In his Economix post today Casey Mulligan asks the question of whether unemployment benefits on net create jobs. He tells readers that:
“Even if unemployment insurance did not discourage a single person from working, the net effect of the program on hiring can be positive or negative, depending on the labor intensity of the goods and services that the unemployed buy, compared with the labor intensity of the goods and services that those who pay for unemployment do not buy.”
There is a problem in this story and it has to do with timing. The people who pay for unemployment insurance (UI) are in fact the same as the people who receive it. It is paid for as deduction from wages. The issue is not a difference in consumption patterns between the payers and receivers, the issue is the timing of the benefits.
At the point in a business cycle where large numbers of people are receiving benefits (like now) the UI system will be running a deficit. This allows unemployed workers to receive benefits, which they will overwhelmingly spend, without an offsetting current payment from other workers. This means that there is no matching deduction from the demand of workers who are still employed.
Over time, there may be offsetting increases in the contribution for unemployment insurance, depending on whether the program is financed in a way that ensures that it is a self-financed system. (We can also have a Ricardian equivalence story whereby other taxes would be increased to make up a shortfall in the UI system.) That can lead to lower consumption at future times.
However, there is not a plausble story whereby workers would reduce consumption today by an amount equal to the additional spending allowed by the payment of unemployment benefits. Therefore we don’t have to investigate the relative labor intensity of the items purchased by UI beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries as Mulligan suggests.
Economist Dean Baker is co-founder of Center for Economic Policy and Research and writes regularly on CEPR’s Beat the Press blog, where this post first appeared.