Speed Reads


John Oliver explains why the U.S. unemployment safety net is so broken, citing Florida and Elmo

"Unemployment can be a traumatic event for anyone, even puppets," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, getting in digs at AT&T and Elmo but offering nothing but respect to Elmo's mother. "But even for the non-puppet population, unemployment is an especially pertinent topic right now. It's been almost exactly a year since the pandemic hit and tens of millions of people lost their jobs — many of whom filed for unemployment insurance, or unemployment," a system that dates back to the 1930s.

"Economists generally agree that unemployment insurance is actually one of the most effective policies for recovering from a recession," as well as a vital social safety net, "but despite that, over the years our system has badly broken down, something that became painfully clear this time last year, when it was overwhelmed by new claims," Oliver said. There are actually 53 unemployment systems — every state has its own, as do Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands — and they offer wildly different benefits to strikingly small numbers of unemployed workers. "Black workers are more likely to be unemployed but less likely to get unemployment benefits, and inequity was baked into the system from the very beginning," Oliver said. "It seems in the U.S. you can point to anything, ask 'How is that racist?' and get a specific historical answer." He offered some examples.

"So, how did our system get this sh-tty, and whose fault is it?" Oliver asked. "Is it Elmo's? The answer is not definitely no yet. But the truth is, a lot of the system's shortcomings were the result of deliberate choices," often fueled by "simmering contempt to a callous disregard" toward the unemployed. "And if you want to see how all of this — poor technology, deep benefit cuts, and absurd eligibility requirements — can come together to break a vial social program, look no further than Florida, America's vestigial tail," he said.

Oliver suggested some stopgap fixes and larger reforms — mostly federalization of benefits. "And to not make big changes after the flaws of this system have been so brutally exposed over the last year would be unforgivable," he said. "Because if we don't fix it, we have absolutely nobody to blame but ourselves — and possibly Elmo. I'm not sure exactly how, but the whole thing does somehow still seem like his fault." There is NSFW language sprinkled throughout. Peter Weber