On Saturday, the state of New Jersey was mocked on Twitter after Gov. Phil Murphy announced during a press conference that the state had a desperate need for COBOL programmers. The state’s unemployment insurance application website had broken under the weight of the more than 200,000 applications it received in a single week, and volunteers were needed to get the system back up and running reliably. The website is not completely down, but it’s been glitchy, and laid-off workers report that they haven’t been able to submit applications. In response, the state has implemented a schedule for using the website based on people’s Social Security numbers. Murphy confessed that the unemployment systems themselves are “40-plus years old”—and that they were still written in COBOL, a programming language initially developed in 1959.
For some, hearing COBOL’s name was a big blast from the past. The programming language hasn’t been taught at most universities in decades, and it’s used only on giant mainframe computers, as opposed to the server farms that became popular in the 1980s, or the “cloud,” where companies like Netflix and Facebook cheaply buy computing power hosted by providers like Amazon or Google. Even in the 1980s, most people thought COBOL was uncool and outdated. But it’s still in widespread use across state governments, for two big reasons. First, states have been starved of the money they need to upgrade their safety net programs. Second, and just as importantly, COBOL still works pretty well, assuming you can find any engineers who know the language.
New Jersey is hardly the only state stuck with technology from the last millennium. The New York Times reported that New York’s and Connecticut’s unemployment systems are also both more than 40 years old and haven’t been able to keep up with the flood of new applications. Connecticut’s backlog in processing applications is reportedly five weeks long. Washington, D.C., asks unemployed workers to file their applications using Internet Explorer, a browser that Microsoft officially retired five years ago. Explorer isn’t even available for the smartphones that are the only form of internet access available for 1 in every 4 low-income adults.
Part of the problem? States have been starved of funding they need for running their unemployment insurance systems, money that under the 1935 Social Security Act is supposed to come from the federal government. According to a 2017 presentation by the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, the federal funding available for state unemployment insurance agencies to upgrade their technology, pay workers, and cover other administrative expenses has been falling steadily for the past 25 years, dipping roughly 30 percent below mid-1990s levels. In a survey NASWA conducted of 40 states’ workforce agencies, more than half of respondents said their administrative budget shortfalls were either “serious” or “critical.” And things haven’t gotten better in the years that followed, with Congress making further budget cuts in 2018 and 2019. Even compared with other social safety net programs, the technology used for unemployment insurance is in particularly bad shape. They have “some of the most antiquated and least versatile computer systems among public agencies,” said Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. While states that upgrade their Medicaid websites and tech systems have their spending matched 9 to 1 by the federal government, he said, states that want to fix their unemployment insurance get no such help.*
That decrepit technology created by years of disinvestment came back to bite Congress when it decided to boost unemployment insurance payouts in the wake of the pandemic. The CARES Act decreed that unemployed workers get an extra $600 per week in their unemployment insurance payouts. According to Dutta-Gupta, Congress would have preferred to raise the percentage of lost wages that insurance would replace, instead of giving everyone the same boost, but the states said it would take five months or longer to change the reimbursement percentage. “Clearly, the incredibly old enterprise systems and software just don’t align with the needs of our country, especially amidst a crisis.”
But while New Jersey’s unemployment system is undoubtedly buckling under the weight of the COVID-19 jobs crisis, the COBOL programming language, or the mainframes it runs on, are probably not to blame. After all, COBOL systems process trillions of dollars of transactions daily for the world’s largest banks, which are clearly not strapped for the cash they’d need to make upgrades. COBOL might be deeply uncool, but it’s hardly a dead language.
COBOL “remains one of the fastest programming languages,” said John Zeanchock, associate professor of computer and information systems at Robert Morris University. “We get calls from big companies in Pittsburgh, like Bank of New York Mellon and PNC Bank, looking for COBOL programmers. The limitations of COBOL itself are probably not the problem with New Jersey’s system,” Zeanchock said, adding that a single mainframe computer could probably handle the processing needed for an individual state’s UI unemployment insurance system, even if the number of applications increased tenfold.
RMU is one of only 37 universities in the world that still has at least one dedicated mainframe computing course as a part of their curriculums. But it stopped for more than a decade, says Zeanchock, until it was approached by IBM for a partnership in 2012. RMU students are able to connect to IBM’s mainframe computers in Dallas, and roughly 20 students per year complete RMU’s program. According to Zeanchock, those who do tend to make $15,000 to $30,000 more after graduation than other RMU computer science graduates. Demand for COBOL engineers is outstripping supply. As Michael Wirth, professor of computer science at University of Guelph, wrote in 2015, “The problem lies not with the legacy code [per-se], but with the lack of people qualified to maintain it.”
“It’s a great language to use for mainframe computers that need to handle a very high volume of transactions,” said Zeanchock, in explaining why it continues to be broadly used by federal agencies like the IRS and Social Security Administration, along with banks, ATM networks, and credit card companies. According to a 2020 survey conducted by Micro Focus, 70 percent of companies using COBOL wanted to continue to update and modernize their COBOL code bases, instead of planning to abandon their mainframe systems altogether. But even if the job prospects are good, and the technology is still powerful, Zeanchock says it’s hard to recruit students to learn a programming language many perceive as antiquated. “Something that might take 2 or 3 lines of code in a more modern programming language [like Python] might take 50 to 100 lines of code in COBOL.”
When it comes to our broken social safety net, COBOL isn’t really the bad guy: blame Congress for underfunding the programs, and states for failing to make up the gaps.
“We’ve known for a long time that even a much smaller crisis would lead to daunting challenges,” said Dutta-Gupta. He points out that during the Great Recession, state unemployment agencies were so understaffed that their agency heads spent shifts answering applicant phone calls. Even if states weren’t getting federal funding, they still could have paid for better technology with their own tax revenue. According to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times, former Florida Gov. Rick Scott and current Gov. Ron DeSantis ignored repeated warnings that the state’s website barely functioned.
And when states have tried to make upgrades, it hasn’t always gone well. In 2013, Florida under Scott, paid Deloitte $77 million to build a new unemployment insurance website ($14 million more than it originally budgeted for) and still ended up with a system so riddled with glitches that a 2019 audit found more than 600 separate problems. Florida’s website has crashed repeatedly since March. On Tuesday, in the Miami suburb of Hialeah, hundreds of laid-off workers risked exposure to the coronavirus by lining up to pick up paper applications. (While New Jersey plans to send laid-off workers retroactive benefits if they were laid off in March but couldn’t submit their applications until April, according to Florida state law, there’s no such forgiveness for all the workers locked out by the state’s technical incompetence).
By contrast, Massachusetts spent the time and money to make sure it built a system that would actually work—and now it’s reaping the benefits. In 2017, Massachusetts migrated its unemployment technology to the cloud, predicting it would save about $800,000 annually in ongoing maintenance expenses. More importantly, though, Massachusetts’ online system has mostly kept up with demand, state officials told WBUR, a Boston-area NPR news station.
“I thought it was very smooth,” said Elias, a 26-year-old dental hygienist in Central Massachusetts, speaking about the state’s unemployment website. (When we spoke by phone, he asked that his last name not be used.) When Elias found out on March 17 that the dental office where he works would be closed until May, he submitted an unemployment insurance application online. It was approved two days later, and his family has started receiving benefits. It appears that a functional website sometimes goes hand in hand with a state government that prioritizes the safety net: Before Congress expanded UI, Florida provided only 12 weeks of unemployment insurance, while Massachusetts provided 30 weeks, and Massachusetts’ weekly benefit amounts were roughly 40 percent higher for middle-income workers than Florida’s.
Under the CARES Act that Congress passed in March, states are supposed to get the extra money they need to implement the newly created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which extends benefits to people who were ineligible for traditional unemployment insurance. That cash should make it easier to make sure websites and processing systems are up and running—but our failure to keep our safety net crisis-ready may cause millions of people to struggle financially in the meantime.
Correction, April 10, 2020: This article originally misstated the funding structure for Medicaid technology spending. The federal government offers a 9-to-1 match, not a match of 90 percent of the funds states spend.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.