Almost 10 Months Later, Jobless Claims Remain Stuck Above Pre-Pandemic Record Highs

Almost 10 Months Later, Jobless Claims Remain Stuck Above Pre-Pandemic Record Highs

787,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, 3,000 more than the previous week’s revised level.

Consensus was looking for 800,000. The latest “real-time” read on the labor market does little to change a familiar narrative: Momentum is seemingly lost, undercut by the winter COVID surge and associated lockdowns.

It goes without saying that the five-month delay in delivering another stimulus package exacerbated an already tenuous situation.

We are now nearly 10 months into the crisis, and jobless claims are still well above the pre-pandemic record set in 1982.

That doesn’t reflect well on the federal government. I wish there were a more diplomatic way to put that, but there isn’t. There was no avoiding mass joblessness in the early days of the crisis. But at some point, advanced economies whose capacity to save lives and livelihoods is limited only by inflation and lawmakers’ willingness to step up, are compelled to take dramatic action to ameliorate tragedy.

If that means shutting everything down and “printing” $10 trillion to bridge a two-month, total lockdown, then that’s what it means. Because this rolling economic and public health catastrophe is doing irreparable harm in the meantime.

Obviously, the solution is mass vaccination. And science moved quickly on that front. But getting a needle into 330 million people’s arms once is hard enough. Doing it twice (for the vaccines that require two doses) is damn near impossible to pull off expeditiously, even if it’s entirely doable over, say, an 18-month timeframe. Right now, people need help.

Continuing claims for the week ended December 26 were 5.07 million. That was down from the previous week, and slightly lower than Wall Street was looking for (as if anyone cares what Wall Street was “looking for” at this juncture).

Initial claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance fell 149,000, while ongoing PUA and PEUC claims dropped to 8.38 million and 4.52 million, respectively, in the week ended December 19.

Overall, these aren’t encouraging numbers. Circling back, this just underscores the ongoing malaise in a labor market that likely hit a wall after recovering just over half of the jobs lost in March and April of 2020.

Regardless of what Friday’s December jobs report reveals, there’s quite a bit of work to do. Hopefully, the new Congress, with both chambers in Democratic hands, can deliver relief to the people who need it.

But, as ever, I’d remind readers that even among Democrats, the establishment’s penchant for sticking stubbornly to orthodox notions of budget rigor is likely to constrain Washington’s capacity to ameliorate suffering.


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