STATEMENT BY CHAD STONE, CHIEF ECONOMIST,
ON THE LABOR DEPARTMENT'S DECEMBER UNEMPLOYMENT REPORT
Today’s report shows that the
economy is entering 2008 with a weakening labor market. Employers expanded their
payrolls by a meager 18,000 jobs in December, private payrolls actually shrank
by 13,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate rose from 4.7 to 5.0 percent. These
data are very disappointing, but even so they do not mean that the economy is
currently in recession, and Congress should not rush to judgment on the need to
enact a fiscal stimulus package that, if not carefully designed, could do more
harm than good.
Today’s report also is a
strong reminder that before the next recession comes, Congress needs to
strengthen the Unemployment Insurance (UI) system, which cushions the impact on
consumers of the economy’s ups and downs. The percentage of unemployed workers
who have remained without a job for more than 26 weeks (the normal duration for
regular unemployment benefits) and continue to search for work is considerably
higher than on the eve of the last recession. In December 2007, 17.5 percent of
all unemployed workers were long-term unemployed, compared with just 11.1
percent in March 2001.
The federal government has
temporarily extended unemployment benefits in every recent recession, but often
not until well after the need has become evident. Having an extended benefits
program ready to go if labor market conditions deteriorate significantly would
be a prudent contingent stimulus policy.
In addition, longstanding
gaps in the UI system leave many workers ineligible even for regular UI benefits
when they lose their jobs (and hence for any extended benefits in a recession).
In October 2007, the House passed a long-overdue UI reform measure that would
provide states with incentives to modernize their UI systems so more female,
low-income, and part-time workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their
own can qualify.
The House bill reflects
recommendations made over a decade ago by a bipartisan, congressionally
chartered commission. And it is fully paid for through a renewal of the federal
UI surtax, a step President Bush called for in his last budget.
The Senate should act
expeditiously on this or similar legislation when it returns this month, so
these reforms are in place to reduce hardship in the next recession, whenever
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