Notes on Behavioral Economics and Labor Market Policy

Background and Motivation

Recent years have been trying ones for American workers. The unemployment rate has reached double digits for the first time in over a quarter of a century. Worker compensation growth has all but stalled. The human costs of labor market turbulence have rarely been clearer, and the value of public policies, such as unemployment insurance and job training programs, that assist workers in managing that turbulence, gaining new skills, and navigating the labor market have rarely been more apparent.

And, even in the best of times, the United States’ labor market is a dynamic and turbulent one, with high rates of turnover (over five million separations and five million new hires in a typical month in normal times) but substantial frictions as well. As a result, labor market programs and regulations are key components of economic policy. Such policies help support the unemployed, provide education and training opportunities, and ensure the fairness, safety, and accessibility of the workplace. The challenge for policymakers is to design such policies so that they meet these goals as effectively and as efficiently as possible.

Labor market policies succeed in meeting their objectives, however, only to the extent that they accurately account for how individuals make decisions about work and leisure, searching for jobs, and taking up opportunities for education and training. To a substantial extent such policies are built around standard economic assumptions of behavior that individuals are perfectly rational, time consistent, and entirely self-interested. The design of unemployment insurance with job search requirements intended to minimize distortions to incentives to return to work, the use of complicated eligibility criteria and administrative hassle factors to discourage social program participation except for the presumed most needy, and the shift to vouchers for training services all may be justified by these assumptions.

However, recent research at the intersection of psychology and economics—behavioral economics—is changing our understating of how individuals choose and act, and with it, some of our conclusions for policy design. Behavioral economics stresses empirical findings of behavior that are partially at odds with standard economic assumptions. The key empirical findings from field research in behavioral economics imply that individuals can make systematic errors or be put off by complexity, that they procrastinate, and that they hold nonstandard preferences and non-standard beliefs. (S. DellaVigna, “Psychology and Economics: Evidence from the Field,” Journal of Economic Literature 47, 2009: 315-72.) To the extent that these behavioral tendencies operate in labor market contexts, they change both our understanding of the challenges that policy design must meet, as well as the opportunities and design tools available to policymakers.

In these notes, we briefly review selected topics in labor market policy though the lens of behavioral economics. We identify aspects of existing U.S. policy design that appear at odds with behavioral findings, as well as unrealized policy opportunities those findings suggest. And we make recommendations for either policy reform or further study, according to what the evidence supports. The results of this review are prescriptions for policy design and innovation that reflect a synthesis of traditional and behavioral economic insights. We consider implications of behavioral findings in three areas of labor market policy: unemployment insurance, job search assistance, and job training.

Some of the implications of behavioral economics for policy are overlooked in traditional formal economic analysis but reflect what might best be called “common sense” and are similar to the critiques and prescriptions of many long-time policy practitioners and analysts. These include common-sense recommendations to reduce the fragmentation and complexity of U.S. job training, employment, and social welfare programs. The behavioral approach also provides a reinterpretation of traditional labor market policy proposals such taking into account loss aversion and potentially biased wage expectations in considering the case for and the design of wage-loss insurance policies. And behavioral findings from other domains generate new insights related to the choice architecture and choice platforms for helping guide unemployed and disadvantaged workers through training and education options. (R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein, Nudge, Yale University Press, 2008)

Overview of Recommendations for U.S. Labor Market Policy

A review of the intersection of behavioral economics and current U.S. labor market policies leads to two categories of policy recommendations: Where the research is sufficiently clear and informative at the appropriate level of detail, it directly suggests changes to policy. Where the promise of behaviorally informed policy changes is clear but the specific policy implications are not, it suggests demonstration and evaluation projects.

1.1 Recommendations for policy reform

  • Unemployment compensation. Should include wage-loss insurance in some form. In addition to the insurance benefits it provides, wage-loss insurance offers a way of assisting individuals with the psychological adjustment to changing labor market conditions and addresses likely biases in wage expectations that impede work incentives.
  • Employment services and job search assistance. Should be expanded to provide more accessible and meaningful information about labor market conditions and occupational projections. These programs should help address procrastination in job search and provide guidance to unemployed and low-wage individuals in a way that both reflects and takes advantage of the way people process information.
  • Job training. Should simplify program take-up, navigation, and completion, and provide user-friendly information on the quality of training providers. These programs should structure choices to reflect the limited abilities of individuals to manage complexity and exert self-control.

1.2 Recommendations for future investigation

  • Unemployment compensation. Should experiment with alternative incentives for encouraging workers to return to employment that reflect their propensity to procrastinate job search. For example, the unemployment insurance system should test the use of small, high frequency bonus payments that are contingent upon events other than finding employment and retaining a job for many months.
  • Employment services and job assistance. Should study the impact of counseling with the goal of debiasing beliefs and alternative framings of employment opportunities that address reference dependence. For example, tests of alternative methods of debiasing wage expectations.
  • Job training. Should experiment with choice platforms in which providers compete to offer services, as a way to encourage innovation in meeting the needs of worker with limited capacity for managing complexity. For example, by creating markets for advice in which providers are rewarded based on meaningful performance measures (employment and earnings outcomes) instead of just the use of services.

The remainder of this paper describes these recommendations, and their justifications, in more detail.