North Carolina’s Misunderstood Cut in Jobless Benefits

From today’s NYT blog “The Upshot” by Justin Wolfers:

Since North Carolina effectively eliminated unemployment benefits last year for people unemployed 20 weeks or more, the state has become a symbol in the partisan wars over economic policy. People on either side of those wars have argued that it proves the economic advantages — or damage — of providing the long-term jobless with cash payments.

But digging into the data suggests North Carolina should really be a case study in people seeing what they want to see. Over the last year, the state’s economy has performed remarkably like the economy in nearby states.

North Carolina is more than a case study, too. It is a laboratory for the rest of the country, given that at the start of this year, the federal government eliminated all benefits for the long-term unemployed. Both political sides have looked to North Carolina for evidence to bolster the positions they have taken in this debate.

Republicans, who voted against extending unemployment benefits, argue that ending benefits will spur the long-term jobless to look harder for work; with more eager workers, employment will rise, conservatives say. Democrats, many of whom voted to continue jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, say that ending benefits will force the unemployed to cut their spending, which may have broader ripple effects that could slow the labor market recovery.

My reading of the North Carolina experiment is that it provides little support for either side.

The question of whether to provide those benefits is an important one. But perhaps the answers should depend more on social values than on macroeconomic implications. After all, the point of unemployment insurance isn’t to boost the economy as a whole, but rather to ensure that an unlucky few don’t shoulder an unbearable burden. Whether we’re doing that is a question more of values than of economic statistics.

Read the entire article here.