Conservatives and Progressives Agree: Congress Should Not Cut Unemployment Benefits

Dec 10, 2013Nell Abernathy

Extremists who think government support for the unemployed is holding the economy back don't have the facts on their side.

It’s a rare day indeed when Next New Deal bloggers support economic arguments with links to the Weekly Standard, the American Enterprise Institute, and Goldman Sachs. But at this moment, in this economy, we are all singing the same tune about the absolute necessity of extending unemployment insurance and providing additional support to the long-term unemployed. So, consider our current alignment a sign of extraordinary times.

Extraordinary because six years after the recession, there are still at least 4.1 million long-term unemployed Americans who have been looking for a job for more than six months and have yet to find work. Extraordinary because despite agreement from both progressive and conservative economists on the need for government action, the congressional flank led by Paul Ryan and Rand Paul is so far outside the mainstream that they are arguing to cut benefits for the long-term unemployed. Extraordinary because the 113th Congress is so dysfunctional that these extremists just might succeed in their goal.

Protecting unemployment insurance is a “disservice” to the unemployed, Rand Paul told the morning shows Sunday. The clear logic being that those folks looking for work for the last six months have been all-too-coddled by their $300-a-week government check, when what they need is some real motivation to pound the pavement even harder.

Unfortunately for Mr. Paul and his friends, there are a few flaws in this latest version of the up-by-your-bootstraps logic. But, don’t take our word for it. For a full outline of the arguments in support of extending unemployment insurance, we turn to the conservative intelligentsia and financial establishment.

Who are the long-term unemployed? Lazy hangers-on?

According to a report from the Urban Institute, in 2012, two-thirds of the long-term unemployed were ages 26-55, one-third had children, one-half had at least some college, and one in ten were college graduates.

Michael Strain in the Weekly Standard:

“A large share of the long-term unemployed are people with relatively high earnings potential and personal responsibilities that extend beyond themselves. It is hard to imagine an educated worker in her prime working years with a kid at home having allowed a $300-a-week check to stand between her and a strenuous job search for over half a year.”

Well, then why aren’t they getting jobs?

A growing body of empirical evidence indicates that the long-term unemployed experience “scarring” simply for being unemployed.

Congressional Testimony of American Enterprise Institute fellow Kevin Hassett:

“There is an evident shift in the curve [the Beveridge curve which serves as a measure of how quickly the labor market matches workers with job openings] for workers who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, unemployed workers of shorter durations have experienced no outward shift in the Beveridge curve. They conclude that being unemployed for a longer amount of time has an effect on the chances that a worker will become employed, suggesting that being long-term unemployed is in itself a cause of the persistence in unemployment.”

While I feel bad for them, it’s not my problem. Isn’t unemployment insurance just a big waste of my taxpayer dollars?

With a GDP multiplier of 1.6, unemployment insurance is one of the most efficient fiscal stimulus tools. Every dollar spent on unemployment insurance contributes $1.60 to GDP. In contrast, a lump sum tax rebate or a dividend and capital gain tax cut would provide GDP multipliers of only 1.2 or 0.4, respectively.

Congressional testimony of Mark Zandi of Moodys Analytics:

“Emergency UI provides an especially large economic boost, as financially stressed unemployed workers spend any benefits they receive quickly. With few other resources, UI benefits are spent and not saved.”

Moreover, a recent report from the Fed indicates that the declining skills of the long-term unemployed have degraded our potential for GDP growth in the future.

Goldman Sachs Global Economics, Commodities and Strategy Research analysis of Fed report:

“They estimate that real potential GDP growth has only averaged 1.3% since 2007, the output gap is currently about 3% of GDP, and the structural unemployment rate had risen to 5.75% by 2012 (although it is now again on a slight downward trend). They then use a modified version of FRB/US with an added role for ‘hysteresis; in labor markets--that is, a gradual transformation of cyclical unemployment into structural unemployment and/or labor force withdrawal --to analyze the sources of this deterioration, using a simulation in which the model economy is hit by a major financial crisis that is calibrated to match the size of the 2007-2009 episode. In a nutshell, they find that the post-crisis period ‘features a noticeable deterioration in the economy's productive capacity’ and that about 80% of the deterioration ‘…represents an endogenous response to the persistently weak state of aggregate demand.’”

Well what are we supposed to do – just pay them forever not to work?

Well, we can discuss a minimum income later. For now, let’s invest in programs to get workers back in the workforce. Here are a few steps we can take:

1. The government can fund direct employment for the long-term unemployed.

AEI’s Kevin Hassett testifying before Congress:

“The stigma of long term unemployment may be ameliorated by a short run jobs program that recruits the long term unemployed to assist with normal functions of government. This may allow individuals to look for a new job while employed, a change that may have a large impact on placement.”

2. The government can increase transportation infrastructure to ensure all workers can get to work and create jobs.

Michael Strain in the Weekly Standard:

“One way to advance these goals would be to improve transportation networks within cities and their outlying areas in order to shorten commute times from low-income neighborhoods to employment centers…. In its cheapest incarnation, this would involve extra buses that run nonstop from low-income neighborhoods to employment centers, both in city centers and in suburbs. And of course, more money for better roads, bridges, and tunnels would shorten commute times for everyone, including the working poor.”

3. The government can expand work-sharing programs.

Michael Strain in the Weekly Standard:

“To help make sure that we aren’t adding any new workers to the rolls of the long-term unemployed, states without worksharing UI programs — about half of them at the moment — should start them. Under worksharing, a worker who has his hours reduced by his employer in response to a temporary lull in demand can receive a prorated UI benefit. This makes it easier for firms to reduce employees’ hours by, say, 20 percent, rather than laying off 20 percent of their workforce. Government shouldn’t tilt the scales towards layoffs by prohibiting workers who have their hours reduced from receiving prorated UI benefits.”

What now?

I’ve just listed a few of the many government solutions to our current economic woes on which progressives and conservatives agree. Extending unemployment insurance is not a partisan issue. The government providing a helping hand to those who most need it has not, historically, been a partisan issue. This is not about left and right. It is about pragmatic versus extremist.

For the sake of current GDP, future GDP growth, and the long-term unemployed, congressional Republicans cannot let the extremists win this time.

Nell Abernathy is the Program Manager for the Roosevelt Institute's Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative.

Capitol Building banner image via Shutterstock.com

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