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Management Report: Preliminary Information on Potential Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Receipt of Unemployment Insurance Benefits during the COVID-19 Pandemic

GAO-21-599R Published: Jun 17, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2021.
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Fast Facts

During the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment insurance has provided a vital safety net for millions of workers who became unemployed through no fault of their own.

However, we found potential racial and ethnic disparities in the percentages of unemployment applicants who received benefits. For example, Census Bureau survey data indicates that 80% of White applicants reported receiving benefits, as compared to 73% of Black applicants.

We didn't determine the reasons for these differences, but the results could suggest that states may be approving or processing unemployment claims differently for applicants in different racial and ethnic groups.

Unemployment insurance application

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What GAO Found

As part of ongoing work on unemployment insurance (UI) benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, GAO found potential racial and ethnic disparities in the receipt of UI benefits, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits. Specifically, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's COVID-19 Household Pulse Survey, a higher percentage of White, non-Hispanic/Latino applicants received benefits from UI programs during the pandemic than certain other racial and ethnic groups. In addition, our preliminary analysis of data obtained from five selected states in our ongoing review of the PUA program—a temporary program providing benefits to individuals not otherwise eligible for UI—identified some racial and ethnic disparities in the receipt of PUA benefits. In two of the five states, for example, the percentage of White PUA claimants who received benefits in 2020 was considerably higher than the percentage of Black PUA claimants who received benefits that year (both groups consist of non-Hispanic/Latino claimants). This analysis of state-provided data is preliminary and we are continuing to examine these data, including their reliability and potential explanations for disparities. Various factors could explain the disparities we identified in our preliminary analyses, such as differences in UI eligibility that may be correlated with race and ethnicity. However, another potential explanation is that states could be approving or processing UI claims differently for applicants in different racial and ethnic groups.

Why GAO Did This Study

The UI system provides a vital safety net for individuals who become unemployed through no fault of their own, and this support is essential during widespread economic downturns. During the pandemic, the CARES Act supplemented the regular UI program by creating three federally funded temporary UI programs, including the PUA program, which expanded benefit eligibility and enhanced benefits. As part of our ongoing work on the various UI programs during the pandemic, we analyzed the extent to which there have been differences in the receipt of benefits by race and ethnicity. The purpose of this report is to inform DOL about potential racial and ethnic disparities in the receipt of UI benefits. According to DOL, ensuring equitable access to UI benefits is a top priority for the agency. We recognize that the complexity of these issues may take time to examine in depth. However, given that PUA and the other temporary UI programs are scheduled to expire in September 2021, we are sharing this preliminary information for DOL to consider in determining whether it needs to engage with states at this point to ensure equitable access to the UI system.

For more information, contact Thomas M. Costa at (202) 512-7215

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