Consumption Smoothing During the Financial Crisis: The Effect of Unemployment on Household Spending
Michael Hurd and Susann Rohwedder
Because of data limitations, the quantification of consumption smoothing in response to economic shocks has been challenging to investigate empirically. We used monthly data on total household spending, income, and labor force participation to estimate the effects of unemployment on household spending. The data come from the RAND American Life Panel, a standing survey sample that is representative of the United States adult population. We compare monthly spending and income of households prior to unemployment with spending and income following unemployment for up to 40 months. We compare spending and income following re-employment with spending and income while unemployed. We find that by month two of unemployment total household spending per month declined to about 83 percent of pre-unemployment spending. At about 14 months of unemployment, spending began to decline further, reaching 70 percent of pre-unemployment spending by month 30. Income declined much more sharply to 37 percent of its pre-unemployment level by month two of unemployment, with little change after that as the duration of unemployment increased. Thus, consumption does not decline as much as income, so that it is somewhat smoothed relative to income; yet, particularly over long-duration unemployment the decline is substantial. On re-employment, income increased rapidly, spending much less rapidly. As of the third month, high-frequency spending was about 9 percent above its value in the last month of unemployment. It continued to increase until it was about 20 percent higher. Just as with an income drop, spending is somewhat smoothed when income increases.
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