5.2 million people filed for unemployment in one week earlier this month. Could have been worse!
That latter figure is from new data on initial unemployment claims released Thursday. Over the past four weeks, the Labor Department has reported that more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment insurance after losing their jobs. Compared with the preceding two weeks, in which more than 6 million people filed claims, this week’s 5.2 million is relatively modest.
5.2 million is also more than seven times the one-week high in the 50-year history of the metric. More people have filed for unemployment insurance in the last four weeks than had filed for it in every week from early April 2018 to mid-March 2020 combined.
The Washington Post’s Heather Long noticed something else significant about the scale of unemployment that’s accompanied social distancing efforts aimed at containing the coronavirus. Several states important to President Trump’s reelection have seen major spikes in the number of people out of work.
I was curious what the initial jobless claims numbers told us about the politics of the shuttered economy. State-level data on unemployment filings are available through April 4, but even in the most recent three weeks of those data, nearly a fifth of the eligible workforces in a number of states have filed.
There are a few ways in which the figures we’re considering here don’t necessarily match the overall unemployment rates in states. We looked only at the most recent three weeks of filings in each state, weeks in which there was a surge across the board. Those initial claims are compared not to the number of employees overall, but to the number of employees in unemployment-eligible occupations. (Nationally, that’s about 96 percent of non-farm employees.) But even these initial claims are likely to be lower than the number of people out of work, since you have to know to file (which not everyone does) and you have to be able to file (which the flood of new applicants has at times made tricky).
All of that said, Long’s got a point. Four of the six states in which the highest percentage of covered employees filed an initial unemployment claim in the past week were ones in which the margin in the 2016 presidential election was under 3 points. That includes Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Nevada — the first three of which came down to less than a percentage point. (Circles are scaled to the number of covered employees.)
Interestingly, there’s a slight correlation between the margin in 2016 and the breadth of new unemployment claims. (That’s indicated by the dashed line.) States such as Hawaii and Nevada had big drops in employment in part because they rely heavily on tourist activity. The states in the lower-right section of the graph — West Virginia, Wyoming and South Dakota — have much different economies.
This graph, though, may help explain why Trump is so focused on scaling back social distancing measures. Beyond the erosion of his argument about the strength of the economy, a centerpiece of his reelection bid, states which he very much needs to win such as Michigan and Pennsylvania appear to be seeing an outsize negative effect from the pandemic response.
One bit of good news: Florida, the most important swing state, hasn’t experienced the same level of layoffs. Of course, it also didn’t enact a stay-at-home policy until the very tail end of the most recent reporting period. Future data updates, covering the early part of this month, will presumably show increased initial claims — and more political bad news for Trump.