This project was an experiment in human-centered policy design, in a partnership between Project Redesign at NCoC and New America’s New Practice Lab. Our methods and approaches echo the framing of Equity Community Centered Design, originated by Creative Reaction Lab.

What we did

“Pandemic unemployment and the social safety net” was a project by Project Redesign with New America, designed to do three things: 

  1. learn what it has been like for Americans to apply for and get unemployment and other benefits during a pandemic 
  2. develop compelling, evocative deliverables that will bring the human experience closer to the people designing laws and policy for the economic recovery as the U.S emerges from the worst of COVID-19
  3. experiment with ways of opening up the research and reporting to community partners and others from the general public 

How we did the project 

We conducted 33 1-hour interviews over video or phone with individuals from  all over the country who we found through personal, professional, and social media networks. We focused on answering a few key questions about what their lives were like, and what it was like to apply for unemployment assistance when they did. To deliver insights as quickly and openly as possible, we published participant stories each week and held weekly briefings that were open to anyone interested. 

What we learned 

Claim processing took  2 to 4 times longer than typical. That is, rather than waiting 2 to 4 weeks to get their first unemployment payments, participants applying for pandemic assistance reported waiting as long as 16 weeks as of the end of our study. Some were told that they had at least another 90 days to wait. In addition, we learned: 

Stimulus checks plus the additional $600 per week, along with extending benefits by 13 weeks kept people healthy and safe. But not for long enough. As one of our participants, Mohammad, from New Haven, CT said, “Thanks to God for the stimulus check,” because it had kept his family going while he waited for pandemic unemployment to be implemented. By the last of our interviews in June, participants like Alba were anticipating what would happen when the $600 additional was scheduled to end at the end of June. She said that without it, she didn’t know what she was going to do — she applied for jobs, but didn’t even get responses. 

The safety net was severely strained by the urgency of the need, the scale of the population in need, and decades of underfunding of state benefits technology. We interviewed people from 15 different states. Many described applying for and following up on the status of their claims as a full-time job. They spent so much time following up because the systems were fundamentally lacking in useful information about the status of claims. Participants were anxious about their own needs, and worried about whether they would see funding in time to pay rent, buy food, and keep prescriptions filled. 

Participants experienced extraordinary and agonizing wait times to get money through pandemic unemployment programs and systems, leaving them stressed and faced with the prospect of returning to work that was unsafe.  Steps meant to safeguard unemployment programs from fraud presented repeated, and in some cases, insurmountable barriers to getting assistance. For example, Anh applied for her and her parents at the same time. But her mother’s claim got stuck in what seemed like an endless cascade of ID verification. When she cleared one issue, another one suddenly appeared. 

How to use what we learned 

What we see through these stories is how design decisions about policy and technology that were made decades ago affect claimants and their families, as well as state agencies in 2020. Reducing the burden on claimants means modernizing systems, regulations, and legal requirements. 

State unemployment agencies were inefficient before the pandemic, but are wildly ill equipped to scale quickly in massive and urgent upward change in the number of claims.  For unemployment programs to operationalize flexible scaling and become future tolerant, they need not only funding for implementing better technology and processes, but also modernized federal regulations, guidelines, and guidance on best practices for fraud prevention. 

We hope that advocates and policy makers will use the stories, insights, and methods from this study to bring the lived experience of the public into their proposals and decision making for pandemic unemployment and beyond.

Full Report:


Themed briefs

Doing research like this yourself

About the project 

Full report — Stories, briefs, participants, methods, mechanics, team

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