Graph of the Day: Did Stimulus Money Hire the Unemployed?
by Benjamin Landy
According to a new research paper by economists Garett Jones and Daniel Rothschild, “Did Stimulus Dollars Hire the Unemployed?” published by the conservative Mercatus Center, less than half of all employees hired with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds actually came from the ranks of the unemployed. “Hiring isn’t the same as net job creation,” the report argues. “In our survey, just 42.1 percent of the workers hired at ARRA-receiving organizations … were unemployed at the time they were hired. More were hired directly from other organizations (47.3 percent of post-ARRA workers), while a handful came from school (6.5%) or from outside the labor force (4.1%) … This suggests just how hard it is for Keynesian job creation to work in a modern, expertise-based economy: even in a weak economy, organizations hired the employed about as often as the unemployed.”
Unsurprisingly, conservative economists like Tyler Cowen see Jones and Rothschild’s research as proof that the stimulus failed. “This paper goes a long way toward explaining why fiscal stimulus usually doesn’t have such a great ‘bang for the buck,’” writes Cowen on his blog Marginal Revolution. “It raises the question of whether as ‘twice as big’ [sic] stimulus really would have been enough.”
However, if you look more closely at the numbers, an alternative, more optimistic story about the ARRA emerges. First of all, for each of the 47.3 percent of workers who left their jobs for new, ARRA-subsidized positions, it is likely that another worker, potentially one who was previously unemployed, took their place. That means that job-shifters weren’t taking away opportunities from the unemployed; on the contrary, their stimulus-sponsored job mobility created a trickle-down effect, leading to new hiring at the businesses they left. Even if only half of these ‘second-order’ hires came from the ranks of the unemployed, that means that the true percentage of ARRA-subsidized jobs going to the unemployed is closer to 66 percent, not 42 percent.
Moreover, the report does not specifically detail how many people were able to keep their jobs thanks to ARRA funds. Even if no new jobs were created, a large amount of the stimulus money that went to the states enabled local governments to employ workers that would otherwise have been laid off. And in fact, Jones and Rothschild’s research indicates that the average organization receiving stimulus funds equal to 10 percent of its annual revenue reported retaining or hiring workers equal to 6 percent of its workforce. Which helps explain why, according to Recovery.gov, over 550,000 have been created or maintained by ARRA funds just between April and July of this year.
Of course, no one is claiming that the ARRA funds have been apportioned or managed perfectly —$787 billion is a lot of money. But considering the time constraints that the Obama administration was working under, it would be unreasonable to expect that such a massive economic stimulus could be implemented without some waste. That being said, the CBO estimates that, relative to what would have happened without the law, the ARRA raised real GDP by between 1.5 percent and 4.2 percent in 2010, and boosted employment by as much as 3.3 million. That may be the kind of recovery that Cowen dismisses as not much "bang for the buck," but I'd wager that the majority of the 14 million Americans who are currently unemployed would like to see more such stimulus, not less.
View more from the Graph of the Day Series.