 14.6% of total wage and salary income in May 2020, up from a previous high of 2.5% in 2010. Researchers determined the $600 benefit was projected to boost U.S. gross domestic product by 2.8% and support 3 million jobs. 

How to make up for missing funds

With so many Americans relying on the expanded CARES Act benefits, which were not extended beyond the original end date of the program, there are now many families and individuals looking to fill significant gaps in their household budgets. Here are some strategies for finding extra funds:

 

  • Open a new bank account: If you’re paying a monthly fee for your bank account, now might be a good time to consider switching banks to a no-fee account, in addition to reducing other expenses. One bonus of opening a new account is that many banks will extend a cash bonus to you to incentivize you to open an account. This bonus has been seen to range anywhere from $150 to $700 — which could be enough to help bridge the gap during a tough month. 
  • Freelance: If you have established skills, you can dig for freelance opportunities to boost your income. For example, if you’re a teacher, you could consider tutoring students who need more assistance with online learning. With many companies slashing their marketing or HR departments, you could also find freelance opportunities with these skills by joining a freelancer marketplace. 
  • Start a side hustle: Whether you’re great at making jam or providing services like lawn cutting, now might be the right time to launch your own small business. 
  • Reduce your expenses: Chances are you probably reduced your expenses as much as you could at the beginning of the pandemic, but now might be a good time to go back through your bills and see if there are any hidden fees that you didn’t realize you were paying. Be sure to check for bank account fees in particular. You might also consider canceling any subscriptions that aren’t necessary. Consider resources in your community that could take the place of services you currently pay for. For example, many public libraries offer excellent entertainment and educational resources for free.
  • Look after your debt: While it might be tempting to stop making payments on your debt while your finances are tight, doing so can have disastrous long term consequences. If you need some extra room in your budget right now, talk to your lenders about any forbearance or new payment plans that might be available to you. For example, extending the term of a personal loan could help free up some extra money in your budget each month, even though it would take you longer to repay the loan. 

 

Getting back into the workforce

For workers who are trying to get back to work, losing the $600 bonus makes the mission to find a job even more pressing. For the many people in that situation, now is a good time to focus on ways to improve job search skills, interviewing techniques, and qualifications. Getting a certificate in a specialized skill or adding a new capability can help boost you ahead of the competition and hopefully propel you into a job that makes your personal finances more manageable again.