The Covid-19 crisis has exposed crippling defects in America’s unemployment-insurance system. The most essential short-term fix is to extend and adjust the emergency benefits that expired at the end of July. In due course, though, the system needs more than just the latest in a years-long series of ad hoc patches. It requires comprehensive reform — to assure workers of adequate protection, promote employment, insulate the economy against protracted downturns and spread the cost more equitably.
The current system is a complicated federal-state partnership. Both levels of government collect taxes and pay benefits, with the states designing and administering the systems, subject to federal rules designed to encourage ample relief. In principle, this has advantages. It means programs can be designed to reflect local preferences, and it allows different policies to be tried, tested and compared. But it’s time to admit that, in practice, this approach has failed. The needed comprehensive reform can best be achieved by asking the federal government to play a bigger role.