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For 19th straight week, unemployment filings top 1 million

More than 54 million Americans have filed initial unemployment claims since mid-March -- a total unlike anything the country has seen in modern times.
A person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images file

Before the coronavirus crisis began in earnest, roughly 210,000 Americans per week filed for unemployment benefits. But as we've discussed, looking at historical data, we know what things look like when there's an economic crisis. In early 2009, for example, near the height of the Great Recession, initial jobless claims reached 665,000 -- roughly triple the totals from February.

In March, however, the data started breaking records in staggering ways. There's been some recent progress, with totals moving in a less harrowing direction, but as the latest report from the Labor Department helps prove, we have a long way to go.

In the week ending July 25, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 1,434,000, an increase of 12,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 6,000 from 1,416,000 to 1,422,000. The 4-week moving average was 1,368,500, an increase of 6,500 from the previous week's revised average.

Note, for roughly four months, the weekly totals steadily improved. Over the last two weeks, however, weekly totals have moved in the wrong direction.

What's more, the cumulative effects matter: these 1.4 million Americans who've just filed for jobless benefits are in addition to the totals from the last several weeks. In other words, more than 54 million Americans have filed initial unemployment claims since mid-March -- a total unlike anything the country has seen in modern times.

It is worth emphasizing that these depression-level numbers coincide with the passage of an economic aid package in March that included significant resources for the unemployed. As we recently reviewed, the provisions of the new law add $600 -- per week -- to whatever out-of-work Americans would get from their state UI system. It was a temporary lifeline that has made a significant difference to a lot of people.

It's also a lifeline that's set to expire tomorrow. Despite the widespread hardship, the Trump White House and congressional Republican leaders are eager to slash the benefits, and few seriously believe there will be a breakthrough before the deadline.

I put together the above chart, and at the request of some readers, it shows weekly unemployment filings since 1967, when the federal government started keeping track. (I've also made the line a little skinnier to help show the recent drop from last month's spike.) The image may make it appear as if the last half-century has been relatively stable, but that's really not the case: there were significant peaks and valleys throughout this period.

But those fluctuations now seem minor by comparison.