Why Your Unemployment Checks Are So Slow

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The nation's unemployment numbers are reaching truly staggering heights as the coronavirus pandemic shuts down all manner of businesses. It's dreadful and stressful and every other worrisome word you can summon, but at least the federal government is — slowly, unevenly — trying to get some money into our collective hands. State governments, meanwhile, are in charge of disbursing unemployment insurance checks, and that process has been marred by some strange and humbling problems.

If your unemployment check has been slow or nonexistent to arrive, assuming you've been able to get through to a state office either over the phone or online, blame neglect and infrastructure. The Verge reports this week that one reason unemployment management systems have been so clunky and ineffectual is because the coding language used to run those systems is literally more than half a century old. COBOL emerged in 1959 as a way to program computers that took up entire rooms; today, at least 12 states are still using the programming language in their unemployment systems, and virtually no one who's still in the workforce actually knows how to use it.

A lot of this comes down to a lack of government funding to modernize American electronic infrastructure over the years. COBOL serves as the basis for a number of private enterprises too, including ATMs and banking software, so this isn't simply a public-sector problem. It may not speed up your unemployment check (and the additional $600 that comes with it), but if you're so moved, call or write to your elected representatives to put their attention on this matter.