The American system of unemployment insurance is a remnant of Jim Crow. While national in its reach, the program’s administrative details are left to the states, a bargain struck in the 1930s as the price for Southern support for New Deal–era social programs. Since then, both eligibility for unemployment insurance and the generosity of the benefit have varied widely (and intentionally) by race, region, occupation, and earning history.
The loosening of occupational exemptions and earnings thresholds closed these gaps somewhat during the last half of the twentieth century. But in recent years they have begun to widen again as many states—foremost among them the states of the old Jim Crow South—have reasserted themselves as laboratories of austerity.
All of this is underscored by the expiration of federal emergency unemployment insurance benefits on December 28. The federal program, which has been invoked during every economic downturn since 1959, extends eligibility beyond the twenty-six weeks typically provided by state programs. In each of those past business cycles, federal benefits were phased out when the long-term unemployment rate (the share of the workforce unemployed six months or longer) fell into the 1 to 1.5 percent range. This time? With long-term unemployment still above 2.5 percent, the December 28 deadline cast about 1.3 million Americans off the eligibility rolls, and another 72,000 are expected to lose their benefits each week through the first half of 2014.
Leading this effort—in Congress and in the States—is the South. Even before the expiration of extended federal benefits (see map below), six of the eight states in which fewer than a quarter of the unemployed were receiving benefits fell below the Mason-Dixon line. The racial patterns are clear. African-Americans make a much larger share of the labor force across the South. African-Americans suffer unemployment rates about double those of whites. Over-represented on the margins of the labor market, blacks are about 25 percent less likely to qualify for jobless benefits than whites. Southern legislators—whether by paring benefits at the state level or leading the Congressional charge to slash the federal share—have the motive and the means to roll back the clock.
The expiration underscored and exposed the unevenness of state programs. After December 28, the national share of the unemployed receiving benefits plunged to 25 percent (this rate, since this data was first recorded in 1946, had never fallen below 30 percent before). The share in the states ranges from 11 to 35 percent. In the most generous settings, barely a third of the unemployed are getting any help. Of the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, nine cover fewer than 25 percent of the unemployed and seven cover fewer than 20 percent.
While the Senate is poised to reinstate the extended federal benefits, cooperation in the House—without big cuts elsewhere—looks unlikely. And, even if Congress is willing to cobble together another three months of aid, there is no assurance that Southern statehouses—following the lead of North Carolina—won’t refuse to cooperate altogether.
Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He writes widely on the history of American public policy and is the author, most recently, of Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality.