A Glimmer of Sanity on Unemployment Insurance in the Senate—Hopefully It Won’t Be Snuffed out in the House

The Senate reached a deal yesterday on extending unemployment insurance benefits that expired at the end of 2013. It’s not perfect—it only lasts for six-months, the length of benefit eligibility remains too low, and a range of pretty silly “pay-fors” are included. These pay-fors are not earth-shakingly bad, but the idea that one needs to find offsets to pay for emergency unemployment benefits is truly bad policymaking. These benefits are supposed to be deficit-financed, because that’s what optimizes their “automatic stabilizer” properties.

But as far as DC policymaking goes, this is a deal I’d vote for in a second, obviously. Unemployment today stands at 6.7 percent. Before the Great Recession, we last saw unemployment this high in October 1993—and yes, the extended unemployment benefits program triggered by the 1990-1991 recession was still in effect in that month. And long-term unemployment (the reason extended benefits are relevant) remains at levels that dwarf anything we’ve seen pre Great Recession.

The arguments for extending these benefits are as clear a slam-dunk as exists in policymaking. Unemployment and long-term unemployment remain high. Extended benefits keep people actively searching for work instead of dropping out of the labor force entirely. And unemployment insurance is some of the most efficient economic stimulus there is. If we go all of 2014 without renewing benefits, the drag on the economy will likely cost us roughly 310,000 jobs over the year.

One question that often comes up is “what do people do when their benefits run out?” There is, of course, a myth that when UI benefits are exhausted, people simply stop enjoying their subsidized vacation and go find work. It’s not true (see this paper, among plenty of others that have looked at this effect). And the reason that it’s not true is simply because there remains a huge excess of unemployed workers relative to job openings. This ratio of job seekers to job openings has indeed improved a lot from the brutal levels reached during the height of labor market distress following the Great Recession, but it’s still a very ugly game of musical chairs for job seekers.

So what do people do when their UI benefits are exhausted? Some new research by Jesse Rothstein and Rob Valletta provides the depressing and completely predictable answer: they suffer. The probability of falling into poverty almost doubles following exhaustion of UI benefits.

It’s great that the Senates decided to do something useful for the American people yesterday. It’d be even better if the House followed their lead.