Eight weeks ago the first ripples of what would soon become a tsunami of new claims for unemployment insurance benefits began as the economy was shut down to keep the deadly coronavirus from spreading further. It was a weekly increase of about 70,000 from what had been new claims averaging around 215,000 for the past two years. Over the next six weeks, that total rose to more than 30 million new claims. Add to it the 3.2 million who the Department of Labor announced today had filed new claims during the week ending May 2 and you get a total of 33.4 million.
The total number of people who claimed unemployment benefits for the week ending April 18 was 18.9 million, an increase of 2.4 million from the previous week. Since then, another 6.4 million people have filed claims. Last year in the comparable week, a total of 1.7 million people were claiming benefits.
Although the government uses other means to determine the unemployment rate, if it used the benefit claims made in March and April to make that calculation, it would put the rate at around 21%. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its monthly job situation report Friday, however, it will probably put the rate at around 16-17%. That’s because data the bureau depends on for its calculations comes from surveys completed April 12. Which means 11 million people now on the benefit rolls won’t be counted as unemployed until next month’s jobs report.
By then, the evidence will be in on whether epidemiologists were correct in their warnings about the inevitability of more virus deaths occurring if state shutdowns are relaxed or ended prematurely. Grim evidence. Unless, that is, you’re partial to the mass graves being dug in a few places to handle the deluge of bodies from the pandemic.
Like the ongoing tally of deaths, the number of people filing claims because they have suddenly found themselves out of work is unprecedented in the history of the federal-state unemployment insurance program, which began in Wisconsin in 1932, followed by six other states, and was authorized by Congress as part of the New Deal’s Social Security Act of 1935. The importance of this part of the safety net cannot be stressed too much. Nor can the post-World War II efforts of the Republicans to weaken the unemployment insurance system and reduce its capability as a backstop for people in a bind through no fault of their own.
It should be remembered that while these tens of millions of workers have been making their benefit claims, millions of other workers who aren’t eligible for various reasons have also lost their jobs. And one big worry, as Bloomberg reports, is that temporary layoffs will turn permanent.
Since early March, the phrase “uncharted territory” has gotten a lot of use by the media, economic analysts, and politicians, and that’s likely still to be the case a year from now despite the false implication from Jared Kushner that the corner has been turned in the fight against the virus, and the economy will be back to normal in June and “really rocking” by July. As if it can just be switched back on and roaring after a few minutes of warm-up.
The economic impacts of the pandemic will not be over in weeks or months, but years. Of course, circumstances will become normal again, but a new normal, with many surviving businesses transformed, some in ways they never imagined or previously resisted. Such as having more employees working from home.
But that’s then and this is now. Kushner’s father-in-law in the White House failed from the outset to take the action epidemiologists always say is necessary when confronting a new and lethal virus. Despite repeated warnings, he failed to lead in a manner that would have reduced the numbers of cases and the body count. He chose bluster, saying early on that the number of coronavirus cases would soon be zero. Instead, there is an upward trajectory of coronavirus deaths, and before the end of the month the toll could include five zeros—100,000 people—according to a growing number of experts.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump delivered some mumbles about how even one death is bad, but, but, but, we have to get the economy going again.
Well, yes, we must. But how safely we do it, how fast we do it, and how we deal with the possibility that virus deaths surge even more than they are in places with few previous cases will determine how many graves ultimately have to be dug.
Trump has made clear he’s going to keep digging his spurs into state leaders to open up their economies at a gallop. And, as my colleague Laura Clawson has written this morning, he’s willing to block the issuance of the 17 pages of guidelines the Centers for Disease Control for reopening the economy. That likely will mean many people in those states whose politicians are most lickspittle supporters of Trump will be pressured to return to their jobs.
It’s lethally myopic to reopen the economy despite the health perils from not having enough of the testing, contact tracing, and quarantining that epidemiologists have told us for months are necessary ingredients for emerging from this crisis. But it appears the guy who has screwed this up every day from the get-go is determined to continue on that same path and ignore the experts.
Killing us and not so softly.