White House economic advisers and GOP lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell contend the extra payment acts as a disincentive for workers to seek new jobs.
More than 30 million people are receiving unemployment benefits and new applications for jobless aid have started to rise again. But Republicans want to reduce a $600 enhanced unemployment benefit in the next coronavirus relief package, a proposal that could leave families with billions of dollars less to spend to bolster the economy.
White House economic advisers and GOP lawmakers including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell contend the extra payment acts as a disincentive for workers to seek new jobs, because some people are receiving more money in benefits than they would earn working. Democrats and many economists say there are no jobs for those people right now anyway, and the payments are essential for keeping the economy afloat — and ensuring Americans can buy food and pay the rent.
Here’s a look at the potential impact of cutting benefits right now:
The GOP argument
The Senate GOP’s latest $1 trillion plan calls for the reduction in increased unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 a week for 60 days, or until states are able to provide a 70 percent wage replacement. Some Republican senators are rolling out their own proposals that would reduce the benefits with varying levels of wage replacement.
Their argument is that payments should be pegged to workers’ former wages as an incentive for them to seek jobs instead of remaining on benefits.
“Should we have generous unemployment insurance in this crisis? Of course,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “But obviously we should not be taxing the essential workers who’ve kept working so the government can pay their neighbors a higher salary to stay home.”
Under the GOP plan, weekly benefits would drop from a national average of $920.68 per week to $520.68 per week, an average overall cut of 55 percent, according to a recent analysis by The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.
Laid-off workers would lose more than $10 billion per week, under the GOP proposal. And by the end of September, the losses would reach $90 billion, the analysis found.
But White House economists say the checks aren’t stimulating the economy.
“Do not repeat this idiot notion that giving people money is somehow a stimulus to the economy,” said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist and outside adviser to President Donald Trump, in an interview. “I mean, in that case we could just give everybody $100,000 and we’d all be rich right? It’s just so stupid.”
The impact on the economy
It’s a “meaningful hit to the economy,” if lawmakers reduce or cut off the enhanced benefits, wrote Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. He estimates that cutting the benefit to $200 per week as the GOP has proposed would cost nearly 1 million jobs by the end of the year and raise unemployment by 0.6 percentage points.
Other estimates of job losses are higher. Economists caution that a reduction in benefits could spark a drop in demand, setting off a “vicious cycle” that eventually results in the permanent loss of millions of jobs. Slashing the extra $600 week could destroy as many as 5 million jobs, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
“People will have to make terrible choices between things like medicine and rent, but it also means that they will no longer be buying things that they had been buying, and the workers that produce the goods and services that they will no longer be buying will lose their jobs,” said Heidi Shierholz, EPI policy director and former Labor Department chief economist. “And the vicious cycle is set off. So it’s terrible macroeconomic policy.”
Federally enhanced unemployment benefits led to a 10 percent increase in consumption among those out of work when they were first rolled out, according to an analysis by the JPMorgan Chase Institute, estimates that have alarmed business groups.
A disruption could result in a drop in spending as high as 20 percent, the research found.
“Small businesses desperately need the consumer demand” Small Business for America’s Future, a coalition of small business owners, said in a statement. “We need legislation that puts money in the hands of people who will spend it at local small businesses. The future of our Main Street economies depend on it.”
Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed that the change in benefits will have short-term negative impacts on the economy. But she warned the increased spending will have the longer-term consequence of running up the national debt.
“If you continue excessively high payments, then you end up just trading a global health pandemic for a fiscal crisis,” she said.
The impact on Black and Hispanic workers
Because Black and Hispanic workers are disproportionately reliant on unemployment aid, slashing the benefits could do permanent damage to the economic well-being of those demographics, already among those the pandemic has hit hardest. Forty-seven percent of recipients of state unemployment benefits in July are projected to be nonwhite, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“These universal approaches to addressing economic issues ignore the recent and past history of structural racism, and how wealthy is distributed in the country,” said Andre Perry, a research fellow at Brookings Institution.
“We need to think about the long-term protection of the most vulnerable,” Perry said. “And unemployment insurance provides that safety net for now.”
Is a $600 payment causing workers to stay home?
The Congressional Budget Office estimated in June that extending the boost by six months would likely lead to greater economic output in the second half of 2020. But the non-partisan scoring office also forecast that the work disincentive would lead to lower levels of employment for the remainder of the year and into 2021 — an estimate Republicans have seized on during discussions over the benefits.
Yale University researchers recently found “no evidence” that the boosted unemployment benefits increased layoffs at the outset of the pandemic or discouraged workers from returning to their jobs over time, according to a report based on data from the business scheduling software company Homebase.
“If there is still really depressed labor demand, asking people to go out and search more intensely will not necessarily yield higher employment,” said Dana Scott, the primary author of the report. “And on the flip side of the coin, reducing people’s income will also decrease those stimulus effects…where they’ll have income replaced, go out and spend more money, which isn’t just for the economy.”
But those close to the White House disagree. “I get ten calls a day from employers telling me the workers will not come back on the job,” Moore told POLITICO. He pointed to the 5.4 million new job openings reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May. “That’s a lot of jobs,” Moore said, “but look that’s not 20 million.”
The most recent jobs report from BLS indicated that the number of workers who permanently lost their job increased to 2.9 million in June. Some 9.1 million workers would have preferred working full-time, but were only able to get part time jobs in June. And 8.2 million individuals said they would like a job, but were unavailable or not actively seeking out work in June, according to BLS.
What about just sending stimulus checks?
Republicans’ proposal would suggest another round of stimulus checks, similar to those enacted via a previous round of aid, in an effort to bolster consumption.
“The way the previous bill was crafted, five out of six workers are actually making more staying at home than going back to work,” McConnell said on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” Tuesday. “And remember, all of these folks are going to get another $1200 in direct payment.”
But the cash is a less efficient way to rejuvenate the economy because it is not as narrowly tailored, economists warn.
“Spending less on unemployment insurance and also doing the stimulus check … is terrible economic policy,” Shierholz said. “You’re taking something that’s very, very well targeted — getting money to people who’ve lost their jobs — and giving it broadly.”
About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.
About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.