The other day, I put up a post arguing, on the basis of my analysis of the income data in the Current Population Survey, that the economic disruptions from the pandemic had not led to any reduction in real income for the lowest-income families. This is the opposite of the Great Recession, and presumably earlier recessions, where the biggest income losses were at the bottom. The difference, I suggested, was the much stronger fiscal response this time compared with previous downturns.
My numbers were rough — tho I think informative — estimates based on a data set that is mainly intended for other purposes. Today I want to call attention to an important paper that reaches similar conclusions on the basis of far better data.
The question they ask is slightly different from the one I did. Rather than look at the average change in income at each point in the distribution, they ask what fraction of workers experienced large declines in their incomes. Specifically they ask, for each point at the distribution of earnings in a given year, what fraction of workers had earnings at least 10 percent lower a year later? They include people whose earnings were zero in the second year (which means the results are not distorted by compositional effects), and do the exercise both with and without unemployment insurance and — for the most recent period — stimulus payments. They use individual tax records from the IRS, which means their sample is much larger and their data much more accurate than the usual survey-based sources.
What they find, first of all, is that earnings are quite volatile — more than 25 percent of workers experience a fall in earnings of 10 percent or more in a typical year, with a similar share experiencing a 10 percent or more increase. Looking at earnings alone, the fraction of workers experiencing large falls in income rose to about 30 percent in both 2009 and 2020; the fraction experiencing large increases fell somewhat in 2009, but not in 2019. See their Figure 1 below.
Turning to distribution, if we look at earnings alone, large falls were more concentrated at the bottom in 2020 than in 2009. This is shown in their Figure 2. (Note that while the percentiles are based on earnings plus UI benefits, the vertical axis shows the share with large falls in earnings alone.) This pattern is consistent with the concentration of pandemic-related job losses in low-wage sectors.
But when you add unemployment insurance in, the picture reverses. Now, across almost the whole lower half of the distribution, large falls in earnings were actually less common in 2020 than in 2019. And when you add in stimulus payments, it’s even more dramatic. Households in the bottom 20 percent of the distribution were barely half as likely to experience a larger fall in income in the crisis year of 2020 as in they were in the normal year of 2019.
The key results are summarized in their Table 1, below. It’s true that the proportion of low-wage households that experienced large falls in earnings during 2020 was greater than the proportion of high-wage households. But that’s true in every year — low incomes are just much more volatile than high ones. What’s different is how much the gap closed. Even counting the stimulus payments, households in the top fifth of earnings were somewhat more likely to experience a large fall in earnings in 2020 than in 2019. But in the bottom fifth, the share experiencing large falls in income fell from 43 percent to 27 percent. Nothing like this happened in 2009 — then, the frequency of large falls in income rose by the same amount (about 6 points) across the distribution.
One thing this exercise confirms is that the more favorable experience low-income households in the pandemic downturn was entirely due to much stronger income-support programs. Earnings themselves fell even more disproportionately at the bottom than in the last recession. In the absence of the CARES Act, income inequality would have widened sharply rather than narrowed.
The one significant limitation of this study is that tax data is only released well after the end of the year it covers. So at this point, it can only tell us what happened in 2020, not in 2021. It’s hard to guess if this pattern will continue in 2021. (It might make a difference whether the child tax credit payments are counted.) But whether or not it does, doesn’t affect the results for 2020.
While the US experienced the most rapid fall in economic activity in history, low-wage workers experienced much less instability in their incomes than in a “good” year. This seems like a very important fact to me, one that should be getting much more attention than it is.
It didn’t have to turnout that way. In most economic crises, it very much doesn’t. People who are saying that the economy is over stimulated are implicitly saying that protecting low-wage workers from the crisis was a mistake. When the restaurant workers should have been left to fend for themselves. That way, they wouldn’t have any savings now and wouldn’t be buying so much stuff. When production is severely curtailed, it’s impossible to maintain people’s incomes without creating excess demand somewhere else. But that’s a topic for another post.
The point I want to make — and this is me speaking here, not the authors of the paper — is that the protection that working people enjoyed from big falls in income in 2020 should be the new benchmark for social insurance. Because the other thing that comes out clearly from these numbers is the utter inadequacy of the pre-pandemic safety net. In 2019, only 9 percent of workers with large falls in earnings received UI benefits, and among those who did, the typical benefit was less than a third of their previous earnings. You can see the result of this in the table — for 2009 and 2019, the fraction of each group experiencing large falls in earnings hardly changes when UI is included. Before 2020, there was essentially no insurance against large falls in earnings.
To be sure, the tax data doesn’t tell us how many of those with big falls in earnings lost their jobs and how many voluntarily quit. But the fact that someone leaves their job voluntarily doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be protected from the loss of income. Social Security is, in a sense, a form of (much more robust) unemployment insurance for a major category of voluntary quits. The paid family and medical leave that, it seems, will not be in this year’s reconciliation bill but that Democrats still hope to pass, is another.
Back in the spring, people like Jason Furman were arguing that if we had a strong recovery in the labor market then we would no longer need the $400/week pandemic unemployment assistance. But this implicitly assumes that we didn’t need something like PUA already in 2019.
I’d like to hear Jason, or anyone, make a positive argument that before the pandemic, US workers enjoyed the right level of protection against job loss. In a good year in the US economy, 40 percent of low-wage workers experience a fall in earnings of 10 percent or more. Is that the right number? Is that getting us the socially optimal number of evictions and kids going to bed hungry? Is that what policy should be trying to get us back to? I’d like to hear why.