Axios: You won’t believe how much pandemic-relief unemployment benefits *may* have been stolen

In fact, I’m not sure I do believe this — although it could be possible. Axios gets this analysis not from disinterested observers but from two sources with skin in the benefits-protection game. That doesn’t make them wrong, however, about half or more of the pandemic unemployment benefits paid out potentially having gone to thieves and fraudsters:

Criminals may have stolen as much as half of the unemployment benefits the U.S. has been pumping out over the past year, some experts say.

Why it matters: Unemployment fraud during the pandemic could easily reach $400 billion, according to some estimates, and the bulk of the money likely ended in the hands of foreign crime syndicates — making this not just theft, but a matter of national security.

“Could” and “some” do a bit of heavy lifting here, although it’s beyond dispute that quantifiable amounts of fraud have taken place in several of the COVID-19 relief programs. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has attracted considerable criticism over its operations, although the definition of “fraud” and its accounting for misdirected funding are debatable. As Axios notes, Congress and both the Trump and Biden administrations calculated that aid was too urgent to obstruct with time-consuming anti-fraud checks and procedures in these programs, which is a fair if also debatable decision.

How much theft and fraud occurred in pandemic-UI programs, though? Does Axios and/or its sources have hard data on that? Not exactly, and the numbers differ between their sources:

Blake Hall, CEO of ID.me, a service that tries to prevent this kind of fraud, tells Axios that America has lost more than $400 billion to fraudulent claims. As much as 50% of all unemployment monies might have been stolen, he says.

Haywood Talcove, the CEO of LexisNexis Risk Solutions, estimates that at least 70% of the money stolen by impostors ultimately left the country, much of it ending up in the hands of criminal syndicates in China, Nigeria, Russia and elsewhere.

Needless to say, both of these sources would be expert in this field. Both also have a vested interest in playing up the risks, as that has the effect of increasing demand for their services. Both claims appear to be more ambiguous forecasting than hard numbers based on solid data, a description of the possible more than the actual. Of course, as Axios points out, the lack of sufficient UI infrastructure in the states doesn’t just make hard data difficult if impossible to get, it’s also the reason for the sky-high estimates of potential losses.

The problem is real, and so is the scope. Is the damage estimate real? Maaaayyybeee, but it looks more like an extreme worst-case scenario.

The more that people talk about this, however, the more politically uncomfortable it becomes to continue those programs. And Democrats are already feeling the heat over those:

The staff shortfalls Americans are finding as they head to restaurants and summer vacation spots illustrate the risk for Democrats over whether the government’s extra $300 per week in enhanced unemployment benefits is to blame.

Why it matters: Twenty-five states — all run by Republican governors — are eliminating some or all of the UI benefits. Some are even offering back-to-work bonuses to further encourage a return to work. Expect the results to become midterm fodder next year.

“While these federal programs provided important temporary relief, vaccines and jobs are now in good supply,” said Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican and potential 2024 candidate for president.

As of now, most Democratic lawmakers argue there are more factors contributing to the staff shortages — notably child care, especially for women, according to several members of Congress who spoke to Axios.

Yet many Democrats are increasingly willing to admit they may have gotten it wrong, and fear the spike in activity this summer will generate a backlash among their constituents.

Shifting the blame to “child care for women” won’t help Democrats either. The main issue there is teachers unions refusing to return to work, and those unions are close allies to the Democrats. If these programs get seen as widely fraudulent as well as economically counterproductive while children remain locked out of schools by unions, Democrats are going to have a miserable midterm cycle regardless of the level of fraud actually found in these programs.

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