Even as the economy shrank 9.5 percent between April and June (a 32.9 percent annual rate), and millions lost their jobs, disposable personal income rose 10 percent, due mainly to $293 billion worth of direct payments to families and $300 billion in enhanced unemployment insurance benefits.
Consequently, the expected household debt crisis has not materialized. Total credit card debt has fallen from $900 billion in March to $800 billion now, and fewer than 2 percent of accounts are past due, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Of course, shopping and dining out were impossible in many places.) As for mortgages, 30-day past-due accounts have spiked, according to CoreLogic, but “serious” delinquencies — 90 days past due or more — are at a 20-year low, as are foreclosure rates.
People are struggling; the poorest most of all. But it could have been far worse. This is as it should be. Government called on the people, essentially, to cease producing goods and services, and so it was up to government to shield them from financial disaster — in effect, to take individual and small business debt onto the national balance sheet.
There is no immediate issue of “moral hazard”; the Main Street bailout does not reward speculative excess but compensates for imposed losses. Come to think of it, unemployment insurance, or UI, and direct payments during the pandemic have probably helped stabilize banks, too, since they have had less bad credit card and mortgage debt to write off.
Things could have been much better, however. The hastily devised federal response in March highlighted the woeful state of UI in the United States, still mostly a patchwork of state systems, backed up by federal support, which includes dollars from Washington for extended benefits during severe recessions.
A typical state program offers 26 weeks of benefits, replacing about 40 percent of wages, but there is wide variation. North Carolina and Florida, for example, provide only 12 weeks each; in Hawaii, workers’ average benefit replaces 55 percent of previous wages, while in D.C., the figure is 21 percent.
Many workers, especially low-wage workers with intermittent work histories, don’t qualify at all. States have consistently underinvested in modern technology for processing new claims and delivering payments.
Congress and the states have gotten away with neglecting UI because, in recent years, the United States has been at full employment. And in fairness, the dramatic plunge to Great Depression-level unemployment rates was hardly an easily foreseeable contingency — or likely to be repeated.
Still, the most controversial issue right now — the $600-a-week supplemental UI benefit Congress supplied — is an avoidable result of the system’s inadequate wage replacement rates and underinvestment in technology. As they raced to legislate in March, lawmakers intended to provide states with enough money to maintain laid-off workers at 100 percent of previous wages. When Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia informed lawmakers that state computer systems could not handle such calculations, they adopted the $600 flat rate as a second-best solution.
Now two-thirds of unemployment recipients make more money on UI than they would by working, a probable disincentive to go back to work — though how much of a disincentive is debatable, since there are still so few job openings. Certainly reverting suddenly to precrisis UI levels could slash household income and spending, putting the recovery at risk.
Perhaps there will yet be a compromise in Congress between Democrats, who want to continue the $600 supplement through January, and Republicans, who favor renewing it at $200 per week through September, followed by enough federal money to fill in 70 percent of previous wages, up to $500 per week.
The main point, however, is that lawmakers must even engage in this politically fraught discussion amid an unemployment emergency. When it’s over, Congress needs to turn to UI reform. The goal should be a national standard, providing a consistent “automatic stabilizer,” both for workers and the economy as a whole, that increases during hard times and ratchets back down as jobs return.
Wage replacement rates should be much more uniform across the country — and large enough to enable workers to shop for an appropriate position, given their skills, without discouraging work by exceeding previous earnings.
Reform will cost money, but as we are learning now, there is a price to be paid for neglecting the issue, too.