An Obama administration economist says the pandemic destroyed a long-held myth about unemployment
- Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures and cohost of the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
- In the latest episode, they spoke with former Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee about unemployment during COVID.
- Although jobs are returning, Goolsbee says “the fact remains that if you were poor before the pandemic began, you’re much more likely to be unemployed right now.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Throughout the pandemic, Washington Post economics correspondent Heather Long has been providing indispensable context to the Department of Labor’s monthly unemployment announcements in thoughtful Twitter threads. As soon as lockdowns began last March, job losses skyrocketed to literally unprecedented levels, and Long’s analysis helped explain the reasons behind the numbers, what those tremendous job losses looked like for ordinary Americans, and why wealthy Americans weren’t suffering from the economic impact of COVID-19.
When the Labor Department announced on Friday, April 2 that the economy added some 916,000 jobs in March, Long rightly hailed that number as “the strongest gain in seven months” and a sign that “the economy [is picking] up steam.” In fact, job reports from January and February were revised up as well, indicating that the job market has been even stronger in 2021 than we initially realized.
Long leavened her enthusiasm by reminding us that “Overall the US has now gained back 13.7 million jobs – 62% – of the 22.2 million lost in the pandemic.”
That sounds like great news, but it’s simply not fast enough: We’d need another 13 months in a row of March’s gains to make up the job losses that the American economy incurred during the pandemic — and that’s not even taking into account all the jobs that would have been created over the last year had the pandemic never happened.
Job loss during the pandemic
Like all the economic impacts of the last year, those job losses were not spread evenly across the economy. White-collar jobs have largely jumped back to pre-pandemic levels, while other employment sectors — particularly leisure and hospitality — have failed to recover millions of jobs that existed in February of 2020.
Even though low-wage jobs are coming back in record numbers as more Americans get vaccinated, the fact remains that if you were poor before the pandemic began, you’re much more likely to be unemployed right now.
The economy is divided along other lines, too: The Chicago Tribune reports that the unemployment rate for “Black Americans improved slightly last month, but at 9.6% is still higher than all other race groups tracked and the national average of 6%.”
And, millions of women have been knocked out of the workforce by the pandemic, though their job losses in March finally slowed to equal the rate of male job losses.
This week, former Obama administration economic adviser Austan Goolsbee returned to the “Pitchfork Economics” podcast to discuss some of the lessons from the pandemic’s impact on unemployment.
Unemployment for low wage workers
Specifically, Goolsbee wanted to attack a long-standing trickle-down canard that the additional emergency unemployment benefits that the United States has paid out during the pandemic — to the tune of $600 per week at first, then $300 per week this year — would disincentivize low-wage workers from going back to work.
Pundits and politicians (including, perhaps most notably, West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin) argued that the economy would slow because while they were receiving large checks, low-wage workers wouldn’t see the need to return to work. But Goolsbee points out that in March, lower-wage jobs led the surge in employment numbers.
“Those are exactly the jobs that a group of people have been for almost a year saying we’re giving too much relief to — that their unemployment insurance is so high that no one will go back to work,” Goolsbee said. “And it’s just not true. Look at the data. It’s just not true. Those are the people going back to work in record numbers.”
Critics have “been saying that this would happen, literally, since we passed the CARES Act a year ago: ‘No one will go back to work if they are low enough income, because they will be paid more to not work than to work,'” Goolsbee added. “And multiple researchers went and showed that if you look at the generosity of unemployment, it’s not correlated with where jobs came back or didn’t come back.”
The argument against increased unemployment benefits “was nonsense and everyone should have understood it to be nonsense,” Goolsbee said. When Congress added $600 weekly payments to unemployment checks, “there were people who never made this much money in their life, who never made as much money working than they did on unemployment. And yet they’re going back to work,” he said.
The trickle-down myth
In other words, the pandemic has busted a trickle-down myth that has been spread by Democrats and Republicans alike since at least the 1990s — the pernicious argument that if a state or federal safety net is too generous, people will simply choose to stay at home and leech off the system.
This is the argument that politicians have invariably dragged out in order to make it harder and harder for people to file for unemployment, food stamps, and rental assistance. This kind of thinking contributed to crises at the beginning of the pandemic in states like Florida, where politicians had spent years decimating the very unemployment programs people needed to stay housed, fed, and safe during the pandemic.
The extended unemployment benefits, then, did exactly what they were supposed to do: They helped millions of Americans pay their bills when they were unable to find employment. They also helped those unemployed Americans spend money in their communities on groceries, supplies, and other necessities — and their continued consumer spending, in turn, likely saved millions of jobs and uncountable thousands of neighborhood businesses.
This is a momentous discovery which explodes a political truism that has gone unquestioned for decades, and it should factor into every conversation about the social safety net going forward. It’s yet another nail in the coffin of the popular trickle-down idea that the world is made up of industrious makers and lazy takers.
By getting money directly to the people who need it most, governments aren’t enabling a generation of moochers — they’re supercharging the economy by making sure people who are in temporary need of assistance are able to continue purchasing goods and services, thereby supporting and creating jobs.
These assistance programs aren’t charitable wastes of money, like critics argue — instead, they make good economic sense, improving the economy for everyone.
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