The coronavirus public health emergency and resulting economic recession brought into stark relief the engrained problems with the system of income support for U.S. workers and their families. People in the United States access income support from a wide range of programs, including Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, to name a few.

Despite the number of programs that make up our income support system, many people who need this support are blocked from accessing it. During the COVID-19 crisis, the existing income support infrastructure has been wholly insufficient for providing relief to those who needed it. And while the pandemic-specific income supports delivered through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act and related programs successfully blunted some of the worst pain of the pandemic, they also failed to deliver for all who needed income support due to sustained underinvestment in these key income support programs over the past half-century.

The coronavirus health and economic crisis is being felt widely by millions of U.S. workers and their families, yet people across the country face crises of their own every day no matter the broader economic or public health outlook. Whether it’s a personal or national crisis, the inability to access income support programs to weather unexpected storms has serious consequences, especially for many workers of color, women, and their families. Indeed, the coronavirus recession exposed already deep inequalities in access to income supports along lines of race and gender.

What is it, precisely, that stops people from accessing income supports? There are three main barriers:

  • Eligibility rules are too strict.
  • Benefits are too hard to access even when people are eligible.
  • Benefits amounts are too low.

No matter one’s place in the income distribution at any given time, these weaknesses in our nation’s income support system prevent the U.S. economy from reaching its full potential through lowered labor force participation, a weakened macroeconomy during economic recessions, and underinvestment in the human capital of the next generation of workers. What’s more, all of us are likely to face a personal need for income support at some point over the course of our lives.

Read the full article about income support infrastructure by Liz Hipple and Alix Gould-Werth at Equitable Growth.