The unemployment rate has fallen from 6.7% at the end of 2013 to 6.1% in August 2014. That decline is primarily the result of the expiration of long-term unemployment benefits.
Unemployment compensation usually expires at the end of 26 weeks of unemployment, but during the last recession Congress extended that period, and many states paid benefits for well over a year. If we pay people to be unemployed, we should expect more unemployment, and that’s what we got. The long-term unemployment rate skyrocketed during the recession because we paid people to be unemployed longer.
In August 2013, when people were eligible for extended unemployment benefits, people unemployed for 27 weeks or more made up 38% of total unemployment. In August 2014, after extended unemployment benefits had been eliminated, only 31.2% of the unemployed had been unemployed that long.
Looking at this table from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we see that the number of people unemployed for less than five weeks has actually risen from August 2013 to August 2014, while the number unemployed 27 weeks or more has declined by more than 30%.
The decline in the unemployment rate isn’t due to fewer people who are newly-unemployed, it is due to the shorter duration of unemployment for those who are unemployed. And people have shorter durations of unemployment now because we are no longer paying them to be unemployed for longer periods.
Many government policies have prolonged the recovery from the 2008 recession, and one was the extension of unemployment benefits. In hindsight, it is easy to look at the data and see that once long-term unemployment benefits were eliminated, long-term unemployment fell, and because of the shorter duration of average unemployment, the unemployment rate has fallen.