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It has been two-and-a-half years since the recession officially began in the United States. While the economy has been growing for more than a year, unemployment remains near the 10.1 percent peak of October 2009. Few economists predict a rapid decline from its June level of 9.5 percent and, with stimulus being phased down over the next year, it is very plausible that the rate will edge higher in coming months.
The US, unlike most western European countries, is not set up to sustain long periods of high unemployment. Its system of social welfare is very much centered on work. This is most evident with health care. The vast majority of non-elderly people get their health care through employer provided health insurance. Individual policies tend to be very expensive, especially for people with any history of medical problems. When people lose their jobs, they generally lose their health care coverage as well. While there is a public program for low-income families, it doesn’t cover most of the unemployed, and the quality is often quite poor.
The same is true of other forms of public support. The US was never very generous to people who are not working, and it has become less so in the last three decades. That is why the prospect of a prolonged period of high unemployment in the US is likely to mean serious hardship for large numbers of people.
The unemployment seen in this recession is already as bad as in the worst previous post-war recession, and it is almost certain to linger much longer. In the 1981-82 recession, unemployment in the US peaked at 10.8 percent in December 1982. However, the economy turned sharply upward at the beginning of 1983, and the unemployment rate fell back quickly. By July 1983 the unemployment rate was down to 9.4 percent, and it had fallen to 8.3 percent by the end of the year.
There is little prospect for a similar turnaround in this downturn. While the unemployment rate has edged down slightly since its October peak, most forecasts show the rate remaining nearly constant or just falling modestly over the next year and a half. Most official projections show the unemployment rate remaining well above its normal level until 2015 or 2016.
It is also worth noting that the same level of official unemployment implies a considerably worse labor market situation today than in the early 1980s. This is due to changes in the age composition of the labor force and also a declining coverage rate for the labor force survey used to measure unemployment.
The change in the age composition is fairly straightforward. In the 1981-82 recession, the huge baby boom cohort was mostly in its 20s or early 30s. The youngest were still teenagers. Workers at these ages have few financial and family commitments and therefore tend to change jobs more frequently. As a result, we expect to see higher rates of unemployment among younger workers. By contrast, the baby boomers are now mostly in their late 40s or 50s, ages at which workers very infrequently change jobs. Therefore we should expect a lower unemployment rate at present compared with 30 years ago.
If we look at unemployment by age group, it turns out that for every age cohort the unemployment rate is higher at present than it was at the peak unemployment rates of the 1981-82 recession. This means that on an age-adjusted basis the unemployment rate in this recession has already been much worse than during the recession that had prior claim to being the worst in the post-World War II era.
The aging of the population is not the only issue that affects the measure of unemployment. The coverage rate of the Current Population Survey (CPS), the labor force survey used to measure the unemployment rate, has fallen sharply over the last three decades. In the early 80s more than 95 percent of the population was covered by the survey. In recent years, the coverage rate has slipped to 88 percent. This decline in coverage would not matter if the people who are excluded from the survey are similar to the people who are covered.
However, we have good reason for believing this is not the case. The groups that face the highest unemployment rates (e.g. young African-American men) also have the lowest coverage rate. Using a comparison with Census data from the 2000 Census, my colleague John Schmitt concluded that the fall in coverage rates is likely to lead to an understatement of the unemployment rate of approximately 0.2 percentage points. This means that if we adjust for both age composition and declining coverage rates, the current unemployment rate would be comparable to an 11 percent measured unemployment rate in 1981-82.
Europe: From unemployment to partial employment
While the downturn has led to high and prolonged unemployment in the US, it has not had quite the same effect in Europe. Although the overall unemployment rates are very similar at present, the European average is inflated by the 20 percent unemployment figure for Spain, which adds more than a full percentage point to the EU average. It is also important to remember that the EU started the downturn with an unemployment rate that was two percentage points higher than in the US. This means that the recession led to a much sharper rise in unemployment in the US than in Europe. This is in spite of the fact that Europe has actually seen a sharper decline in GDP than the US.
One of the main reasons for the difference is that several European countries, most notably Germany and the Netherlands, have adopted a policy of work sharing to limit unemployment. The basic logic of work sharing is very simple. Under a standard system of unemployment insurance, workers are paid out benefits only if they are completely unemployed. In effect, the government is paying workers for being unemployed.
Under work-sharing schemes, instead of just paying workers for being completely unemployed, the government pays workers for being partly unemployed. In the standard model used in Germany, if a firm cuts workers hours by 20 percent, then the government covers 60 percent of the lost wages or 12 percent of the total wage. The employer is expected to pick up another 20 percent of the lost wages or four percent of the total wage. The worker is then left with four percent less pay but is working 20 percent less time. Since this likely corresponds to working a four-day week rather than a five-day week, savings on commuting and other work-related expenses may come close to offsetting the cut in pay.
Germany has been able to use this system to keep its unemployment rate from rising at all in the recession. In fact, its unemployment rate is slightly lower today than it was at the start of the recession. The Netherlands, which has also aggressively pursued a work-sharing policy, has seen a modest rise in unemployment, but its unemployment rate was still just 4.1 percent in the most recent data.
The success of Germany and the Netherlands thus far in protecting their workers from unemployment in such a steep downturn is a remarkable step forward in macroeconomic policy. It would be best of course to avoid recessions altogether, but if their impact on employment can be offset to the extent accomplished by these two countries, then it would be an enormous accomplishment.
In the US workers are seeing near double-digit unemployment with the implied loss of income and benefits, as well as the loss of self-esteem and social status that is associated with long-term unemployment. By contrast, workers in Germany and the Netherlands are adjusting to the falloff in demand with shorter workweeks and longer vacations. This is a great model and with luck it will quickly be adopted throughout the EU.
It may take a bit longer to see work sharing catch on in the US. While 15 million are unemployed, none of the people responsible for the recession are in that category. Economic policymakers are not given their jobs based on performance nor do they lose them as a result of bad performance. Therefore, we are likely to see far more suffering in this recession in the US than in Europe as the unemployment rate remains high for several more years.
DEAN BAKER is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.
This column was originally published by the Zurich-based ISN.