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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle