Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Yes, out-of-work millionaires should collect unemployment benefits

Bloomberg reports on a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study about millionaires who collected unemployment insurance (UI) benefits in 2009.
Almost 2,400 people who received unemployment insurance in 2009 lived in households with annual incomes of $1 million or more, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The report was released after about 1.1 million people exhausted their jobless benefits during the second quarter of 2012, when more than 4.6 million filed initial unemployment claims. Eliminating those payments to high earners is one idea being considered as U.S. lawmakers struggle to curb a projected $1.1 trillion deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, with the nationwide jobless rate at 8.1 percent.

“Sending millionaires unemployment checks is a case study in out-of-control spending,” U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said in an e-mail. “Providing welfare to the wealthy undermines the program for those who need it most while burdening future generations with senseless debt.”
The Bloomberg article and CRS report note that approximately $20 million could be saved in federal contributions to UI over the next decade if benefits to millionaires were blocked from receiving UI benefits.

$20 million in savings sounds great, but that wouldn't be the bottom impact on the federal budget. In order to recoup that money, the federal or state governments would have to check income sources of UI recipients. That checking would cost money--quite possibly more money than goes out in UI benefits.

The CRS believes that the least costly approach would be to collect the payments through the income tax system. A 100 percent tax could be placed on UI benefits for households with incomes above one million dollars. Although cost-effective, this approach is far from costless. Tax forms would become more complicated making them harder to complete and harder to check.

Any other system to prevent millionaires from getting benefits is likely to be far more costly and less effective. The state agencies that administer the UI system only have access to some income information. Besides having to conduct additional checks against the available information, the agencies would have to make guesses about whether a household's total income worked out to one million dollars. The checks would be especially difficult for married couple households and for households that receive unearned income. Any such system would also likely impose additional reporting burdens on the broader set of unemployed households.

In the end, a policy of trying to keep benefits from going to a handful of millionaire households is likely to cost the treasury more than it saves. If the goal really is to reduce the burden on future generations, we should keep sending out those checks.