Punishing unemployed people doesn't help them find work

A new study from the Boston fed looks at the effect of unemployment insurance, and finds it doesn't encourage unemployment.

Punitive treatment of the unemployed is usually justified in terms of the incentives it provides. So, for instance, the rationale for increasing the wait until you can claim unemployment benefits from 3 to 7 days is apparently that it "send[s] the message from the very start that rights to benefits are conditional on the requirement to search for work".

One particular argument made is that unemployment benefits in general stop people searching for work. That's most frequently heard in the context of long-term unemployment; it is, for instance, at the heart of the myth that welfare policy needs to tackle the problem of households with "three generations of worklessness". If welfare queens are languishing on unemployment benefit, content to be paid by the state not to work, then cutting that benefit will encourage them back into work.

But – surprise! – it seems that that plan doesn't actually work. A paper from the Boston fed looks at the effect of the unemployment insurance on the Beveridge curve. That's the chart showing the relationship between unemployment and the number of vacancies:

 

The US has experienced a worrying alteration in the shape of its Beveridge curve since the recession. There are now many more people unemployed for each vacancy than there were in the years running up to 2009 (a fact easily visible in the shift between the blue and red sections of the curve in the chart above). Traditionally, that's seen as indicating a failure to match unemployed people to available jobs, perhaps through a skills shortage or a geographical dislocation. But some suggest it's due to a recent extension of unemployment insurance in the country, which allowed unemployed people to claim the benefit for 99 weeks after losing their job.

The paper's author, Rand Ghayad – the same researcher who exposed just how damaging long-term unemployment is in April – devised a natural experiment to examine whether unemployment insurance was the cause.

(A natural experiment takes advantage of some quirk in the world at large which sorts people quasi-randomly into different groups, and then assigns different treatments to them. A classic example is to look at the fates of people who were one mark above, and one mark below, a grade boundary: their intelligence is likely equal, and so any difference in outcome can be attributed to passing the exam)

In this case, Ghayad compared long-term unemployed people who were eligible for the insurance with those who had voluntarily quit their job, those who had never worked before, and those who had left the labour market for a period, all of whom are not eligible for the extended benefits. The characteristics of the two groups are obviously different, but the comparison is revealing nonetheless. Here's the shift in the Beveridge curve for those who are eligible for unemployment insurance:

That's still an outward shift, and thus still represents a weakened labour market. But it's nothing compared to the shift in the Beveridge curve for those who are ineligible:

The unemployment rate for that group shot up in the recession – and then never dropped, even as job openings began to reappear.

In other words, unemployment benefits really don't seem to discourage people from seeking work. If anything, they appear to help: the groups which can get unemployment insurance saw their joblessness fall after the recession. It's easy to come up with reasons as to why this might be the case: perhaps not having to worry about how the bills are going to be paid in the short term gives you time to effectively look for a job in the long term? Or perhaps punitive treatment of the unemployed just pushes them into the shadow economy sooner?

Either way, the study ought to be another nail in the coffin of the idea that the way to get people back into work is with liberal application of the stick. It seems that might be the worst thing you could do.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.