Congress’ arbitrary ‘compromise’ on UI benefits

It’s good to hear that Congress has reached a deal to extend the payroll tax cut and long-term unemployment benefits.The tax relief to working families and the stimulus provided by unemployment payments is critical to protecting some of the recent improvements we’ve seen in the labor market.   

But the nature of the “compromise” that congressional negotiators reached with regard to the length of unemployment benefits seems shockingly arbitrary. According to The New York Times, congressional Republicans wanted to end unemployment benefits after 59 weeks, while congressional Democrats pressed for coverage up to 93 weeks. They ultimately settled on a maximum of 73 weeks.I suppose given the state of Congress, we should be happy they could compromise on anything; but is this “let’s just meet near the middle” approach really the best way to decide when to end important social protections?

The point of unemployment insurance is, of course, to provide some level of income to workers during periods of joblessness. On a macro level, it also helps to counter economic downturns by mitigating the drop in consumer spending that inevitably occurs during periods of high unemployment.Thus, as Peter Orzag recently argued, if policies like unemployment insurance and payroll tax cuts are designed both to protect individual workers and the larger economy during times of distress, why would we want to affix them to arbitrary endpoints rather than overall economic conditions?Wouldn’t it be better to let the unemployment rate or even the long-term unemployment rate dictate how long we provide this additional economic support?

Roughly 2.3 million Americans, or 17 percent of the unemployed, have been searching for a job for at least 73 weeks – not including those that have given up looking for work and have exited the labor force. I should note that this is not the number of people who will lose benefits under the new proposal.Because each state has different unemployment eligibility requirements, differing lengths of state-sponsored coverage, and because federal support is also linked to state unemployment rates, it’s difficult to quickly estimate just how many will lose their benefits under this new cutoff.There are about 400,000 people who have been unemployed between 73 and 99 weeks, the existing cutoff point for unemployment benefits, but not all of these people have been collecting benefits. 

Some will argue, of course, that cutting off unemployment benefits will spur some job seekers to redouble their efforts, as if it’s their lack of trying that is keeping them unemployed.I think the table below suggests otherwise.It shows the 20 states with the highest number of individuals unemployed for at least 73 weeks as a share of their states’ labor force.The cells highlighted in blue denote the top 10 values in each column. 

As one might expect, the states with the highest unemployment rates are also states with the highest proportions of these “73-weekers.” In other words, in places with the highest proportions of long-term unemployed, it’s really hard to find a job. As Heidi Shierholz explains in greater detail, the reason so many have struggled to find work for so long isn’t because they are lazy or that they don’t have the proper skills, but that there simply aren’t enough jobs.The most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) indicated 3.9 job-seekers for every posted job opening nationwide in December. 

Unfortunately, JOLTS does not include state-level statistics, but I would comfortably wager that this ratio is even more extreme in places like Nevada and Florida.Congress should be focused on doing everything it can to stimulate job growth in these states, not negotiating some arbitrary line for when job seekers there will suddenly be without help.