Since the pandemic started, 38.6 million Americans have filed for unemployment claims, according to new numbers announced Thursday.

That's more than one in five American workers using an unemployment insurance system first established decades ago to serve a very different population.

It was 1935 and the country was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. The system's focus was people who worked in medium-to-large manufacturing or in trade industries, says Indivar Dutta-Gupta, co-executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

"Policymakers were clear that they wanted partial wage replacement for workers who were laid off through no fault of their own," he tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "But policymakers also recognized that unemployment insurance would have the effect of stabilizing the economy and helping keep workers attached to the labor force."

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