New Tax Foundation Study on Unemployment Insurance across the States

On Monday, the Tax Foundation released a new study by Joe Henchman on Unemployment Insurance policies in the 50 states. The study highlights that while the federal-state program is supposed to be counter-cyclical, in reality states do not use periods of high growth to prepare their unemployment trust funds for recessions. At the beginning of 2008, most states were prepared to pay less than one year’s worth of high unemployment benefits, leading to quick insolvency for many states’ funds in recession.

In order to provide benefits, states have had to borrow from the federal government. Henchman explains:

Beginning on September 30, 2011, states must pay approximately $1.3 billion in interest on those outstanding balances; in many cases, businesses and employees in those states will also face increases in federal unemployment insurance tax rates as a result of those federal loan balances. These new interest obligations and tax increases, if they ultimately occur, come at a time when private sector hiring is already at a low level and states are under significant fiscal pressure. These unemployment insurance fiscal policies may exacerbate negative job growth and tax trends, instead of operating countercyclically as the program was intended.

The study also provides analysis of the different taxes and benefits across the states. The compilation of the variation of tax rates, duration of benefits, funding gaps, and other policy factors makes this paper an excellent jumping off point to look at state level reforms based on states that have performed relatively well in this program compared to the neighbors.

In a more ambitious policy proposal, Henchman recommends Individual Unemployment Benefit Accounts as an option for reform. These accounts, which Chile adopted in 2002, provide a measure of income stability during periods of unemployment. Unlike state-administered UI programs, though, private accounts do not carry the perverse incentives that may dissuade people from finding work while they are receiving these benefits because money which goes unused during unemployment can be accessed upon retirement. In 2010 Eileen Norcross and I did a brief analysis of the incentives that the current UI program provides and came to the same general policy recommendation.