Apr 24, 2020 - Economy

Unemployment is likely already at Great Depression-era highs

Cars lined up to recieve unemployment paperwork

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The news about U.S. job losses has been grim, as around 26.5 million workers have filed for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks, but the number of Americans who have lost their jobs is likely far higher.

The state of play: The true number of people currently unemployed in the U.S. is likely between 32 million and 70 million, putting the unemployment rate somewhere between 20% and 45%.

Driving the news: The latest U.S. initial jobless claims report showed more than 4.4 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week, raising the total to about one in six American workers.

  • Continuing unemployment claims, or the total number of Americans receiving jobless benefits, rose by 4.1 million to an all-time high of 16 million for the week ended April 11.

By the numbers: Over the last decade, continuing claims have represented an average of about 27.5% of the number of unemployed, DRW Trading rates strategist Lou Brien tells Axios.

  • That would suggest there are more than 60 million people currently unemployed, putting the unemployment rate above 30%.
  • And that's a conservative estimate, given that continuing claims have increased by about 4 million people in each of the last three weeks.
  • The number of people unemployed today could very realistically be as high as 70 million.

Even if the continuing claims percentage jumps to 50% of unemployed, meaning nearly twice as many unemployed people as average qualify for and are receiving benefits, it would mean that upwards of 32 million people are now unemployed.

  • The rate has only risen to 50% once, in 1975, Brien notes.

Be smart: Both initial jobless claims and continuing claims are imperfect measures of the number of people who have lost their jobs as many are not eligible for unemployment benefits and some who are do not apply.

  • To remedy this, the U.S. government tracks unemployment through two separate means — employer filings and a regular survey of households.
  • But every measure misses large numbers of people, so the true unemployment rate at a given time is often not known until years later.

Go deeper: The coronavirus jobs apocalypse is here

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