Tag Archives: Social Policy

“The Front Line of Defense” – Unemployment Insurance Reform

“Unemployment compensation, as we conceive it, is a front line of defense, especially valuable for those who are ordinarily steadily employed, but very beneficial also in maintaining purchasing power. While it will not directly benefit those now unemployed until they are reabsorbed in industry, it should be instituted at the earliest possible date to increase the security of all who are employed…”
– Report to the President, Committee on Economic Security (1935)

In a previous post, I discussed the need to improve the payroll tax, and noted that one of the reasons we need to do this is to fix the unemployment insurance (UI). Our current UI system is fundamentally broken. As I wrote on the 12th, “at a time when nearly one in ten American workers are unemployed, only half of them qualify for Unemployment Insurance, to the extent that the program no longer adequately functions either as a safety net or an “automatic stabilizer.””

If I didn't have the time and the space to say it at the time, let me say it now. The fact that a majority of workers are no longer protected, nearly seventy-five years after the passage of an act that was meant to protect every worker from” one of many misfortunes” of economic life, is a moral failure of the highest order. The idea that governors in America would reject stimulus funds in the middle of a recession because those funds would make it easier for temporary or part time workers to gain access to UI suggests the total moral bankruptcy of the American conservative movement. Not for nothing did FDR say:

“Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted on different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”


Seventy-five years ago, UI was probably the most important, the most important, and legally and politically the most difficult piece of FDR's agenda that the Committee on Economic Security (CES) wrestled with. The sheer burden of the task was daunting – twenty million Americans were living on Federal relief, so demand for UI would be high, but unemployment was still at 14% and wages had been badly hammered so where would the funds come from to establish a reserve? Politically, the right thundered against creeping socialism and an un-American dole and the left visions of plenty if we “shared the wealth. Legally, the Supreme Court had set its face like thunder against the New Deal and all its works. And the progressive movement was split.

At the core of the CES's divisions over UI was a struggle between two halves of the progressive spirit -on one shoulder, its conservative, sober, evolutionary side, wary of government handouts, suspicious and somewhat fearful of an unruly working class, and confident in the ability of educated regulators to force the market into acting morally;  on the the other, its visionary, expansive, and radical side, impatient with the old nostrums of laissez faire and limited government, firm in their faith in the liberatory capacity of an activist state, and deeply hostile to all malefactors of great wealth. From each side came a plan:

  • The Wisconsin Plan – the Wisconsin Plan was the result of one of the most creative and productive experiments in state-leel progressivism in American history, marked by the political and policy alliance between progressive economists at the University of Wisconsin lead by Professor John R. Commons and the LaFollete political dynasty, including the legendary “Fighting Bob” LaFollete and  his sons, Progressive governor Philip LaFollete, and  Senator Robert LaFollete Jr. In 1932, Wisconsin adopted the first unemployment insurance system in American history, drafted by John R. Commons. Under the Wisconsin Plan, each corporation was required to build up its own UI reserve, paid for out of a payroll tax. The rate of the payroll tax would vary company by company depending on how successful the company was in maintaining a stable level of employment and not resorting to layoffs – in this manner, the Commons school of economists hoped to tame the business cycle by re-shaping employer's incentives, making it good business to be a good employer.
  • The Ohio Plan – the Ohio Plan was established the same year as the Wisconsin Plan, but differed from it in two regards. First, the Ohio plan instead of setting up individual factory plans established a single, statewide plan, which pooled contributions from all employers, thus allowing the strong and the big to subsidize the weak and the small. Second, the Ohio plan, unlike the Wisconsin Plan, required contributions from both employers and employees (the Wisconsin Plan only taxed employers). The kernel of the Ohio plan was picked up by several progressive economists, including Abraham Epstein of the American Association for Old Age Security, future Senator Paul Douglas of the University of Chicago, and I.M Rubinow of Columbia University.

In the political struggle within the CES, the Ohio plan was easily defeated. Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor and Chairwoman of the CES appointed a number of Commons-trained Wisconsin economists to staff positions, including Edwin E. Witte (later called “the father of Social Security”) and Arthur Altmeyer (the future first chairman of the Social Security Board. Under their leadership, and with the political support of many other New Dealers, the CES was persuaded to support a system whereby a re-funded Federal payroll tax could be used to push other states into establishing Unemployment Insurance systems on the lines of the Wisconsin Plan. The advocates of the Ohio Plan, shut out from direct participation by their Wisconsin rivals, lobbied the CES' Advisory Board on behalf of a single, national pool run by the Federal government.

In the end, neither side totally won out. The UI system would be state-run, in part merely to get around objections from the Supreme Court, but on the other hand, the insurance pools would be single, state-wide, and not the factory-level plans envisioned by John R. Commons. In this way, however, a deadly weakness was built into the system.


The fact that only 46% of workers are eligible for UI is not an accident. The more workers are eligible for unemployment insurance, the higher a payroll tax must be levied to cover them, and thus states perversely compete to lower coverage to attract employers with their low cost of doing business. The fact that the majority of gubernatorial opponents to taking the stimulus and the attached strings of UI reform come from low-wage, low-tax, Republican/corporate dominated, Southern states shows the way in which the politics and economics of state-run unemployment insurance combine. If you've been paying attention to the news, not only would you see that some governors had to be bullied into doing what is not merely morally right but economically necessary in a recession, but you would also note that many states have drawn down their UI reserve funds to the point where they are a few months or a few quarters away from running out of money.

This is simply untenable. We have nearly 10% unemployment. Our recoveries are becoming increasingly long and jobless recoveries. We have to have a functioning unemployment insurance, and we need it now.


So how do we get this done?

  1. Fixing UI Means Nationalizing UI – the National Employment Law Project's proposal for a “New National Economic Security Plan for the 21st Century” is a good start: it combines state level reforms (coverage expansion, 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, subsidized COBRA insurance, a home protection fund, and credits for education/training) with federal reforms (expanding trade assistance, a permanent Federal Extended Benefit system tied to national recessions, establishing disaster-related unemployment insurance, and creating “transitional jobs”). Ultimately, however, the state-run model of UI is simply outdated and ill-designed and needs to be replaced. From the beginning, the state-level program was created to get around Supreme Court doctrine against Federal economic intervention that is no longer good law. State-run systems create perverse incentives to deny coverage and underfund the system, and in general, states lack the counter-cyclical capacity to deficit spend in recessions that UI should enable. The current system, whereby supplementary Extended Benefits are passed by Congress during recessions, has shown itself to be too slow, too prone to political delays, and too limited in scope. Unemployment is a national problem, it requires a national solution. We already have the administrative structure in place to make the transition. There is no excuse for delay.
  2. Wage Insurance Is NOT the Answer – there are some who counsel the creation of wage insurance as a means of dealing with the additional problem that, when the unemployed do find new work, often (especially in the case of older, skilled workers) their new jobs tend to pay much lower wages than the declining, industrial, and unionized jobs they once held. This is a fundamentally flawed and compromised idea, an undeclared recognition that the jobs being destroyed and created by free trade, globalization, and outsourcing are not of equal quality, and a surrender to the epidemic of wage stagnation that is the underlying cause of America's long-term economic weakness. Creating a system that pays 1/2 the difference of lost wages simply creates an incentive for employers to fire their workforce en masse, rehire them later at lower wage rates, let the Federal government pick up the tab, leaving workers to suffer continually if only gradually declining wages. We do not need Speenhamland for the 21st century.
  3. Job Insurance IS – Luckily, we do have another way to deal with the shortcomings in UI, one that was designed within the Committee on Economic Security, present at the moment of creation. In addition to the Wisconsin and Ohio economists, there were also a group of policy advocates from  the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), who were busy designing what would become the WPA (of which I have often written). In a series of running bureaucratic battles, FERA staffers like Jacob Baker, Emerson Ross, Corrington Gill, Aubrey Williams, Alan Johnstone, Nels Anderson, Eveline Burns, and Josephine Brown argued for the establishment of a system of “job insurance” to replace the Wisconsin school's “unemployment insurance.” In a memo titled “A Public Work Program As a Means of Economic Security,” Emerson Ross proposed three different systems of “job insurance:” option one “involves the use of contributions for protections against unemployment for a work program — employment not restricted to those making the payments. This conception regards the funds collected as an additional source of revenue collected and is based on the belief that employees will willingly make payments in return for the protection offered them by a large work program when unemployed,” essentially replacing unemployment insurance altogether, while combining contributions from a payroll tax with general Federal funding. Option two contemplated “wages on a work program as a means of paying all unemployment benefits,” in which a public job would be “a matter of contractual right to…wages paid for work performed.” Option three envisioned a combination of UI with job insurance, in which workers who exhausted their limited UI benefits would then become eligible for a public job, dividing responsibilities between short-term and long-term insurance.

Either of the three proposals would be superior to our existing system of unemployment insurance. Critically, by establishing a separate and dedicated tax and reserve fund for job insurance, the Federal government could create a permanent fiscal structure for a jobs program, which would form the nucleus of a Federal commitment to full employment for all.