Congress Is Paying People a Lot of Money To Not Work

Though the unemployment insurance benefits boost eased the immediate pain of shuttering much of the economy, it made it harder to get things moving again.


Perhaps the simplest and most important lesson in economics is this: Incentives matter. If you tax an activity, you make it more expensive and get less of it. If you subsidize an activity, you make it more lucrative and get more of it. It stands to reason, then, that if you respond to a pandemic by offering people more money to stay unemployed than their former employers can afford to pay them, you'll make it less likely that people will return to those jobs, causing long-run disruptions of the labor force and worsening COVID-19's impact on the economy.

Roughly speaking, that's what happened with the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion relief package passed in March as part of the congressional response to the coronavirus. Among the bill's largest provisions was a four-month federal boost to unemployment insurance (U.I.) benefits, adding $600 a week on top of whatever amount state programs already paid. In a typical state, where unemployment benefits often pay around $275 per week, that meant furloughed and unemployed workers could collect nearly $900 a week. In a state like California, which offers as much as $450 per week, seven days of not working was, all of a sudden, potentially worth more than $1,000.

For people making the minimum wage, this represented a substantial windfall. But even a full-time worker making more than $15 an hour—or about $600 a week—could see a bonus for staying off the clock. A May working paper by a trio of economists published by the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago found that under the expanded benefit regime, "two-thirds of UI eligible workers can receive benefits which exceed lost earnings and one-fifth can receive benefits at least double lost earnings." The average replacement rate for all beneficiaries was 134 percent of previous earnings.

In theory, there were coherent reasons for giving workers a financial incentive to stay home initially. Starting in March, state and local officials forced many businesses to close, and those shutdowns fell hardest on service sector workers, many of whom are hourly wage earners. Plus, the coronavirus spread from proximity, including the sort of extended, indoor, close-quarters activity found in many workplaces. The boosted unemployment payments were designed to do two things: provide financial recompense for workers whose jobs were eliminated by government mandate, and slow the spread of the virus by making it lucrative to stay away from other people. Department of Labor data showed the biggest beneficiaries of the program were the nation's poorest.

But over time, the problems with this approach became more apparent. As states began to reopen their economies in May, some employers—particularly restaurants, where job losses were concentrated—reportedly found it difficult to rehire workers who were earning more from unemployment benefits than they would make from working. For an employee making $10 or $15 an hour, the short-term financial incentive was clear: It would be better to stay unemployed and collect unemployment benefits until the federal supplement ran out.

Although the unemployment rate came in lower than expected—but still quite high—in June, this incentive could have ripple effects long after the pandemic has faded. One of the biggest challenges for even a healthy economy is matching workers with employers. By encouraging people to stay away from jobs they had previously worked at, the federal U.I. boost destroyed employer-worker matches that had functioned in the past. This made it more difficult for employers who wanted to reopen to do so. And it removed otherwise capable workers from the labor force, eroding their ties to productive employment. Yes, the U.I. boost eased the immediate pain of shuttering much of the economy, but it also made it harder to get things moving again.

The expanded unemployment benefits caused economic headaches in other ways. The CARES Act also included the creation of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which compensated some businesses for keeping workers on their payrolls, essentially paying a percentage of their wages if they were kept on staff. This created a conundrum for workers and employers trying to figure out how best to navigate the enforced worklessness of pandemic lockdowns: furlough employees and let them take the newly generous U.I. benefits, or keep them on the payroll and apply for government funds to cover much of their salary? At best it was confusing; at worst, contradictory.

The fact that both programs suffered serious implementation failures only made things worse: The PPP was inundated with unanswered applications, rapidly ran out of money even after imposing secret caps on the loans it would distribute, and was eventually given a second tranche of funds that were also subject to undisclosed caps and confusing application rules. Unemployment benefits, meanwhile, were paid through clunky state systems, many of which struggled to handle the load caused by millions of newly unemployed applicants. By the middle of May, Florida had processed more than 1.4 million U.I. claims, but less than half had actually been paid. Not only did the existence of expanded benefits create unintended consequences; some people simply couldn't get them.

There are likely to be longer-term political complications as well. It wasn't too hard to see the expansion of U.I. benefits as a small first step toward a universal basic income (UBI), or something similar, in which the government gives nearly everyone in the country a recurring payment. Indeed, in May, a group of left-leaning senators including Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) proposed a follow-up to the CARES Act that would send most American households $2,000 a month until the economic crisis stemming from the pandemic subsides. Never mind that the U.I. benefits already in place were probably making the economic crisis harder to reverse. UBI critics have long argued that it would disincentivize work by making not working more lucrative; the expanded U.I. benefits offered evidence in their favor.

Similarly, the $600-a-week figure chosen for the expanded benefits seemed to presage a different policy argument, one focused on the minimum wage. (For years, progressive activists have clamored for a $15 federal minimum: $15 an hour for 40 hours a week is $600.) Although the federal unemployment benefit boost was initially set to run for just four months, the depth of the economic disruption caused by the pandemic has sparked talk of extending the time horizon.

A $3 trillion coronavirus response bill that was passed in May by House Democrats included a provision extending the expanded U.I. benefits until the end of 2020, but Senate Republicans refused to consider the legislation, specifically citing the continuation of federal unemployment benefits as a nonstarter. Instead, some Republicans discussed replacing the U.I. boost with a "back to work" bonus, with top White House economist Larry Kudlow saying that the Trump administration was considering the idea.

If Democrats eventually allow the $600-a-week U.I. payments to end, they may well argue they should be replaced by an equivalent federal minimum wage. Again, there would be costs and consequences: Paying more for work would send people back into the labor force. But it would also make it far more expensive for cash-strapped businesses already crippled by the pandemic to hire new workers. In the economy—even a pandemic economy—incentives are everything.

NEXT: Brickbat: An Unexpected Change of Heart

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  2. I kept reading this dumb article over and over, trying to find the part of the article where the writer mentions that Employers could just pay workers more than the expanded UI benefits, thus removing the incentive to not work for them. Even Ctrl-F “pay more”, “offer more”, “exploit [workers] less” came up with nothing????

    1. You know, even with the name, I can’t tell if you are a parody.

      If you aren’t one, then I’m going to have to inform you that businesses are not sitting on a treasure trove of cash. Workers are one of the biggest expenses of a company, and if they have to raise everyone pay from below 15 to above 15, you are going to see the price of goods go up. Which is a fun way of saying inflation and everyone gets poorer.

      1. Add a price control board. G: IYTTPWCAB,JWUYSOS.

        1. I quit working at shoprite and now I make $65-85 per/h. How? I’m working online! My work didn’t exactly make me happy so I decided to take a chance on something new… after 4 years it was so hard to quit my day job but now I couldn’t be happier.

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      2. The $600 supplement *alone* comes out to around the equivalent of 15/hr (anyone actually think that’s a coincidence?) so someone who was making 13.50/hr before (minimum wage in Chicago) would need over $21/hr to make more working than unemployed.

        In fact, under IL’s employment benefit amounts anyone who was making less than $30/hr before is now making more being unemployed

      3. …businesses are not sitting on a treasure trove of cash.

        All business owners, even small business owners, have huge Scrooge McDuckian vaults filled with gold coins from their ill gotten gains stolen from the proletariat. Everyone knows that.

      4. …if they have to raise everyone pay from below 15 to above 15, you are going to see the price of goods go up.

        All part of the plan. Those trillion dollar deficits aren’t going to pay down themselves!

    2. This is always a such a conundrum for low paying employers. They are left wondering why they can’t get a minimum wage worker would works like a workers getting paid twice the amount. The author, Mr. Suderman talks about government giving a back to work bonus, but not the employer giving that bonus. The reality is that that coronavirus pandemic has shown some flaw in our system of wages for work. These will need to be work out. Better to work these out for the long term rather than just trying for quick fixes. Maybe the answer is UBI, maybe minimum wage hike, maybe something different. The patch work remedies for the pandemic don’t seem like a long term solution.

      1. The problem with UBI is if its enough to live off of, then there isn’t any reason to go to work. I’m an engineer because if I have to spend 8 to 9 hours of my day doing something for other people so I can have house/food/clothing, I’m going to at least do something that gets me nice house/food/clothing. But if I don’t need to spend 8 to 9 hours of my day to get house/food/clothing, then the benefits of getting the nice versions don’t get anywhere near the benefits of getting to spend my entire day playing video games and engaging in my computer based hobbies. Entertainment is cheap to absolutely free in the modern world. Why work if other people will be forced to support you no matter what you do?

        1. “The problem with UBI is if its enough to live off of, then there isn’t any reason to go to work.”

          Yes and no. Depends on how you define “live.” If you mean “exist” then sure. But that’s not good enough for everyone. I know a few people on disability, which is enough to exist off of, then their lives are pretty boring. Not because they are disabled, but because they are really fucking poor. They’ve got food and shelter, and that’s about it. If you are like me and aren’t satisfied with bare minimums, then you’re gonna find a job even with UBI.

          1. Also depends very much on what the UBI gets set to, mostly I hear between 30 and 40k annually, which will get you a pretty comfortable life in most parts of the US

            And I know a *lot* of people who will be satisfied with bare minimums, especially if they don’t have to lift a finger for them

            1. “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”
              ― Benjamin Franklin

              1. #CancelBen

          2. If the goal of the UBI is subsistence, then yay – mission accomplished. It is pretty nearly impossible to starve to death in North America. We offer that through a host of inefficient and messy programs but they somehow work.

            The only way UBI makes any sense is if you use it to replace all the other disability, incentive, unemployment, welfare and other programs. Since precisely no one is making that proposal, I think it’s fair to say that none of the UBI advocates are making it in good faith.

            Or more likely, they think they’re advocating in good faith but they are such utter economic idiots that they can’t see the obvious consequences.

          3. Note my discussion of how most entertainment in the modern world is incredibly cheap to absolutely free. There is a reason that took up most of my post.

          4. 30% of the American public makes $35K or less, so yeah, there’s plenty of people who would be happy not to go to work. And you could probably easily add another 10%-20% to that number for those over 50 who have acquired “their dream” and looking forward to retirement, so no real reason to work.

      2. Why don’t businesses just pay more money lmao

        With what money would these theoretical businesses pay such salaries? You want a restaurant to double the pay of its employees without doubling its revenue? This may come as a surprise, and I can’t believe it has to be spelled out for you, but businesses cannot just print their own money as the government can. The money printer does not go brrrr for the private sector.

        The problem with UBI is that no one has ever been able to explain why a $1000 a month UBI is a good idea but $100,000,000 a month UBI isn’t. The money doesn’t have to come from anywhere. The fed can just print it. It’s just a matter of printing a few more zeroes.

        1. Most of those who seriously ask that question are economic retards. They see a job as a one-sided concept: the pay it provides. They are clueless about the true nature of work, i.e. the exchange of value, and thus about the production that comes from work (at least most work). And they seem equally clueless about how work production and cost fit in the economy of a given enterprise, and in a larger economic context.

      3. Raising the minimum wage will only hurt these people, not help them. That is if you still expect them to work and you haven’t implemented a UBI.

        Those people are in low paying positions for a reason; they do not possess the skills that people in higher paying positions have. If they had those skills they’d find higher paying work. WHY they don’t have those skills is a different discussion, all that matters for this point is that they’re relatively unskilled.

        If I set the minimum wage high, well now the employer has more options for who will accept the job. He will have more skilled workers who want to work for him. In this scenario, why would he ever hire a lower skilled worker?

        A lower wage is the only weapon an unskilled worker has. It gives him leverage with potential employers. Now the employer must consider that they could have cheaper labor, understanding that it won’t be as skilled, at least not at first. If he does hire the unskilled worker, that worker is now developing skills that will eventually result in the ability to command higher pay.

        Raising the minimum wage only helps people who already had advantages to begin with, if you actually want to help the lower end of the spectrum you should be advocating for abolishing it altogether.

        1. The people who created the minimum wage knew this and made no bones about it. This was when racism and eugenics were cool. They explicitly said that the purpose of the minimum wage was to price “inferior” people out of work. Make it high enough an employers would hire white, union folk, not those newly freed blacks. The entire purpose was to fuck the poor.

    3. Voluntary work is not exploitation.

      1. If I say “work for me for this wage or I’ll punch you in the stomach” and you say, ‘ugh, ok,’ is that voluntary? I mean, you did say ‘ok.’

        1. Yeah, my employer showed up at my door with a bunch of goons and gave me a choice to work for them or they would break my legs.

          1. Did you say OK? Totally voluntary then?

            1. The same way taxes and laws are voluntary.

            2. Who is threatening you for not taking a job? Its OK to call the police you know

              1. They are threatening to withhold what I want (money) if I don’t work. I need that money to give to other people who also won’t give me what I want unless I give them money.

            3. You suck at metaphors. When was the last time you were threatened for not taking a job? Serious question, because it doesn’t happen in the private sector.

              If the ‘threat’ you’re talking about is unemployment, one might note that before COVID you could start your own business. Since starting a business would make you a kulak, I figure I see what problem you have with that. It’s the same reason most young moron socialists miss that solution: it’s anathema to their worldview.

          2. UAW sucks.

        2. Obviously you’re so open minded that your brain has fallen out.
          No one is forced to work for a particular person or company.
          If they make you an offer of employment, the choice is yours whether or not to accept. Don’t like what they’re offering in terms of payment ……… go elsewhere.

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  4. I don’t know if the CARES act changed it, but in the old days, BC,(before conovirus) to receive unemployment benefits you had to be available for work, and certify you are actively seeking employment. So a recalled employee that refused to return to his job would lose all UI benefits.

    1. The author noted that states are having problem just getting people signed up and paid the UI owed to them. I doubt they are spending too much time asking if people have looked for a job. Probably just a cursory check.

      1. When I was on unemployment for two years, there was never once a check to see if I was looking for work. They claimed they did random audits.

        1. When I was on unemployment for two weeks there was this card I had to mail in where I was supposed to list three jobs I applied for. But I got hired before I found out if they were checking it or not.

          1. Last time I was on unemployment I was supposed to keep track of jobs I applied for, and apply to at least 5 per week. But like Illocust no one ever checked. This was in IL about 3 years ago

            1. This was the method they had me do. I was supposed to keep track, but they had no way to check that I was unless I specifically got audited.

              1. When I still had my small biz, I told my unemployed customers that they could say they applied with me. I never once got a call to verify.

        2. It’s been a while since I was last unemployed (knocks on wood) but from what I remember all you had to do was check a box that you were actively looking for work and list three jobs you had applied for. I highly doubt if they ever actually bothered checking in to make sure you weren’t lying. That would require effort on the part of petty government lackey and the last thing people who work in government want to do is put in actual effort. If they wanted to actually work for a living they’d be in the private sector.


    3. I’ve been wondering that myself, though like you it’s not important enough to me to actually do any research.

    4. Technically that is the rule, but I don’t think it gets enforced much

    5. There are a bunch of loopholes you can jump through to keep getting your benefits. “I have to take care of my kid/sick relative cause there’s no school/other choice” is good enough.

  5. More GOP/Trump welfare on the way:

    Trump to Start Stimulus Talks With McConnell Monday, Aide Says

    Talks on a new coronavirus stimulus package will start at the White House on Monday with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and others, said President Donald Trump’s chief of staff.

    House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy will also be present, Mark Meadows said in a “Sunday Morning Futures” interview on Fox News Channel. Mnuchin “is leading it from our side,” Meadows said.


    Spending bills are now drafted by the Senate and White House in the Age of Trump Welfare!

    1. The “hack” for that has always been to gut a House bill and send it back. Nothing new, that’s how they passed Obamacare

      1. Shh, you’re not supposed to point out that this has been SOP since long before the Age of the Trumpenfuhrer.

  6. Normally I would agree. The problem with this line of thinking is that most states very clearly should not have opened up yet. When Europe shut down they brought the number of infections much lower before re-opening. Had we waited another month, we’d be a lot better off right now, both medically and financially. FYI, I’m someone that benefits from cheap employees – I have an AirBnB, and it has been difficult to get the place cleaned between guests because they make as much or more sitting at home.

    1. Most states also shouldn’t have closed down as early as they did. They didn’t “flatten the curve” because they didn’t even have a curve yet, they just delayed their first spike and now have already blown their wad on the best way to flatten it

      1. Ken, do you have a newsletter?

      2. Yeah the thing I was really struck by in my state. I had to go into the emergency room, and then hospital 5-6 weeks into our lockdown for non-COVID related lung infection. While I was there something ~2/30 ER rooms were being used, and similar proportion of hospital rooms.

        Seemed like if the whole idea of shutting down was to efficiently use hospital capacity, we really missed the boat and shut down too early. Granted there wasn’t as much information at the time, so I am hesitant to be too critical.

        But the disconnect over the hysteria surrounding hospital capacity in the local media, and the totally sedate and underutilized hospital I was in was striking. And it wasn’t some ritzy place or anything, just the nearest hospital in a major city. And it was the sleepiest I have ever seen a hospital, at the height of everyone’s daily checking into hospital capacity (late APR).

      3. Yup. Virginia is probably the best “classic curve” example we can find.

        1. Classic flat curve. Caught it too late.

  7. I started day dreaming halfway thru this (non)article.

    Sometimes the headline is enough info.

    1. Yeah, it’s like an essay on why water is wet.

  8. My wife started her business two years ago in the entertainment business (read: wedding bands and music/djs for corporate events). As you may have already figured out, her business is decimated from the pandemic. She’s still spinning her wheels every day (she works probably 7-9 hours) trying to figure out how squeeze out a little bit of income through virtual events or micro weddings or whatever.

    Anyway, she’s been getting unemployment for awhile ($179 plus the $600 covid bump) per week. She recently watched a dog through rover for a few days last week for about $300 bucks. When she reported this in her weekly check-up to make sure she’s still eligible for unemployment, she quickly found out that she wasn’t eligible at all that week.

    Real life example of this terrible policy, for sure. I guess the idea of supplementing up to the $779 she was originally getting was too close to universal basic income for some, even though she did some work? I can tell you this, we won’t be taking in any new dogs at least until the end of July.

    1. “we won’t be taking in any new dogs ”

      I should hope. Think of the liability when they get shot.

    2. That’s because 300 dollars is more than the 179 unemployment benefit she’s receiving. The 600 supplement doesn’t count because its a federal benefit, and states aren’t going to change up their eligibility laws to factor in a temporary federal benefit that will likely be gone by the time the bill works its way through the legislature

      Most people get around that sort of thing by just not reporting income they make while collecting unemployment

      1. I find the fact that the states won’t factor in the temporary benefit quite, umm, wrong. I’m sure they would have gotten it incorrect if they even tried, though.

  9. Do you think congresspeople should be the only people who receive a lot of money for not doing any work? How is that equal treatment under the law?

    1. No, it appears that in many school districts, teachers receive a lot of money for not doing any work, and – if they have their way – will continue to do so during the Fall semester.

  10. “In theory, there were coherent reasons for giving workers a financial incentive to stay home initially.”

    And in theory, there were coherent reasons to inflate fears about the corona virus, to make all kinds of promises and threats about required public and even private behavior, and to establish clear (and shrill) partisan positions about all these reasons.

    The theory is called “election year”.

    1. This happened in countries around the world. Was it election year in all those nations?

  11. In a state like California, which offers as much as $450 per week, seven days of not working was, all of a sudden, potentially worth more than $1,000.

    Do you want robots? Because this is how you get robots.

    1. As an engineer in automation I would like a $50 minimum wage

  12. My sister is a high school dropout who worked part time at a daycare center. She now makes 3x my salary. She’s a slut.

    1. I’m betting that runs in the family.

      1. And I’m betting I’d like the sister who doesn’t have to work. At least in the short run.

  13. I am impressed that none of the freedom lovers here have figured out that the reason that restaurants are having trouble hiring staff back is because in most of the country it’s really, really dangerous. (No, COVID Isn’t a fake — I personally know people who’ve died from it and others who have come close.)
    If a certain political party weren’t desperately trying to sabotage public health actions to get COVID under control, going back to work would be a lot less scary.

  14. “Congress Is Paying People a Lot of Money To Not Work.”

    So what?
    That’s been going on for decades.
    It’s called welfare.
    People who refuse to work get it, and so do corporations who give a lot of their money to politicians on both sides of the aisle as “campaign contributions.”

  15. It’s odd that the few hundred billion in expanded UI draws the author’s condemnation but the many trillions of dollars expended and/or guaranteed to bail out corporations and financial institutions this year as well as those dating back to 2008 merit no mention. It’s almost as though “what’s entitled for me is moral hazard for thee.”

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  17. A lot of the small businesses I know – especially those with small medical related business are simply pay their employees under the table so that the employee comes to work. The employees are essentially getting double pay during the pandemic.

  18. The author missed a big reason why the amount was so much. It was all spent back into the economy, protecting jobs that still continued. If you remove that money from the economy, I guarantee that unemployment continues to rise and not go down like it did. Retail sales do not rebound in May or June either. Where would this spending come from it this money was not for these payments?
    There are currently 14 million more unemployed people, than there are jobs available. Cut these payments to zero now and the economy will go backwards. Maybe a lesser amount like around 300 would be better right now. Maybe even put the recipients into work programs for the government until things improve.
    Eliminating these payments completely will be disaster for our economy. Some of these jobs are never coming back, and there are not enough other jobs to employ everyone.

  19. Note my discussion of how most entertainment in the modern world is incredibly cheap to absolutely free. There is a reason that took up most of my post. dominoqq

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  21. Hello Peter. I read this article (finally, since I follow the print edition and it may take me a bit to get to them).

    I read it with great interest. I am a small business owner in SoCal and we did receive some PPP money. Not much – but enough to bring our staff back on board.

    We originally got passed over by Wells Fargo because they were busy feeding their big clients. We finally got a bit and were able to bring staff back on before opening up of the economy.

    What kills me is that we had some friends that were making $4,200++ a month staying on unemployment. They were living large and had zero desire to go back on payroll. Of course, all the while I did everything to maintain our building, with my wife.
    Pretty much alone.

    California EDD is so screwed up, that I had two staffers that could not get unemployment from March 15th (shutdown) until the very last end of July, when the federal $600 a week bonus dried up.

    Liberal states are run by union goons. Their staffers, being union types, had zero days of unemployment. their pensions fully funded, their healthcare paid.

    Us lowly little high-tarriff, high-tax, soon-to-be prop-13 excluded business owners get short sheeted every time.

    Thanks for listening to my rant.


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