When Congress was debating the stimulus bill earlier this year, Mark Zandi, the chief economist for Moody’s, compared various forms of government spending and tax cuts in terms of economic stimulus “bang for the buck.” He concluded (pdf file) that various forms of government spending did more to stimulate the economy than various kinds of tax cuts.
The best kinds of spending in terms of stimulative effect were food stamps and extending unemployment benefits. Every extra dollar the federal government spends on food stamps generates approximately $1.73 in economic activity, and every dollar the federal government spends to extend unemployment benefits generates approximately $1.63 in economic activity. People who need these services are likely to spend additional money quickly, helping preserve jobs in the retail sector.
With this in mind, you might imagine that the states would take full advantage of money allocated to unemployment benefits in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. But you would be wrong, according to this article by Olga Pierce from ProPublica:
So far, only about half of the $7 billion included in the stimulus package [for expanding unemployment insurance] has been claimed by states. […]
Four states have explicitly rejected the funding, but many others have so far failed to pass legislation qualifying them for incentive payments. […]
Under the stimulus bill , states can qualify for the extra funding by extending unemployment insurance to new categories of workers. To receive a third of the funding, they must begin using something called an alternative base period, which would allow more low-wage workers to receive unemployment benefits. […]
To get the other two-thirds of the cash, they must adopt at least two other changes from a list that includes covering part-time workers and offering $15 extra per week for each dependent.
If states meet the requirements, they qualify for a federal lump sum payment that will cover the cost of expansion for at least three years, or longer in many cases. It was on those grounds – that after the federal funding runs out states will have to find another way to cover the cost – that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal , Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour  and others  that said they would reject the funding.
Bleeding-heart liberal that I am, I believe basic fairness justifies extending unemployment benefits to more part-time and low-wage workers. But even if you don’t care about fairness, Zandi’s analysis shows that extending unemployment benefits will get money circulating in the economy.
Click here for a map and a chart showing how much federal unemployment money each state has claimed.
As of mid-June, 17 states had claimed none of the stimulus funding for unemployment benefits, and another 12 states and the District of Columbia had claimed only part of that money. In some of those states, Democrats are in charge. Progressives who have ridiculed Republican governors for rejecting stimulus money for unemployment benefits should also hold Democrats accountable on this score.
Fortunately, Iowa is among 21 states that have fully used these stimulus funds as Congress intended. Thousands of Iowans struggling to get by will benefit from the $70.8 million the stimulus bill appropriated to our state for unemployment benefits. Democrats in the state legislature and Governor Chet Culver deserve credit for enacting the necessary legislative changes to collect this funding.
Many of the states that have left stimulus money on the table have significantly higher unemployment rates than Iowa, by the way.
Speaking of boosting the economy, Zandi’s report showed that infrastructure projects were the third-most stimulative form of government spending. Every extra dollar spent on infrastructure generates an estimated $1.59 in economic activity. Remember that next time Iowa Republicans bring out their misleading talking points about the the I-JOBS program. Also remember that Iowa has used the stimulus bill’s transportation funding wisely compared to many other states, according to a recent review by Smart Growth America.
In contrast, most kinds of tax cuts Republicans advocate generate less than one dollar of economic activity for every dollar they cost the government. As a gesture to Republicans, Democrats replaced some spending in the stimulus bill with $70 billion allocated to fixing the alternative minimum tax, even though Zandi’s analysis found that a dollar spent on fixing the alternative minimum tax generates only about 49 cents in economic activity.
It’s too bad the Obama administration made a number of concessions to Republicans on the stimulus bill. Like Bob Herbert wrote a few months ago, when the GOP talks about the economy, nobody should listen.