About one in five US workers received unemployment insurance benefits in June 2020, which is five times greater than the highest UI recipiency rate previously recorded. Yet little is known about how unemployment benefits are affecting the economy today. To fill this gap, the authors study the consumption of benefit recipients during the pandemic using data from the JPMorgan Chase Institute.
In normal times, spending among unemployment benefit recipients falls by about seven percent when they become unemployed because typical benefits replace only a fraction of lost earnings. However, the CARES Act added a $600 weekly supplement to state unemployment benefits, replacing more than 100 percent of lost earnings for two-thirds of unemployed workers. As a result, the authors find very different spending patterns for unemployed households during the pandemic.
Although average spending fell for all households as the economy shut down at the start of the pandemic, the authors find that unemployed households actually increased their spending beyond pre-unemployment levels once they began receiving benefits. The fact that spending by benefit recipients rose during the pandemic instead of falling, like in normal times, suggests that the $600 supplement has helped households to smooth consumption and thus propped-up aggregate demand.
The authors also examine spending patterns of the unemployed while waiting for benefits to arrive. Households that receive benefits soon after job loss show no relative decline in spending, while households that wait two months to receive benefits due to processing delays have large spending declines. Compared to the employed, spending falls by 20 percent prior to receiving benefits. This suggests that delays have imposed substantial hardship on benefit recipients.