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

John Oliver explains unemployement
(Image credit: Screenshot/YouTube/Last Week Tonight)

"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.

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Peter Weber, The Week US

Peter has worked as a news and culture writer and editor at The Week since the site's launch in 2008. He covers politics, world affairs, religion and cultural currents. His journalism career began as a copy editor at a financial newswire and has included editorial positions at The New York Times Magazine, Facts on File, and Oregon State University.