Right-wing unemployment myths, debunked: "When you look at the data, it’s just not there"

Actual evidence defies what conservatives like Scott Walker are claiming, economist Heidi Shierholz tells Salon

Published January 8, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
(Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Surprising many supporters, a three-month unemployment extension bill survived an initial Senate test Tuesday, with six Republicans joining 37 Democrats in voting to let the bill proceed to debate. But GOP members in both chambers have suggested they’ll withhold or withdraw their support unless Democrats offer up conservative concessions – be they parallel budget cuts, deregulation measures, new requirements for the unemployed or an Obamacare mandate delay. Others have argued that unemployed people would be better off without unemployment benefits.

In a Sunday CNN interview, Wisconsin governor and potential presidential contender Scott Walker argued that “the federal government doesn’t require a lot” of the unemployed, and urged that rather than “just putting a check out,” Congress tie unemployment extension to tightened eligibility requirements.

“Making them jump through more hoops will definitely increase administrative costs, but it’s not going to generate more jobs,” Economic Policy Institute economist Heidi Shierholz countered in a Tuesday interview with Salon. “Unless he’s looking at it as a jobs program to hire more public sector workers.”

Shierholz, a former University of Toronto professor now at the progressive Economic Policy Institute, panned several of the right’s other diagnoses and prognoses for the unemployed. A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows.

Some of the same Republican senators whose votes were necessary for unemployment extension to move forward Tuesday are implying they could still vote against final cloture if it isn’t offset with cuts. Is insisting on budget cuts to “offset” the cost of unemployment extension good policy?

It isn’t in this context. And I say that sort of carefully. Because if we were at full employment, and the economy was humming along, and fully utilizing all its potential, then if you’re going to spend a big chunk of money, you might want to think about offsetting it, because the economy doesn’t need any more demand.

We are so far away from that situation that this is exactly the kind of time where you do not have to worry about trying to do offsets like that.

It’s not a bug of the UI system, it’s a feature that it actually costs money. Because at a time like this, when the labor market is so weak, the economy is so weak, and we know that the overwhelming factor behind that weakness is just weak demand,  we’re operating way below our potential. People don’t have the income, so they’re not spending. Businesses aren’t investing as much as they would if we were in a strong labor market. Weak demand for goods and services means businesses don’t have to ramp up hiring, they don’t have to ramp up to meet the demand, because demand isn’t there.

So the fact that you’re spending this money on UI, you’re getting money into the economy, is actually exactly what we want to do at a time like this. So trying to sort of bend over backwards to offset it actually just undermines one of the key features of extending UI, which is that it increases economic activity at a time when the economy desperately needs it.

Scott Walker told CNN that “one of the biggest challenges people have who are either unemployed or underemployed is many of them don't have the skills in advanced manufacturing, in healthcare and I.T. where many of those job openings are.” What’s your assessment of that claim?

You hear that claim made a lot: that the reason we have this weak unemployment, or high long-term unemployment, is that workers don’t have the right skills for the jobs that are available.

I think because you hear this anecdote a lot, there’s been a ton of research done on it -- a ton. And economists have dug in, and looked at the data from all sides. The overwhelming consensus: People who aren’t just relying on anecdotes, but who are actually digging in and looking for any sign of a skills-mismatch in the data, don’t find it. The divide on who finds this is more those who are relying on anecdotes versus those who have looked at the data, not right-leaning or left-leaning. Because of those who have looked at the data, you just don’t find evidence that the problem right now is due to workers not having the right skills.

If it were due to workers not having the right skills you would have to see some evidence in some meaningfully sized group of workers of actually tight labor markets relative to 2007. [But] unemployment rates are higher now relative to before the recession started across every education group, across every gender, across every age group, across all racial and ethnic categories, in all major occupations, and all major industries.

If we were seeing tight labor markets, you’d see wages being bid up for the workers who can’t be found, people poaching from other companies. And that you also don’t find. You actually find basically no group that is even seeing wage growth keep pace with overall productivity growth. In any group meaningfully sized enough to be actually driving anything, you don’t see any sign of wages being driven up. Same story with hours.

You’re not seeing any sectors of meaningful size where there’s more job openings than people actually looking for those jobs.

You hear anecdotes a lot about people saying, “I just can't find the workers that I need.” This may be some interesting sort of psychological stuff about the echo chamber of how those things get so much play at a time like this. When you look at the data, it’s just not there.

One of the senators who voted against proceeding with the unemployment bill, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said, “First and foremost, unemployment insurance is treating the symptoms of the problem. It’s an aspirin for a fever, but the fever has been raging for weeks now.” Is that a revealing analogy in any way?

It’s treating the symptoms and it helps actually be part of the cure.

They actually are a lifeline to the people that were most hurt by the downturn -- people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and have not been able to find another one in the period of weakest labor market we’ve seen in 70 years. The fact of the matter is that the labor market is still extraordinarily weak. It’s way weaker by far than at any time we’ve ever allowed extensions to expire.

So it definitely is part of dealing with the symptoms. And then it is absolutely part of the cure: You get money in the hands of the long-term unemployed.

Those are people who are almost by definition cash-strapped. They are going to spend that money. It goes straight into the economy and generates demand for goods and services, which generates demand for workers. So it helps strengthen the recovery.

You put out an estimate that not extending unemployment benefits would cost 310,000 jobs this year. How?

Around $25 billion would be spent if the extensions were continued [for a year]. Some spending is actually more stimulative to the economy, and it has everything to do with how fast and how completely that money goes into raising and creating demand. So unemployment benefits are consistently the second most efficient way that a government can spend money -- either through direct spending or through tax cuts to support an economy, to generate economic activity. The only thing that consistently comes in ahead is food stamps.

You have that [unemployment] money spent on rent and groceries and clothes. So you increase demand for goods and services. Then there’s the fiscal multiplier. Then from there, that’s where you get the total amount of economic activity generated -- the boost to GDP. And then from there, there’s a direct walk to jobs created.

It’s a rough measure. But that’s an idea of the scope.

Scott Walker also argued that instead of “just putting a check out,” the government should require more from people on unemployment, in terms of entering job training and looking more often for work. What do you make of that argument?

We do know that it’s already keeping people in the labor market, looking for work. There’s good evidence that receiving benefits actually keeps people looking for work.

A helpful bit of information, to know if the reason people are long-term unemployed is because they’re not looking hard enough, is the following: You’d want to know if our long-term unemployment situation is somehow weird, if it’s unexpected, if there’s something going on with our long-term unemployed, like they’re not looking as hard as they should, or they’re not being as flexible as they should. Like, is there something about these benefits that’s keeping them from doing those things? And that you don’t find.

So there’s a paper by Jesse Rothstein that looks very carefully at today’s long-term unemployment situation in the historical context. And he found that what we’re experiencing now is exactly what you would expect given three things: given how deep the period of economic weakness has been; how long it's been as bad as it’s been; and then a little bit of this longer-term trend in long-term unemployment share. Which has to do with declining incidences of temporary layoff and stuff like that -- but that’s not a big component.

We’re not seeing something abnormal right now in the long-term unemployment situation, except for an incredibly abnormally weak labor market that’s been incredibly abnormally weak for a very long time. Once you have that, then what’s going on with long-term unemployment is exactly what you would expect.

So it’s not like, “if we just get them to look harder, they’re going to find jobs.” The real problem, why we have this long-term unemployment crisis, is that the labor market has been so weak for so long.

So making them jump through more hoops will definitely increase administrative costs, but it’s not going to generate more jobs. Unless he’s looking at it as a jobs program to hire more public sector workers to deal with more administration. But I don’t think that was probably his angle. The real problem right now is weak demand for workers, and this won’t touch that.

The reason we have elevated unemployment is not that workers don’t have the right skills for the jobs that are available. It’s just that we don’t have jobs available. It’s not like training can never help an individual, but that’s not why we have high unemployment right now.

By Josh Eidelson

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Democrats Economy Gop Heidi Shierholz Jack Reed Jobs Poverty Scott Walker Unemployment