Unlike some of his colleagues on the right, Mitt Romney doesn’t want to do away with unemployment insurance — he wants to reform the way benefits are delivered. During last night’s Republican presidential debate, Romney was asked whether he would support an extension of UI benefits, which are scheduled to expire at the end of this year. He responded: “If I were president now, I would go to Congress with a new system for unemployment, which would have accounts from which people could withdraw funds.”
What would this overhaul really mean? Romney gave a few clues in December 2010, the last time that Congress was deciding whether or not to extend unemployment benefits. In a USA Today op-ed opposing the extension, Romney argued that the central problem was that “unemployment benefits, despite a web of regulations, actually serve to discourage some individuals from taking jobs, especially when the benefits extend across years.” It’s the classic conservative argument against the welfare state: Unemployed people just aren’t motivated to find jobs because they’re relying on government handouts. Instead, Romney proposed “establishing individual unemployment savings accounts over which employees would exercise direct control when they lose their jobs.”
Romney doesn’t go into much more detail, but the basic idea has been kicking around conservative circles for years. Here’s how it would work: Employees would be responsible for putting their own wages into personal savings accounts they could access after being laid off. In theory, employers could be responsible for contributing money as well, instead of paying an unemployment insurance payroll tax. In some versions, the government would also provide matching funds or other support as well, rewarding those individuals who’ve contributed over a long period of time.
Conservatives have heralded Chile as a model for this idea. In 2002, Chile introduced private UI accounts, following a similar change to its pension system. Supporters have pointed to research showing that Chileans relying on their own UI accounts were unemployed for a shorter period of time. It’s worth noting, though, that Chile hasn’t cut the safety net entirely: It has combined private accounts with a more traditional social insurance program of government funds that kick in after the individual savings are depleted.
The obvious counterargument is that Americans are heavily dependent on UI benefits because there are no jobs to be found, not because they’re not motivated enough to find them. Currently, there are 4.5 job seekers for every open job — and that ratio is worse in areas with high unemployment. In 2006, there were fewer than two job seekers for every open job. Romney’s plan would seem to make more sense in times when most workers who wanted a job could, if they made the necessary compromises, find one. This is not one of those times.
What’s more, critics say, the system could disadvantage those who need the most help: Low-wage workers would have more trouble building up funds in their accounts on a regular basis, particularly in a climate of economic instability. Workers would also lose the protection that forces employers who lay off large numbers of people to pay a higher payroll insurance tax, according to Rich McHugh, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. While employers and the government would spend less money, it would leave workers more “subject to the vagaries of the individual’s fortune,” McHugh said.