Monica Chase, 2022 Somers Research Intern on Long-Term Care and Aging

This essay is an independent contribution by Monica Chase, 2022 Somers Research Intern on Long-Term Care and Aging. Opinions within are not expressly endorsed by the National Academy of Social Insurance. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or reach out to Ariella Jailal, Program Coordinator, at with feedback. 

Economic security is described as the ability for individuals to consistently meet their needs with sustainability and dignity. Social workers like me have chosen to dedicate our careers to helping clients access programs that promote economic security.

Social workers think about assisting individuals through the framework of systems theory, which examines how smaller systems come together to affect larger, more complex systems and influence individuals’ behaviors and choices. This theory helps us understand how our clients’ backgrounds or environments contribute to decisions that have resulted in hardships like economic insecurity. We do not believe that clients are responsible for their environment, and we know that political and economic systems have contributed to both societal disparities and individual burdens.

As a graduate social work student, I just completed a National Academy of Social Insurance internship with The Century Foundation on Unemployment Insurance (UI) reform. I believe, based on my work there, that UI could be more effective if it aligned with social work ethical values. 

Why does UI Fall Short in Ensuring Economic Security?

Unemployment insurance is designed to offer economic security through payment of a portion of lost wages to individuals who have lost a job through no fault of their own. But UI’s conception of fault runs afoul of how systems theory leads social workers to address the problems of poverty.

UI’s definition of fault  – “someone who has separated from their job due to lack of available work and at no fault of their own” – excludes workers who are forced to leave their jobs due to urgent personal or family reasons such as domestic violence or needing to care for family members. This framework greatly limits the program’s ability to effectively support a critical share of jobless people.

A common measure of UI’s effectiveness is the recipiency rate – i.e., the share of unemployed workers receiving benefits. The recipiency rate is determined by two factors, how many people are eligible for UI and how many successfully apply. In 2019, the UI recipiency rate was only 28%, far lower than the percentage of unemployed workers across the country. Only 2.1 million out of 7.1 unemployed Americans – fewer than one in three – received benefits in March of 2020.

Many of these workers were deemed ineligible for benefits due to the unemployment program’s eligibility criteria of fault. In my opinion, the “fault” that the unemployment program uses to deny claimants is a failing of the unemployment program that is projected upon the individual. UI fails to acknowledge the lack of financial support it provides women and workers of color because of its stringent eligibility and lack of accessibility.

How do eligibility rules drive gender- and race-based disparities?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than one in five U.S. workers have applied for UI, with women as the majority of UI claimants in 42 states. Many women were forced out of the workforce due to family obligations that are not covered by state UI programs. The latter affirmed a need for a new federal program, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), on which many workers relied during the pandemic.

In early 2020, about two in five women with young children reported having quit their jobs or reduced their hours since the pandemic began. More than 90 percent reported that they did so on their own accord, so despite unavoidable family obligations that forced them to forego income, under UI’s criteria, they were ineligible for benefits. This mismatch between the need for income protection and the program’s rules reflects gender-based eligibility disparities and contributes to the gender wage gap.

Even as/when the effects of the pandemic subside, both systemic gender roles and women’s disproportionate caregiving responsibilities will continue. And now that the temporary federal pandemic benefits have expired, family-leave based protections for unemployment are gone. As such, broadening the UI program to include “good cause” for personal and family leave would ensure continued access to benefits for claimants who have to temporarily exit the workforce.

Unemployment insurance eligibility rules have also posed challenges to meeting the needs of workers of color. White workers make up half of unemployed workers but more than three quarters of UI recipients, while Black and Latinx workers, who make up 40 percent of unemployed workers, are less than 20 percent of UI recipients. Workers of color are both less likely to apply for benefits and more likely to be turned down when they do apply, with lack of accessibility as a major factor.

Of every 10 people that applied for unemployment benefits during the pandemic, three to four others tried to apply but could not successfully file a claim, and an additional two people found it too difficult to even try. State systems, which don’t provide adequate translation services, are particularly challenging for the nearly 1 in 10 American workers classified as having Limited English Proficiency (LEP). As a social worker with a proficiency in Spanish and a passion for working with diverse populations, I understand the barriers posed to claimants who do not have a bilingual social worker available to them. This failure of the UI program to acknowledge and protect the diverse workforce creates inequitable access to benefits and hinders people of color’s ability to sustain economic security.

Policy Implications

In my career as a social worker, I am required to be culturally competent while also holding institutions accountable for advancing cultural humility. Therefore, I believe that the Unemployment Insurance system should be required to improve its accessibility to ensure that individuals who speak other languages or have other barriers to applying are able to receive adequate services so that they can complete the application process.

In my time learning about UI, I believe that policy makers would be more effective if they adhered to social work values when making program decisions that affect the sustainability and dignity of people in need. Policies created with the intent to resolve economic insecurity will fall far short of that goal so long as access is inequitable and those who are in the most need are stigmatized. Developing legislation based on social work ethical values will help provide dignity to claimants while alleviating systemic gender and racial economic disparities among the workforce, which will ensure economic security.

Monica Chase is currently completing her Master of Social Work at Salisbury University. Monica’s experience working with different cultures has inspired her to bring a humanistic, social work perspective to economic policy issues. Monica worked with (prior) TCF Senior Fellow, Andy Stettner on Unemployment Insurance reform.

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