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.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.