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Pandemic’s $794 billion unemployment benefits were historic. Here’s a look back at their scope

Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images


The jobless received $128 billion in total unemployment benefits in 2009, according to an Urban Institute analysis. By comparison, the jobless had gotten $637 billion — five times as much — about a year after the CARES Act became law, according to The Century Foundation.

CARES Act policies aimed to replace a big chunk of lost paychecks as laid-off workers were asked to stay home to reduce the virus’ spread.

“We had a lot of people we wanted to stay home,” said Betsey Stevenson, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Michigan. “We also had lots of people lose jobs right away.”

The law temporarily raised the amount of weekly benefits, by $600 a week and then $300 a week at various points thereafter. Those infusions essentially doubled or tripled the average weekly benefit.

It expanded aid to millions of people, like the self-employed and gig workers, who were previously ineligible for traditional state unemployment insurance. The long-term unemployed also received additional, federally financed weeks of benefits when they depleted state aid.

The $794 billion issued through July 2021 includes:

  • Bonus payments ($300 and $600 a week): $418 billion
  • State unemployment insurance: $167 billion
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (for gig workers): $122 billion
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (for the long-term unemployed): $75 billion
  • Extended Benefits (for the long-term unemployed): $12 billion.


“You could certainly say [unemployment benefits] unambiguously reached many more people, because they changed the coverage,” Julia Lane, an economist and professor at New York University, said of lawmakers’ CARES Act expansion.

By comparison, 14.5 million Americans collected at least one benefit payment in 2009 — less than a third of the pandemic annual total, according to The Century Foundation analysis. And 5 million did so in the 12 months before the pandemic began.

Total weeks

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