Unemployed workers line up for food and coffee during the Great Depression
The Failed State of Ohio
Poverty and Unemployment in the Second Great Depression
Matthew R. Bishop - May 29th, 2020
As June 1st approaches and the rent comes due, a larger crisis hangs over the country: Homelessness.
In Ohio, somewhere around one hundred thousand people have yet to receive any welfare assistance in the wake of the largest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.
Ohio is one of the most hard-hit States, but is least prepared to respond. The CARES Act required Ohio to build a whole new program, because it is actually illegal for anyone who is poor to receive Ohio Unemployment. To qualify for UI in Ohio, a worker must earn more than the federal poverty line, file a W-2, not start their own business, and jump through several other equally obscure or arbitrary hoops.
The result has been catastrophic. Hundreds of thousands of desperate, unemployed Ohioans did not qualify for any help at all. The CARES-funded Ohio PUA program, intended to enfranchise these huge groups of Ohio workers, finally launched earlier in May, making Ohio one of the last States to roll out such a program. Today, more than ten full weeks after Ohio shuttered its economy, as many as one hundred thousand Ohioans have yet to receive anything through this new program.
They’re losing their homes. They’re losing their cars. They’re flooding the alleys of cities and the campgrounds in the woods. They’re standing in lines that wrap around whole city blocks just for one free meal, because they have absolutely nothing left— and because no government exists to help them stay alive.
Ohio is, in effect, a collapsed and failed state.
I interviewed hundreds of Ohioans to get a fuller picture of what they’re going through. As soon as I began reaching out, I was completely overwhelmed. The desperation of these people is horrifying, and the number of people who need help here is so unfathomable that I could not even read the messages and emails fast enough before I had another twenty waiting for me.
For almost an entire day, I received an average of one new contact every thirty seconds. The average contact has had to survive ten weeks without pay, income, or welfare of any kind. A few have survived three full months. Keep in mind that 40% of Americans cannot afford a single $400 emergency and 27% of Americans have no savings at all. Plenty of these Ohioans have had to survive four to five times longer than they were expected to—without any help from their failed state.
Some have had to sell their cars. Others have already listed their homes. Far too many of them were already evicted in April or May, and are currently displaced without any address. Of those who are starving, some have started to eat from roadside pantries stocked by volunteers (a common thing to see these days) while others have been losing weight at a terrifying rate and are at risk of starvation.
Still, somewhere between one-third and one-half of them explained that they have been able to subsist on rice and beans, even when other key staple foods, like plain dry pasta, are completely gone from the pantries. Of those experiencing extreme hunger, a majority are able to eat one meal per day. Affordable staples like these have kept a lot of Ohioans alive, even as they lose their homes, companies, and cars.
Most of the people I spoke with worry for their children, who will be just as homeless and hungry as their parents. At best, they will be malnourished. They talk frantically about moving into tents, cars, or alleys. At least two confided in me that they planned to commit suicide within ten minutes of my first post.
The number of people experiencing suicidal thoughts was a disaster all by itself. People who thought that they lived stable lives, with reliable incomes, in a well-governed state, with a functional welfare apparatus, suddenly have been confronted with the world-shattering realization that literally all of these beliefs are incorrect.
I reached out to the Columbus Free Press, which has been covering homelessness in Ohio since the shutdowns began in March. They said that of all the corporate-owned apartment complexes they’re aware of in the capital of Ohio, not a single one of them has offered rent forgiveness even for one month.
In a State which does not believe in any kind of welfare or safety nets for the poor or unemployed, private companies have shown at least an equal disinterest in helping their neighbors—and at worst, they have been perversely eager to evict tenants in the middle of a pandemic, often illegally.
These overlapping disasters will produce widespread homelessness and extreme poverty the likes of which the United States has not seen since the 1930s, and the reality of which is plainly unimaginable for most individuals who live in the United States today.
The nation faces plenty of complex crises today. The erosion of the balance of powers, the threats to our democracy and the November elections, the threats to the freedom of the press—many of these constitute the most fundamental rights and privileges of a free and democratic society. They are all under attack.
Of no less concern is this looming threat of a second Great Depression. If States like Ohio continue to fail their citizens on such an unprecedented level, that failure could set off a chain reaction of long-term economic collapse and extreme poverty across the entire country.
The United States of America, as we know it, might not recover or rebound from that crisis.
Matthew R. Bishop is a political journalist and novelist who served two tours as a federal crisis responder for the United States. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.