Unemployment Insurance, Take II

In response to my post earlier this week about unemployment insurance being stimulative, Harry Moroz over at Huffington Post, makes a good point

I had cited evidence showing that—contrary to conventional Keynesian expectations—those with lower net wealth and those with lower incomes actually have lower marginal propensities to consume compared with high-wealth, high-income people.

According to Moroz, I “wholly conflated ‘the poor’ with ‘the unemployed.’ ” Fair enough. Unemployment and low income are not the same. But research by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University shows that the correlation is extremely strong (in fact, as Veronique de Rugy has pointed out, the blogosphere has lit up lately with posts about the high unemployment rates among low-income people):


So: low income people are more likely to be unemployed; and according to the Sahm, Shapiro, and Slemrod study, low-income workers seem not to have high marginal propensity to consume. Putting these two facts together, I would be surprised if unemployment insurance were particularly stimulative.   

In my mind, the central argument comes down to three points:

  1. Keynesians will argue that transfer payments to the unemployed will—through the magic of the multiplier—lead to a boost in aggregate demand. I tend not to put a ton of stock in this because many estimates of the multiplier are relatively low and the latest estimates of the multiplier are even lower. Also, as I argued in my last post, I don’t see a lot of evidence to indicate that the unemployed or the poor have really high marginal propensities to consume (and probably no higher than those from whom the revenue is obtained through taxation or borrowing). The bottom line: We can quibble about which estimate is right but it seems that many proponents of stimulus are over-confident in their assessment that fiscal stimulus works. Given the ambiguities in both the theoretical and empirical research, I’d say a little humility is in order.    
  2. Even if we take the Keynesian multiplier arguments at face value, we must acknowledge that there are other forces at work. In the most basic economic model, if you tax work and subsidize non-work, then on the margin you should expect less work. And, indeed, numerous studies have found that increasing the length of potential unemployment benefit duration increases the average length of the unemployment spell. We may not like this result, but as Alan Blinder notes, we have to acknowledge what this is what the research shows. This must be weighed against the Keynesian result in #1 above. 
  3. The final point is a long-term one. Compared with other countries, the U.S. has significantly lower long-term unemployment rates. Moreover, the unemployed in the U.S. tend to remain so for shorter periods than in other countries. At the same time, U.S. unemployment insurance replaces a much smaller fraction of income and does not last as long (see charts below). Numerous studies have found this is no coincidence: the difference in European and U.S. unemployment experiences seems to be due to the relative dynamism of the U.S. labor market. Compared with Europe, we have relatively low taxes on labor, limited regulation of employment, and limited duration of unemployment benefits. I believe that if we really want to decrease the likelihood of unemployment and the length of the average person’s unemployment spell, then the best thing we can do is ensure that ours continues to be a dynamic labor market.  Ironically, extending unemployment benefits may very well make that more difficult. 


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