Long Recession Ignites Debate on Jobless Benefits
Management Recruiters of Sacramento, Calif., says it recently had a tough time filling six engineering positions at an Oregon manufacturer paying $60,000 a year—and suspects long-term jobless benefits were part of the hitch.
"We called several engineers that were unemployed," says Karl Dinse, a managing partner at the recruiting firm. "They said, nah, you know, if it were paying $80,000 I'd think about it." Some candidates suggested he call them back when their benefits were scheduled to run out, he says.
Rick Jewell has a different take on extended jobless benefits: He didn't want to be on the dole, but had no alternative. He has been out of work since he lost his $12-an-hour job driving a forklift for a cosmetics company in Greenwood, Ind., in December 2008. He collected $315 a week in benefits until early June—when Congress declined to renew the law that gave workers in Indiana and some other states up to 99 weeks of assistance.
In the long recession and the lackluster recovery, the government expanded unemployment payments more than at any time since the benefits were rolled out in the 1930s. And workers have gone jobless for longer than any time since official tallies began in 1967.
Politicians and economists are now in a fierce debate that could have big consequences for the jobless: Did more-generous unemployment benefits prompt jobless workers to be pickier in their searches? Or was the program a prudent response to the worst recession in generations?
The debate remains pressing as Congress wrestles with whether to extend the expired benefit program.
Economists have argued for years about the extent to which government benefits prolong unemployment—and possibly augment the overall jobless rate. Most believe that expanding benefits does discourage some unemployed people from looking for work or taking available jobs. But they disagree on how acute that effect is, particularly at a time when jobs are scarce.
The recent recession was unusual in almost every respect. Compared to other post-World War II recessions, it was deeper, longer and put more people out of work. A year after the economy began growing, unemployment is still a very high 9.5%. Nearly half the jobless—6.8 million total—have been out of work for more than six months, and 4.3 million of those have been without work for more than a year. The typical unemployed person has been out of the job market for a median of 25.5 weeks.
The government response was also unusual, and not just in the big bank bailout. In normal times, the unemployed are offered up to 26 weeks of benefits, largely financed by a tax on employers. In recessions, state and federal governments often jointly finance up to an additional 20 weeks in hard-hit states. In this recession, Congress added up to another 53 weeks of federally funded benefits; in the deep crisis of the 1980s, the maximum total never exceeded 55 weeks.
The unemployment compensation system, created in 1935, was designed to tide workers over during periods of temporary unemployment. Benefits are based on a worker's prior wages; the average is $310 a week. Only workers who have lost a job through no fault of their own are eligible. Those who quit or who are new to the work force don't qualify. They must reapply weekly or biweekly, depending on the state, and indicate that they are looking for work.
In the 1980s, only half of all unemployed received benefits. In the first quarter of 2010, 69% of the unemployed did. That's partly because the benefits lasted so much longer, economists say. It's also because Washington gave states incentives to extend benefits to workers looking for part-time jobs and those who enrolled in training programs.
While curtailing benefits could prod some jobless workers to take unappealing jobs, benefits supporters say there would be other negative effects. The expanded benefits may have underpinned consumer demand at a time when it was weak. Unemployed workers tend to spend most or all of their unemployment checks quickly, economists say. In one analysis this year, the Congressional Budget Office said that each dollar spent on extending benefits would increase economic output by $0.70 to $1.90.
Some economists argue that benefits can help the jobless perceive themselves as still part of the labor force. If benefits end, these workers may be more likely to apply for disability or similar benefits.