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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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