The Undercover Economist: Is unemployment benefit a good thing after all?

To most thoughtful people, unemployment benefit embodies a painful trade-off. It’s the mark of a civilised society, clubbing together to provide assistance to those in need. It is also, regrettably, an incentive to remain unemployed. At its worst, unemployment benefit pays people to watch daytime television; it is particularly pernicious if the skills of the jobless decay, and unemployment becomes unemployability. Yet, at its best, it is a life-saver.

In balancing these two effects, it’s hardly surprising that different societies have adopted very different systems. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, member governments spent an average of 0.75 per cent of gross domestic product on unemployment benefits in 2006. France spent nearly twice this sum, and Germany almost three times as much, while the US spent a third of the average, and the UK just over a quarter. Germany spent more than 10 times as much as the UK, relative to GDP.

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