Here's What Conservatives Are Missing From The Debate On Extending Unemployment Benefits

Unemployment department officeREUTERS/Beck DiefenbachEmployment program representative Mark Robbins (L) explains unemployment insurance payments to a client at the Employment Development Department of California service office in San Francisco, January 6, 2012.

At the Washington Examiner today, David Freddoso argues that Congress is correct to allow the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program to expire. His argument perfectly encapsulates why Republicans are wrong here.

During normal economic times, unemployed Americans can collect benefits for up to 26 weeks.

The EUC program extended the duration to 73 weeks, although the exact length varied by states. This past Sunday, the EUC program expired and 1.3 million Americans lost their benefits. Democrats are making a big push for another extension of the program while Republicans oppose it.

There are two questions that conservatives must answer in the affirmative to justify ending unemployment benefits. Here’s the first:

  • Do unemployment benefits disincentivize work when the economy is weak?

Freddoso believes the answer is yes and points to North Carolina as evidence. In North Carolina, unemployment benefits expired entirely over the summer and employment has picked up since. It’s unclear how much of this is a result of an improving economy, the end of benefits or something else.

In addition, many workers have dropped out of the workforce since then. The cause of this is unclear as well, though the end of jobless benefits is also likely a factor as workers must continue to search for employment in order to receive them. Once those benefits expired, discouraged workers may have stopped looking for work altogether.

In reality, it’s too early to draw any strong conclusions from North Carolina. Freddoso basically admits this in his piece.

“That’s at least enough to conclude that the world didn’t end,” he writes. “It may even suggest an upside to returning benefits to their normal duration.”

Just because “the world didn’t end” doesn’t mean that ending the benefits is sound public policy. That’s an absurd standard on which to base policy decisions.

And even if there is an upside to letting the benefits expire, it doesn’t mean that the policy makes sense. Plenty of policies have some upsides and are still bad ideas.

That leads us to the second question that conservatives must answer:

  • Are the costs of letting the EUC program expire worth the potential benefits?

This is the question that conservatives haven’t even attempted to answer. They have not grappled with the costs of ending jobless benefits. Instead, the debate has focused solely on whether the incentive effects of jobless benefits are real.

There are still nearly three times as many unemployed workers as there are job openings. That means that even without the potential disincentive effect of unemployment benefits, millions of workers still will not be able to find work. Many of these workers just lost their most important income source, because conservatives think there could be an upside to ending the EUC program. They aren’t sure. They aren’t even particularly confident. But it won’t cause “the world to end” so I guess that means it’s worth a shot.

That’s the exact opposite way we should approach this policy decision. Given how brutal it is to be long-term unemployed and how bleak their job prospects are, we should continue unemployment benefits for them unless we believe that the benefits of ending the EUC program (removing the disincentive for work) are highly likely to outweigh the human costs.

The burden of proof is on conservatives to prove this, but they haven’t even tried to do so.

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