In just about a month, Maine has gone from having one of the lowest unemployment rates in its history to having the highest since the Great Depression.

Nearly 125,000 Mainers have applied for unemployment benefits, meaning that roughly 18 percent of the workforce have lost their jobs since late March.

Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic is to blame, and grim economic numbers like these have fueled demands on Gov. Mills to speed up her plan to ease restrictions and reopen the state’s economy. But it would be a grave mistake to see this crisis as a matter of state policy.

Maine’s unemployment numbers have to be seen in the context of what is happening nationally. In April, 20.5 million American jobs were lost, pushing the national unemployment rate to 14.5 percent. By comparison, the nation lost 8.7 million jobs in the last recession, which peaked with the national unemployment rate at 10 percent.

No state has escaped double digit unemployment. It’s hit states like New York and California, which issued stay-at-home orders before Maine did, and it it’s hitting states like Florida and Georgia, which were slower to shut things down and quicker to open them up.

Mills took unprecedented and necessary steps to slow the spread of coronavirus here, but what has happened to employment in this country is a national crisis that requires a federal response. Those protesting in Augusta should instead train their fire on Washington, D.C., and demand more relief from the federal government.

Congress has already passed trillions of dollars in aid, but it should be clear to members of both parties that what they have done so far is not nearly enough. When we look at Great Depression-scale unemployment numbers, we should be seeing a World War II-scale mobilization effort to prevent another catastrophic depression. More than $500 billion in forgivable loans to small business have not prevented a tsunami of job loss, and enhanced unemployment benefits will soon be running out. As negotiators work out the shape of the next relief bill, members should be thinking about the historic size of this crisis.

This will take more than a one-time stimulus payment. Without income support, millions of families will lose their homes. Children will go hungry. Small businesses will wither and die because their customers are broke.

Massive unemployment will mean massive loss of tax revenue for state governments, which, for the most part, must balance their budgets. Without an influx of cash from the federal government, which doesn’t have that restraint, states will be forced to cut health care, education and other vital services.

The decisions made in Augusta have an enormous impact on the lives of Maine people, but no decision by our governor will end a 50-state economic crisis that’s worse than anything we have ever seen.

Maine is not going to dig itself out of this hole on its own. And without significantly more help from the federal government, we won’t get out of it for a long time.

 


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