For the second week in a row, previously unimaginable numbers of Americans lost their jobs and filed for unemployment. This past week, 6.6 million people filed claims. The previous week, 3.3 million did so.
We’ve simply never seen anything close to this pace of layoffs in the United States. The average weekly claim level before mid-March was 350,000. The prior peak was 695,000, in the early '80s. The unemployment rate, last seen at 3.5 percent in February—which seems like a lifetime ago—is very shortly headed for well north of 10 percent, the peak in the last recession.
How high could it go? Some have suggested it could be comparable to the Great Depression, when a quarter of the country was unemployed; the president of the St. Louis Fed went so far as to float 30 percent. But at this point, that’s more of an epidemiological than economic question. If the virus has progressed enough for people to start getting back to work in say, two to three months, I suspect the jobless rate will peak between 15 and 20 percent.
But that’s the overall rate, and even those eye-popping numbers give no scale of the scale of the suffering. For African-American workers—whose allegedly improving fortunes the president has trumpeted ad nauseam since 2017—that implies rates closer to 30 percent.
It’s also critical to remember that in recent recessions, the jobless rate took the elevator up and the stairs down. Even if we’re very lucky and the economy starts to grow later this year, unemployment will remain highly elevated through 2021 and beyond. In the last recession, it took about 7 years for the jobless rate to fall back to its pre-recession level. Sure, we may get a faster bounce-back this time. But even so, it will take years for unemployment to fall back to pre-crisis levels.
“Unprecedented” doesn’t cover what we’re seeing. The only way to begin to understand this is to recognize that we’ve essentially switched the economy off, like turning out a light. There’s no question that this is the necessary response to the coronavirus; to not contain its spread, as President Trump contemplated just last week, would be to invite an even longer recession, if not a depression.
But the reason to highlight the never-seen-anything-like-it aspect of this moment is to recognize the critical need for an equally unprecedented response. The Unemployment Insurance system was introduced in the mid '30s, during the Depression. To their credit, Congress just expanded the program by raising benefits. Recipients now get their usual benefit payment—replacing a third to a half of their salary—plus $600 per week. And eligibility has been extended to workers who (along with their bosses) haven’t paid into the system, like gig workers and independent contractors.
It’s one thing to write down some smart reforms, and another to implement them. Unemployment systems are run by states and many are already swamped, first by the onslaught of laid-off workers and second by trying to implement these new measures. (Also on the state government to-do list: fighting a pandemic.) States got some administrative help in an earlier stimulus bill, but they need much more. One good idea is to quickly train and detail nonessential or other idled state public-sector workers to unemployment insurance offices.
At moments like this, it’s important to remember that we will move past the virus, unleashing a lot of pent-up economic demand. But until then, for millions of families with virtually no insulation from this storm, the next few months will be among the most difficult times they’ve faced. And if those in power fail to adequately help them, make that the next few years.