Unemployment insurance (UI) is a form of insurance that American society has with itself. Its purpose to create a savings pool from which qualified workers can draw if they are out of work under certain circumstances. By receiving an income during periods of unemployment, recipients can afford basic necessities until they can again be productively employed. Considering how dependent the American economy is on consumer spending, the inability of people to engage each other economically can have drastic and eventually far-reaching consequences.
The UI social safety net differs somewhat from other welfare type programs in that it is not based on economic need, but upon past employment history and the circumstances surrounding the worker’s separation from their previous employment. People that have been in the workforce for longer periods of time are generally able to receive benefits for more weeks. Since UI is a form of replacement income, the dollar value of benefits a person can receive is tied to the wages they received while working.
Viewed from one perspective, UI functions as a type of government mandated savings plan for workers, by requiring liable companies to “hold back” revenue that could otherwise be distributed to them. Viewed from another perspective, unemployment insurance is a type of tax on the economic prosperity that the workers create. Either way the cost of UI to business is determined largely by the amount of potential future benefits workers might receive and the taxing policies adopted by those in charge of each state’s UI program.
Funding for unemployment insurance comes from two sources – separate state and federal UI taxes. Liable companies pay a UI tax to their state government, creating a trust fund for the payment of future benefits. These same companies pay a federal unemployment tax to the IRS each year. Annually, each state receives a grant of these federal taxes to fund the employees and UI services that their UI agency provides.
This dual funding mechanism mirrors the dual approach to administration that operates UI programs across the nation. Since the federal taxes pay for UI employees and services, the federal government sets out broad program requirements that the states must operate within as well as operating goals and targets that they must meet. For example, states must operate in such as way that a certain percentage of submitted UI claims are adjudicated and paid within 21 days. Since state UI taxes pay for benefits, state agencies decide tax provisions that fund the benefits as well as rules that allow or deny individual UI claims.
This structure, both for funding and operating the UI program, allows for a healthy tension to exist between the large and diverse stakeholder populations that can be impacted by the UI program.