Dec 4, 2020 - Economy & Business

The fragile recovery

Data: Department of Labor; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Department of Labor; Chart: Axios Visuals

The number of people receiving unemployment benefits is falling but remains remarkably high three weeks before pandemic assistance programs are set to expire. More than 1 million people a week are still filing for initial jobless claims, including nearly 300,000 applying for pandemic assistance.

By the numbers: As of Nov. 14, 20.2 million Americans were receiving unemployment benefits of some kind, including more than 13.4 million on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs that were created as part of the CARES Act and end on Dec. 26.

  • The 4.6 million people receiving benefits through PEUC have been unemployed for at least six months and economists estimate that only about 2.9 million will be eligible for the extended benefits program.
  • The rest and any potential new applicants will be out of luck unless Congress extends the programs.

Between the lines: The Department of Labor released the latest figures under the specter of a report from the Government Accountability Office that found its weekly releases "do not provide an accurate estimate of the total number of individuals actually claiming unemployment insurance."

  • GAO found that the DOL had "potentially both over-estimated and underestimated the total number of individuals actually claiming unemployment insurance."
  • That means not only are the numbers misleading but many who qualify for and should be receiving benefits still have not gotten them, even as the pandemic programs are set to end.

DOL agreed with the GAO findings, the office noted.

A closer look: Former DOL chief economist Heidi Shierholz estimates that as of late October, there were 25.7 million workers unemployed or otherwise out of work or who have lost wages.

  • 11.1 million were officially unemployed in the October jobs report.
  • 7 million have seen pay cuts.
  • 4.5 million have dropped out of the labor force.
  • 3.1 million have been miscalculated as employed.

The last word: "Good data is essential for policymaking in a crisis and we did not have that this time around, which is unacceptable," Shierholz, now director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, tells Axios in an email.

  • "[K]nowing exactly what happened so that we can make the investments to ensure this will never happen again is crucial."
Go deeper