The best stimulus idea Democrats are leaving on the table

“A growing chorus of lawmakers and experts argue Congress could further improve jobless benefits by adding something called “automatic stabilizers” into the equation. That would mean that benefits would be tied to certain economic conditions — say, the unemployment rate — and would phase out as the economy gets better. They would be triggered on and off according to what’s actually happening in the economy for businesses and for workers.

“A ton of resources are wasted during a really crucial time … just having to go through this ad hoc stimulus and relief and recovery, and it just doesn’t have to be like that,” said Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute and former chief economist at the Labor Department. “We can automate things to make it so Congress could step in if they ever needed to do more relief, but it would mean that the basic structure of relief and recovery would be there already.””

“The government already has in place automatic stabilizers, including unemployment itself, which is intended to stabilize the economy — not only do they replace income for people who lose jobs, but they’re also meant to help prop up the economy in moments of downturn and keep consumer spending going. When an unemployed worker can’t pay their rent, it’s bad for both the tenant and the landlord.

Because the unemployment system has become so whittled down over the years, benefits are less effective at supporting the economy than they used to be — food stamps tend to be more impactful — but it varies by state. “Unemployment insurance is a much better stabilizer in Massachusetts and New Jersey than it is in Texas and Virginia,” said Wayne Vroman, a labor economist at the Urban Institute.

But with federal interventions during the pandemic, that has changed somewhat, at least temporarily. Expanded unemployment benefits appear to have been quite useful in helping people spend what they need, which in turn helps businesses dependent on those customers. Research shows they actually helped many people with savings, and they likely made the recession less severe. They also reduced some inequalities in how Black and white workers access benefits and the amount of benefits they receive. This makes the argument that they should continue as long as the crisis continues make sense.”

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