Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Oliver shows how COVID and racism vie to undermine America's busted unemployment system

John Oliver, “sentient plantation wedding, Laura Ingraham” (inset)
John Oliver, “sentient plantation wedding, Laura Ingraham” (inset)
Screenshot: Last Week Tonight

It’s got to be exhausting for even a noted and award-winning comic mind like John Oliver’s to keep coming up with clever and informative mini-essays on how things are totally, near-irretrievably, and often intentionally fucked. And yet, in his main Sunday Last Week Tonight story about America’s busted, broke, and brutally cruel unemployment system, Oliver was still in there swinging, bless him. Oliver buckled in for a tight, wryly furious 21-minutes on how the ongoing COVID crisis has exposed not just how the current jobless benefit safety net is full of life-threatening holes, but also why so many politicians, historically, have been wielding the scissors.

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“It seems, in the U.S., you can basically point to anything, ask, ‘How is that racist?,’ and get a specific historical answer,” Oliver kicked off his piece, and, yeah. From the current unemployment system’s very inception, which drew the benefit lines so 65 percent of Black workers would not be covered, to smugly sneering (white) state lawmakers using coded language and stereotypes about “lifestyle” to exclude entire communities, to entities like “sentient plantation wedding” and Fox News’ paid white supremacist Laura Ingraham employing that old “it’s their own fault for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps even though we’ve rigged the game against them” rhetoric, Oliver laid out how America’s unemployment system is toxically contaminated with America’s greater systemic racism. At least Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear went on TV to sheepishly apologize for making a smirking example of someone who tried to claim necessary and legally guaranteed unemployment insurance under the name Tupac Shakur when it turned out that, yes, there can be more than one Black guy named Tupac Shakur.

Not surprisingly, however, it’s “America’s vestigial tail,” Florida, that proved Oliver’s radioactively glowing exemplar of callous, worker-starving, intentionally obstructionist policy. Noting that, under former governor and “Slender Man understudy” Rick Scott (now a U.S. Senator, because, Florida), a state of 22 million people saw only 61 thousand receiving unemployment, Oliver found himself in the soul-sickening position of giving props to current Florida governor and human coronavirus double agent Ron DeSantis, who, when pressed on why his state’s already penurious (and expensively computerized) unemployment system crashed under the weight of the COVID jobless surge, admitted that Scott’s policies has been specifically designed to keep necessary aid from people who desperately needed it. Oliver explained that, while the sight of “this asshole accurately critiqu(ing) this asshole” was well and good, DeSantis has done literally nothing to help the people he’s supposedly there to serve by fixing Scott’s dead-eyed starvation trap. (One woman, shown standing in an overcrowded line for precious paper applications after the state’s online-only system melted down, told a reporter, “I’m scared for my life, just for an application.”)

As to the big fix, Oliver noted, as usual, that it’d be simple—in a country better than this one. Federalizing the system so that people’s literal survival didn’t depend on the whims, prejudices, and “business-friendly” glad-handing of 53 local legislatures (including D.C., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands) would be a start, but that makes far too much sense. Absent that, Oliver says that fixing and funding each state’s outdated and overburdened unemployment systems is a baseline remedy, while setting a countrywide minimum standard for benefits would offset penurious, racist assholes like Scott, DeSantis, and this week’s other example of representative villainy, former Tennessee Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey. (After lying folksily about fired workers being eligible for unemployment—they’re not—Ramsey called his bullshit “a classic Ron Ramsey blanket statement,” with Oliver noting, “You know you’re in good hands when a government official lies enough to warrant a fucking trademark.”)

Showing a news report of one disabled and unemployed mother trying to hide her abject terror about being able to survive from her child, Oliver got to the heart (so-called) of this mess. With his wonted, end-of-segment world-weary anger, Oliver stated that, for all the hackneyed and airlessly cruel bluster from lawmakers when it comes to unemployment, “We need to take all of the energy that we have been pouring in to making sure that people who don’t deserve payments don’t get them, and put at least as much energy into making sure that people who really need them do.” Oh, and the Democrats in the U.S. Senate just voted to help out the unemployed, among other COVID relief measures. Every single Republican voted against that. Just providing information.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.