Government spending on unemployment insurance has soared, and it’s hard to imagine the program ever shrinking back to its prerecession size.
Unemployment insurance is jointly administered and financed by the federal and state governments, offering money to people who have lost their jobs and have as yet been unable to find and start a new job. On average they receive about $300 a week until they start working again, they stop looking for work or their benefits are exhausted.
Between 2006 and 2010, inflation-adjusted spending on unemployment compensation by federal, state and local governments more than tripled.
The program has been around for decades, but the most recent recession and continued economic weakness has created an especially large group of laid-off workers who, despite an extensive search, cannot find another job. More unemployed people equals more spending for the unemployment insurance program, so we expect the program to be spending a lot during a recession.
However, the unemployment program has also become more generous since 2006. Before the recession, an unemployed person in a state without high unemployment would often exhaust benefits after 26 weeks; that is, the program would stop paying after the 26th weekly benefit, even if the beneficiary was still without work.
The federal law in place before the recession included some local labor market “extended benefit” triggers that, based on the statewide unemployment rate, would automatically lengthen the maximum benefit period. These automatic triggers began to extend benefits around the nation in the middle of 2008.
About the same time, new “emergency unemployment compensation” legislation extended maximum benefit periods for the entire nation. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of February 2009 further extended these “emergency” periods to up to 99 weeks, and legislation later in 2009 and in 2010 permitted the 99-week maximum to continue. (Among other unemployment insurance expansions, the act also increased monthly benefit amounts and excluded from federal personal income taxation the first $2,400 of benefits received in 2009.)
The chart below shows the size of the “emergency” and extended-benefit expansions, by quarter, measured as a fraction of the entire unemployment insurance program. Essentially, no “emergency” and extended-benefit benefits were paid in 2007 or in the first half of 2008. “Emergency” and extended-benefit benefits immediately became about a quarter of all unemployment insurance benefits and beneficiaries and were a majority of all unemployment insurance benefits by the end of 2009 (the two measures are slightly different because they come from different data sources).
Because “emergency” and extended-benefit benefits are paid to people only when they have exhausted the normal benefits, the fraction shown in the chart is a measure of how much unemployment benefits are paid pursuant to unemployment insurance rule changes, as opposed to payments that occur merely because more people were losing their jobs.
If we assume, merely for simplicity, that the expansions had no effect on the number of people unemployed or on the length of time they were employed, then setting “emergency” and extended-benefit payments to zero as they were in 2007 would have cut total unemployment insurance benefit payments by the fraction shown in the chart. In this case, it appears that the unemployment insurance program is at least twice as generous as it was in 2007, thanks to the federal changes in benefit rules.
The unemployment insurance program is a good example of how federal government spending has grown and how tough it will be to bring it back to pre-recession levels. People are now used to having well more than one year’s unemployment benefits available to them, and politicians will have a lot of trouble asking them to make do with just 26 weeks.