If you’ve been following the economic news for the last few months, you know that one of the most heated policy debates that’s broken out concerns the impact of the supplemental federal unemployment claims that America’s jobless became eligible for due to the CCP Virus- and lockdowns-induced recession and its continuing aftermath.
Specifically, opponents of these payments – which will end for all states on September 6 (unless they don’t?) – charge that they’ve needlessly enabled many workers to avoid or delay returning to businesses, and thereby greatly worsened labor shortages reported by so many employers. Supporters insist that they’ve been a minor contributor, and that the shortages stem from many more important factors, like ongoing health concerns or childcare issues or the apparent decision of many Baby Boomers and near-Boomers that the pandemic created a convenient time to retire.
I’ve believed for months that the biggest truth has been “all of the above,” but have been frustrated by the lack of statistics that could at least start providing reasonably convincing answers. And unfortunately, this post’s appearance doesn’t mean that terrific data has been found. But what I’ve gone over in the last few days seems reasonably informative, and what it tells me is that the extra federal benefits haven’t been a significant deal at all in the U.S. jobs picture.
What I did was compare four indicators of employment for the states that announced that they’d stop paying those extra benefits by the end of June (along with Louisiana, which announced a July 31 cutoff) and for the states that have decided to continue them as long as Washington was sending the funds. The indicators are unemployment rates, numbers of people employed, first-time jobless claims filed, and levels of continuing jobless claims. And recent Labor Department reports make possible comparing the unemployment rates between June and July, and both sets of claims numbers between the week ending June 26 and the week ending July 24. So they should provide some information on whether the announcement of imminent cutoffs led the jobless to secure reemployment faster.
These data can’t provide definitive answers for numerous reasons. For example, as this article makes clear, the $300 extra federal benefits on which I concentrated haven’t been the only extra benefits provided during the pandemic, and even six of the “early cutoff” states have continued to provide some combination of the others. In addition, two of the early cutoff states have been under court orders to continue the benefits (Indiana and Maryland), and lawsuits are pending in three others (Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.) Moreover, state benefit levels vary tremendously, both in terms of payment amounts and eligibility periods. So depending on where they live, unemployed Americans could have lost various extended benefits and still received benefits from their state governments (for varying timeframes) generous enough to affect their need or desire to return to work.
But what follows is a pretty good start to the search for answers. And analysts do get one break: The states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to be examined divide evenly into two groups of 26.
First, the jobless rate comparisons. As widely known, these aren’t perfect measures of the national employment situation because they leave out big categories of distressed workers like those too discouraged to even search for a job, and those employed part-time because they have no other choice. And as suggested above, they shed no light on changes in the numbers of retirees.
Be that as it may, of the 26 cutoff states, between June and July, unemployment rates fell in 19, rose in three, and held steady in four. And of the twenty cutoff states where no litigation was either affecting payment policies or coming down the pike, and excluding tardy Louisiana, jobless rates fell in 16, rose in two, and remained unchanged in two.
How does that compare with the unemployment rates in the non-cutoff states? They fell in 18 of the 26 states between June and July, rose in four, and held steady in four. So I don’t see a big difference there.
Turning to employment levels, of the 26 total cutoff states, from June to July, they rose in 23 and fell in three. Of the twenty facing no litigation issues and, again, also excepting Louisiana, employment levels rose in 19 and fell in one. Those results actually slightly lag the performance of the non-cutoff states, where employment levels rose in 25 of the 26 between June and July.
It’s much the same story for initial jobless claims from the week ending June 26 and the week ending July 24. For the 26 total cutoff states, initial claims between these two weeks rose in six and fell in 20. Of the 20 facing no legal issues, and excepting Louisiana, claims rose in five and fell in 15.
That’s almost identical to the results for the non-cutoff states, where initial claims between those two weeks rose in five states and fell in 21. In fact, a slight edge goes to these states on this score, too.
Finally, for continuing claims, in the 26 total cutoff states, these fell in 21 and rose in five between the weeks in question. And of the 20 with no litigation existing or pending, and excluding tardy Louisiana, continuing claims fell in 15 and rose in five.
In this group of 26, 22 saw continuing claims fall and four saw the rise.
Again, I’m not contending that these numbers are definitive. More detailed analysis accounting for more of the aforementioned differences among states would help a lot. Nor do I doubt that labor shortages have emerged in some parts of the economy. But if there’s proof out there that the extended unemployment benefits had much impact, it hasn’t emerged yet – and let’s hope it emerges before the economy runs aground for an extended period again.