Data: Department of Labor; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The U.S. unemployment picture looks to be improving but it's increasingly being clouded by shoddy data, a problem that seems to be getting worse as the pandemic progresses.

What's happening: The number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits rose to 29.2 million for the latest week of data, the Department of Labor announced Thursday.

  • But the increase of 2.2 million people to the rolls was largely the result of 2.3 million people being added to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program in just the state of California.
  • California's total PUA additions for one week nearly doubled its total number of recipients and accounted for one out of six people receiving PUA benefits nationwide.

Reality check: "The unemployment data are just incredibly problematic," Heidi Shierholz, a former chief economist to the U.S. Secretary of Labor who now serves as senior economist and director of policy at EPI, tells Axios.

  • "When I talk about how bad these data are — and they are very bad — it’s all symptomatic of ... the fact that we have disinvested in our unemployment agencies for four decades and now we are expecting them to deal with thousandfold increases in demand for their services."
  • "We set them up to fail by not investing in them in a way that means we don’t have an agile system that can quickly absorb and be flexible to deal with something like this."

Between the lines: Shierholz adds that many of the nation's unemployment systems are running on a 60-year-old computer program known as COBOL that in addition to crashing, often over- and undercounts recipients.

The big picture: While the technology is a problem and the labor market is slowly improving, "we are still in a historically bad situation," Shierholz says.

  • "It’s just at absolute crisis levels. We are slowly crawling out of a hole, but it’s a giant hole."

Go deeper

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
Sep 24, 2020 - Economy & Business

The American economic paradox

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

It's the rebound economists didn't see coming.

Why it matters: America did nothing that should have been necessary to really get the economy moving again. We didn't get the coronavirus under control, and we gave up on fiscal stimulus after a single short-lived round of it. Nevertheless, we're about to close out by far the strongest quarter of economic growth in American history.

The top Republicans who aren't voting for Trump in 2020

Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge announced in an op-ed Sunday that he would be voting for Joe Biden.

Why it matters: Ridge, who was also the first secretary of homeland security under George W. Bush, joins other prominent Republicans who have publicly said they will either not vote for Trump's re-election this November or will back Biden.

Former GOP governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge endorses Joe Biden

Tom Ridge. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Tom Ridge, the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, will vote for Joe Biden, he announced in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed on Sunday.

Why it matters: Ridge, who also served as the first Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, said this would be his first time casting a vote for a Democratic candidate for president. He's now the third former Republican governor from a swing state to endorse Biden and reject Trump — joining John Kasich from Ohio and Rick Snyder from Michigan.