THE CONTINUING high unemployment rate -- 7.3 percent last month for the fifth month in a row -- has overwhelmed the nation's unemployment insurance system. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group, reported earlier this month that only about a fourth of the unemployed -- 26.9 percent -- are receiving unemployment benefits. That national rate is one of the lowest on record, and the rates in some states are lower still. Only 15 percent of the unemployed in Texas are receiving payments, 15.1 percent in Florida, 19.9 percent in Michigan. The recent figure for Virginia was 21.7 percent (compared with 40.2 percent in the District of Columbia and 36.7 percent in Maryland).
The support figures would be higher were it not for various budget cuts in the last five years. The center put emphasis on these, in particular the decision by the administration and Congress earlier this year to phase out a program of supplemental compensation to extend benefits for some workers for as much as a year. But the problem is not so much budget cuts as it is a fundamental mismatch between the insurance system and recent trends in the economy.
The insurance system was set up as a countercyclical device. It assumes a simple world in which people lose their jobs temporarily when the business cycle turns down, but easily regain them when the economy turns up again. Thus it provides up to 26 weeks -- half a year -- of basic benefits. These basic benefits are paid for by state taxes, and each state has the right to set its own benefit levels and eligibility rules (one result of which is that many workers are excluded from the system entirely). In addition, there has come to be an extended benefit program financed half by state and half by federal funds, for up to 13 more weeks of benefits. Thefederally funded supplemental program phased out last spring was on top of that.
The supplemental program was put in place to combat the depth of the last recession. Unemployment touched 10.7 percent, the highest since the 1930s. That is one reason it remains so high. But a second reason is a shift in the nature of unemployment, from cyclical to structural. There are groups in the work force whose unemployment rates are chronically above average. Black teen-agers are the prime example. Workers displaced by sectoral shifts -- from manufacturing to service industries, from North and East to South and West -- may be another. The current mix of economic policy may also be extending unemployment, particularly in industries highly sensitive to interest rates or the value of the dollar.
It would be wrong to graft these problems onto the unemployment insurance system. It has neither the finances -- it relies on a small, regressive payroll tax -- nor the beefit structure to deal with them. Unemployment seems to have reached a new level of intractability; a 7 percent rate is where recessions used to end, but where the next one may start. It may be time for society to rethink its approach to the problem. It is too easy to forget the unemployed.