One year ago last week—the week ending March 7, 2020—was the final week of normal unemployment insurance (UI) claims before the COVID recession. That week, there were 211,000 initial UI claims. The week after that, it jumped to 282,000. From there, it skyrocketed into the millions.
Last week—the week ending March 6, 2021—another 1.2 million people applied for UI. This included 712,000 people who applied for regular state UI and 478,000 who applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)—the federal program for workers who are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance, like gig workers. The 1.2 million who applied for UI last week was unchanged from the prior week. The four-week moving average of total initial claims was also unchanged.
Last week was the 51st straight week total initial claims were greater than the worst week of the Great Recession. (If that comparison is restricted to regular state claims—because we didn’t have PUA in the Great Recession—initial claims last week were greater than the 10th-worst week of the Great Recession.)
Figure A shows continuing claims in all programs over time (the latest data for this are for February 20). Continuing claims are currently roughly 18 million above where they were a year ago, just before the virus hit.
The profoundly good news in all this is that yesterday Congress passed a sweeping $1.9 trillion relief and recovery package that will both provide crucial support to millions of working families and set the stage for a robust recovery. One concern with the bill, however, is that its UI provisions are set to expire the first week in September, when—even in the best-case scenario—they will still be needed. By then, Congress needs to have put in place long-run UI reforms that include automatic triggers based on economic conditions. While the bill is not perfect, it is nevertheless a groundbreaking departure from the profound mistakes of prior downturns, when Congress’s refusal to provide sufficient relief and recovery caused needless suffering for millions, exacerbated racial inequality, and delayed recoveries by years.
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