Louise Sheiner, Principal Investigator of the Policy Translation Working Group of the COVID-19 Task Force

The Academy’s forthcoming report, Social Insurance During the Pandemic: Successes, Failures, and Policy Options for the Future, will discuss the findings of the Policy Translation Working Group of the Academy’s Task Force on COVID-19.  

This report assesses how well our social insurance system functioned during the pandemic, casting a wide net to capture the impact of programs beyond the traditional social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare.  The Working Group considered three types of social insurance programs—those related to income security, food security, and health. Based on the assessment of what worked and what didn’t, the report offers options for policy changes. These options include permanent changes to the social insurance programs and changes that would only apply during economic downturns or public health crises. These more targeted changes could be enacted on a discretionary basis by future Congresses or could be legislated now to trigger on if certain conditions are met. 

Social insurance during the pandemic

By and large, the social insurance system during the pandemic was successful at mitigating the effects of the economic downturn for most Americans.

Many changes were made to the social insurance system during the pandemic. For example, the level, duration, and eligibility for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits were all increased substantially, Without the changes, people who lost their jobs and who were eligible for UI would have received less than one half of their prior pay, and 13 million workers, including the self-employed and people without sufficient earning histories to qualify for UI, would have received no benefits. These changes increased total UI benefits fivefold.  

Congress also increased benefits and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and increased access to Medicaid and other health insurance. As a result of these changes, the social insurance system during the pandemic was quite successful at mitigating much of the impact of the economic downturn for most individuals and families – but not for everyone and not completely.  

Administrative capacity impact

Lack of administrative capacity reduced the effectiveness of the social insurance system during the pandemic. 

The UI system was unable to handle the massive increase in claims without significant delays, leading to hardship for affected workers. Furthermore—UI benefits were increased by the same amount per worker ($600 per week at first and $300 per week later) because antiquated computer systems could not increase replacement rates in a timely manner.  

Other examples of lack of administrative capacity hindering the social insurance system include problems associated with the closing of the Social Security Administration (SSA) field offices and the inability to target safety net providers when disbursing aid to health care providers. That lack of funding for safety net providers probably increased existing disparities in access to quality healthcare.  

Unequal impacts of the pandemic

The pandemic highlighted many of the existing deficiencies and inequities in our social insurance system. 

Much research has highlighted the unequal impacts of the pandemic by race and ethnicity. At the beginning stages of the pandemic, infection and mortality rates were disproportionately high for Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaska Native populations than for non-Hispanic white people. Various pre-existing differences likely contributed to this reality, including unequal access to quality medical care and quality nursing homes, a long legacy of racism and discrimination, and higher prevalence of these groups in front line occupations. 

Similarly, lack of universal health insurance and sick leave meant that, without Congressional action, many people would have faced financial distress and difficulty getting adequate treatment for COVID—just as many still do in accessing non-COVID care. 

The pandemic exposed and magnified the inequities of the digital divide. Many of the accommodations made during the pandemic—for example, an increase in the use of online applications for programs like Social Security, reliance on telehealth, video-conferenced hearings for Disability Insurance determinations, and an online portal for families to apply for the Child Tax Credit—were not possible for people without access to computers with stable high-speed internet connections in private spaces, and comfort with technology, like many aged people and people in rural and low-income communities. 

Policy options

It was not within the scope of the Task Force’s objective to make policy recommendations, but the Working Group offered over 100 policy options across the many different social insurance programs.  

Some of the options are to make permanent, in some fashion, some of the temporary changes made to the social insurance system during the pandemic; others are aimed at addressing the inadequacies that remained even after these changes.  

Finally, we offer options to improve data collection and research in order to further our understanding of the performance of the social insurance during the pandemic. 

The Academy is excited to release this report in May 2023 in view of its contributions to our nation’s continuing investment in sound social insurance policy. 

Louise Sheiner is a Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution and the Policy Director for the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy. Sheiner served as the Principal Investigator of the Policy Translation Working Group of the COVID-19 Task Force 

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