The New York Times makes a convincing case that this surge is less like the slow erosion of the economy during the recession a decade ago and more like a natural disaster wiping out employment everywhere all at once. That analogy makes sense in part because it’s essentially what happened: A natural event, the emergence of a novel coronavirus, forced people to stay home and employers to slash workforces.
Nonetheless, that number, while significant, doesn’t fully convey the scale or the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic.
For one thing, it’s a week old. The number of people who are out of work increased again this week. It also measures only those who can and do file for unemployment. Many people may not know they are eligible to file for a claim and therefore don’t. Some state offices that handle unemployment claims may be operating with fewer staff members or may be closed, limiting the ability to file. Many people who are hit the hardest can’t file for unemployment because they are self-employed.
Those workers are likely to have been affected the most right out of the gate. A poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation earlier this month found that nearly a quarter of self-employed people already reported drops in income or business, more than twice the density of those who worked for someone else. Part-time workers and those who are paid by the job were similarly more likely to report declines in jobs or income.
An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll conducted during the same period found that lower-income employees were more likely to report having been let go or having their work hours reduced. Interestingly, Republicans were much less likely to say so.
While those who are self-employed were quickly affected by the broad shuttering of the economy, so were workers from particular industries, including food service, personal care and retail sales. The density of those occupations varies by state, but some states are obviously more affected by slowdowns in those sectors.
Nevada, for example, has a higher percentage of food service workers than most states. Its initial jobless claims last week were about 23 times the state’s average — a bigger relative jump than in any other state.
More recent polling shows a broader impact from the economic slowdown. Monmouth University polling conducted over the weekend determined that 3 in 10 Americans experienced a loss in income because of the coronavirus pandemic. The poll suggested a bigger effect among independents, perhaps because younger people (who are more likely to be independents) also reported more lost income. The difference by income, though, was small.
Again, a critical question is not depth, but duration. Polls suggest that the effects of the broad economic shutdown are deeper than those initial jobless numbers indicate. What isn’t clear is how fast the country might recover from the damage that is done.
In part, that depends on how long the shutdown lasts. Which, of course, is why President Trump is so focused on that question.