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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

One chart puts this week’s awful jobs numbers in perspective

There are more unemployed people in the United States right now than at the Great Recession’s apex

Flor Hernandez sells face masks on the street Thursday in Los Angeles after losing her job during the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images)
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So many people have filed for unemployment claims since March 15 that they no longer fit on the charts we have been using to visualize these numbers since 1967, during the Johnson administration.

To wrap our minds around it, we’re forced to borrow numbers from totally different jobs charts, ones that depict entire state workforces, presidential administrations and recessions.

From March 15 to April 4, 16,780,000 people, or about 10.3 percent of the labor force, filed for unemployment benefits. That’s eight times as high as the previous high ― 2,046,000, or 1.8 percent of the labor force — a record that had stood since 1982. (These numbers are adjusted for seasonal variation, which makes historical comparisons easier).

The unemployment insurance system is at the heart of the government’s response to the pandemic, so it’s fitting that jobless claims are also the first Labor Department data that measure the scope of the crisis. But like the system itself, our jobless claims data has been flooded beyond all recognition — so we used an entirely different set of touchstones in the accompanying chart.

Greater than the Great Recession

From January 2008 to February 2010, the economy lost 8,705,000 jobs. The losses in those two years, among the most dismal in U.S. history, were eclipsed in two weeks at the end of March.

Greater than the Trump boom

From November 2016 to February 2020, the economy added about 7,275,000 jobs. President Trump highlights this job creation record early and often, but in reality jobs grew at roughly the same pace they did during President Barack Obama’s second term. Now, those gains have been erased more than two times over.

Like losing almost every job in California

If laid-off Americans were their own state right now, they’d be the second largest. With 16.8 million residents, the State of Joblessness would be only slightly smaller than California (17.6 million workers) and would dwarf Texas (13 million). They outnumber workers in the 20 states with the smallest workforces combined.

Yes, but …

Unemployment claims at this level are an enormous strain on the system and a sign of the huge burden the government’s coronavirus response has placed on working-class Americans, but it’s also the system working as intended.

The new stimulus package signed into law last month, the Cares Act, made many more people eligible for unemployment insurance and dramatically ramped up benefits to help workers and businesses survive a prolonged period of distancing.

The goal of the bailout should be to keep as many workers whole as possible for as long as they’re home and stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, as University of Massachusetts at Amherst economist Arindrajit Dube points out on Twitter.

In normal times, an elevated unemployment claims number could be an early sign of trouble. This time, a stratospheric number means the system is beginning to help millions of people. But it nevertheless represents pain and disruption for tens of millions of Americans and their employers.