• Written by David Salkever, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Yes, most workers can collect more in coronavirus unemployment than they earn – but that doesn't mean Congress should cut the $600 supplement

Americans who lost their jobs because of the pandemic had been getting a US$600 bump on top of state benefits in their weekly unemployment checks since March. That ended on July 31, and lawmakers are debating[1] whether to extend the program and if so by how much.

Senate Republicans are arguing[2] it’s too generous to the 18 million who are unemployed[3] and serves as a disincentive to returning to work. Their initial proposal in the ongoing negotiations would slash the benefit to $200 a week.

As an empirical economist[4], I wanted to see if their concerns about the disincentive were valid. So I analyzed data on earnings and unemployment benefits to estimate the share of benefit-eligible workers who could collect more on the dole than on the job.

Replacement wages

I started my analysis by looking at 2019 Current Population Survey[5] data to estimate weekly earnings of private-sector employees, both nationally and state by state. I then adjusted the numbers for wage inflation and compared the results with jobless benefits and “replacement wages,” which vary from state to state.

Iowa is the most generous[6] and replaces 49% of a worker’s weekly wages with a cash benefit when he or she loses a job involuntarily, while Alaska is the stingiest and replaces only 28% of income. I estimated that on average the replacement rate for all workers in the U.S. was about a third.

Once the $600 federal supplement is added in, the national average wage replacement rate soars to 127%. On an individual basis, I found that 56% of eligible workers would receive more in benefits than they would earn gainfully employed. Among those workers, the average excess benefit was $253.

This figure also varies in each state, depending on replacement rates as well as average weekly earnings. For example, benefits exceed their earnings for little more than a third of workers in Washington, D.C., while that figure is 75% in New Mexico.

If Congress passes a lower federal supplement of $200, the result would drastically change the picture. As a result, I estimate only 9.5% of workers across the country would receive more in benefits than what they could earn – on average about $61 – and the replacement rate would drop by half to about 65%.

The Republican plan would eventually have the $200 supplement replaced[7] with a system that provides workers with a combined state and federal benefit equal to a replacement rate of 70%. The federal share would be capped at $500.

Why $600 is still important

While Republicans are right that the $600 jobless benefit may seem high, that alone does not mean it should be cut.

The unemployment insurance program started[8] in 1935 soon after the Great Depression ended with two major objectives: to provide temporary partial wage replacement to unemployed workers and to help stimulate the economy during recessions.

The second objective is important. With the U.S. economy sinking into recession, a more generous supplement acts as a powerful stimulus. Consumer spending makes up more than 70% of the economy[9], and most of those who receive the benefit will spend it quickly. This powerful and ongoing jolt would help revive the economy[10] – or at least keep it alive – as well as offset[11] worries that economic inequality[12] will soar as a result of the pandemic.

In addition, unemployment insurance only replaces wages. A job often comes with other benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. Even full-time service workers in the private sector, who as a group earn less than $15 per hour in wages, receive an average of $1.99 per hour[13] in employer-paid insurance, mostly for health care.

Overall, non-cash job benefits amount on average to 19% of total employee pay. Factoring in that non-cash dollar value reduces the average replacement rate to 108% and lowers the share of employees receiving excess benefits from 56% to 43%.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter[14].]

Finally, employment insurance works in a way that limits its ability to act as a disincentive to work. People who quit their jobs voluntarily are ineligible for benefits. And someone without a job who receives a suitable offer of employment is no longer eligible to continue receiving benefits. That’s one explanation cited in a recent study by Yale economists that found no evidence[15] that the $600 federal supplement reduced employment.

Altogether, I find Republican concerns that the $600 supplement dissuades work unpersuasive in the context of the current pandemic. A generous policy that helps support the economy and aids those at risk of losing their homes[16] or struggling to feed their families[17] seems more sensible than one that assumes someone collecting unemployment benefits could just as easily be working[18].


  1. ^ lawmakers are debating (
  2. ^ Senate Republicans are arguing (
  3. ^ 18 million who are unemployed (
  4. ^ empirical economist (
  5. ^ Current Population Survey (
  6. ^ most generous (
  7. ^ replaced (
  8. ^ program started (
  9. ^ makes up more than 70% of the economy (
  10. ^ would help revive the economy (
  11. ^ offset (
  12. ^ worries that economic inequality (
  13. ^ receive an average of $1.99 per hour (
  14. ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter (
  15. ^ found no evidence (
  16. ^ risk of losing their homes (
  17. ^ feed their families (
  18. ^ assumes someone collecting unemployment benefits could just as easily be working (

Authors: David Salkever, Professor Emeritus of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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