Doubt of the benefit
Why increasing unemployment aid is prolonging the recession
By CASEY B. MULLIGAN
More families used food stamps this past Thanksgiving than ever in history, while Congress is pushing to extend benefits — again — for the longterm unemployed.
But what if such aid isn’t helping us weather the recession, but instead prolonging it?
The White House, and other believers in Keynesian policy refer to subsidies to the unemployed, poor and financially distressed as “automatic stabilizers” and insist that subsidies have a large positive effect on national income.
Yet when the subsidy spigots were opened wide in 2008 and 2009, labor market activity contracted sharply, and stubbornly refuses to rebound.
It is time to reconsider the old-school economic idea that paying people to be unemployed reduces employment. The more we pay poor people, the more poor people we will have. The more we help people and institutions in financial distress, the more financial distress there will be.
It is easy to look at a particular instance of redistribution — say, unemployment benefits — and conclude that its aggregate effects are minimal, or approximately zero. But policymakers did not expand just one provision of one program.
Food-stamp recipients were given a big raise in October 2008, and then another raise six months later. Thanks to the elimination of asset-testing by the majority of states, just about anyone who is the sole earner in their household now find themselves eligible for food stamps during periods of unemployment.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, popularly known as the stimulus, gave unemployment insurance recipients a weekly bonus, and offered to pay for the majority of their health insurance expenses. FDIC and Treasury reduced some “unaffordable” mortgage payments, which means that successful people need not apply. The list goes on and on.
The essential consequence for all of these is the same: a reduction in the reward to activities and efforts that raise incomes.
I’ve studied how redistribution affects the “reward” for working.
We start with a monthly index of government benefits. Before the recession began, an unemployed person typically received about $10,000 a year in government benefits. By the end of 2009, program rule changes alone had increased the typical benefit to almost $16,000.
Plot that against the hours an average American adult spends away from work in a year (the difference between total hours in a year and hours at work). Largely because of the increase in the number of people without jobs, the average work hours were about 120 fewer at the end of 2009 than they were at the end of 2007 — a 10% decline.
But things start to change at the beginning of 2010. Slowly, the number of hours of work by the average American begins to climb. Not coincidentally, the average annual government benefit for the unemployed dropped to $14,000.
The increase in benefits provides a disincentive to work. From 2007 until 2009, I found a startling 13% decline in the “reward” for working — that is, how much better the average job would be over collecting benefits.
Considering that, why is the labor market still so far from a full recovery? Because government benefits are still far from returning to pre-recession levels.
But wait, a Keynesian would say. Unemployment benefits are good for the economy overall, since it is money spent and not saved.
It’s true that the poor and unemployed tend to quickly spend what they have on basic needs. Yet Keynesians have gone further to claim that spending patterns of the poor are why redistribution raises total spending and thereby employment. Redistribution changes the composition of spending and employment in the direction of industries like discount groceries and low-cost retail that disproportionately serve poor customers and away from industries like, say, airlines. The stimulating effects of benefit spending for the overall economy is limited.
Redistribution is not free. Redistribution depresses employment, aggregate spending and GDP, by implicitly punishing the successful and implicitly rewarding the unsuccessful.
We don’t like to see people suffer, and it’s a natural instinct to want to increase redistribution in a time of recession. But the better economic solution reduces the implicit penalties of government aid, and gets more people working, so they don’t need the help.
Casey B. Mulligan is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and author of the new book “The Redistribution Recession” (Oxford University Press); redistributionrecession.com