It’s commonly assumed that unemployed people not receiving unemployment benefits have been unlucky enough to go without a job for so long that their benefits have run out. But often more important are limited work histories and a low propensity to take benefits that are available.
Historically, many unemployed people have not collected unemployment payments because of ineligibility, lack of awareness or simple unwillingness to collect benefits. But some of those patterns changed during the recent recession.
The chart below shows the number of unemployment compensation beneficiaries per unemployed person, for people 16 to 24, people 25 and over and all people 16 and over. This ratio can be less than one for all of the reasons mentioned and because some unemployed people may exhaust their benefits sometime during the calendar year.
Not surprisingly, more than three-quarters of young unemployed people do not receive unemployment compensation, in large part because they are much less likely to have the employment history that is required for eligibility. Young people are disproportionately represented among the unemployed, and their limited work histories are the primary reason why a large fraction of the unemployed does not receive benefits.
More striking is the increase to 85 percent from 50 percent among people 25 and over. Before the recession began, about a quarter of unemployed people that age had been unemployed for more than 26 weeks, when unemployment benefits were typically exhausted.
The remaining quarter of the unemployed did not receive benefits for a variety of other reasons: they may not have been interested in or aware of benefits, or they may have been ineligible because they quit their jobs (rather than lost them).
By 2010, unemployment was lasting much longer, but the time for receiving benefits had increased even more. Ninety-two weeks was a typical unemployment benefit period in 2010 (in some states it was 78 weeks, in others 99 weeks), yet only 12 percent of the unemployed 25 and over were unemployed that long.
That means as many as 88 percent of the people that age who were unemployed could have received benefits. That 85 percent received benefits tells us how rare it was for eligible people to forgo benefits during the recession.
The recipiency rate change from 2007 to 2010 is thus a combination of a decreased likelihood of exhausting benefits and an increased propensity to receive benefits early in the unemployment spell. These two factors change so much that even though the average weekly number of unemployed people 25 and over increased by more than six million from 2007 to 2009, the average weekly number of those people not receiving unemployment insurance actually fell by 700,000. (For the purposes of this calculation, I assume that, consistent with the law, nobody received unemployment benefits for a week that she or he was employed.)
This absolute decline in nonparticipating unemployed suggests that people are more willing (equivalently, less unwilling) to collect unemployment benefits than they were before the recession began.
Unemployment insurance is known for its ability to expand eligibility as a recession gets going, whether through the “extended benefits” that take effect at given jobless rates or through legislative action beyond that. But an adjustment almost as important has occurred in the labor force itself: during the recession, people increased their propensity to take advantage of available benefits.