Unemployment insurance and macroeconomic stabilization


Unemployment insurance (UI) provides an important cushion for workers who lose their jobs. In addition, UI may act as a macroeconomic stabilizer during recessions. This chapter examines UI’s macroeconomic stabilization role, considering both the regular UI program which provides benefits to short-term unemployed workers as well as automatic and emergency extensions of benefits that cover long-term unemployed workers. We make a number of analytic points concerning the macroeconomic stabilization role of UI. First, recipiency rates in the regular UI program are quite low. Second, the automatic component of benefit extensions, Extended Benefits (EB), has played almost no role historically in providing timely, countercyclical stimulus while emergency programs are subject to implementation lags. Additionally, except during an exceptionally high and sustained period of unemployment, large UI extensions have limited scope to act as macroeconomic stabilizers even if they were made automatic because relatively few individuals reach long-term unemployment. Finally, the output effects from increasing the benefit amount for short-term unemployed are constrained by estimated consumption responses of below 1. We propose five changes to the UI system that would increase UI benefits during recessions and improve the macroeconomic stabilization role: (I) Expand eligibility and encourage take-up of regular UI benefits. (II) Make EB fully federally financed. (III) Remove look-back provisions from EB triggers that make automatic extensions turn off during periods of prolonged unemployment. (IV) Add additional automatic extensions to increase benefits during periods of extremely high unemployment. (V) Add an automatic federally financed increase in the weekly UI benefit amount during recessions. We caution that these reforms may not by themselves have a large macroeconomic impact. Still, they would help to better align the UI system with its microeconomic objective. Together with other policy reforms to automatic stabilizers, these proposed changes to the UI system could help to mitigate future recessions.

In Recession ready: Fiscal policies to stabilize the American economy