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As economy recovers, jobless claims improve to a 52-year low

The new tallies on initial unemployment claims aren't just better now than before the pandemic, they've actually improved to a 52-year low.

The week before President Joe Biden's inauguration, weekly unemployment claims were still a painfully high 886,000. CNBC reported this morning on the newest data from the Labor Department, which offers the best news on layoffs since before I was born.

The ranks of those submitting jobless claims tumbled to their lowest level in more than 52 years last week, the Labor Department reported Wednesday. New filings totaled 199,000, a number not seen since Nov. 15, 1969, when claims totaled 197,000. The report easily beat Dow Jones estimates of 260,000 and was well below the previous week's 270,000.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it was in March 2020 when jobless claims first spiked in response to the Covid-19 crisis, climbing to over 3 million. That weekly total soon after reached nearly 7 million as the economy cratered. For 55 consecutive weeks, the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits was worse than at any time during the Great Recession.

Thankfully, all of that appears to be behind us.

Periodically over the course of the crisis, there have been understated threshold-based celebrations. When unemployment claims finally dipped below 1 million last August, it was a step in the right direction. When they fell below 800,000 in February, it offered similar evidence of slow, gradual progress. Fortunately, the pattern continued: Totals fell below 700,000 in March, below 600,000 in April, below 500,000 in early May, and below 400,000 in late May.

In early October, jobless claims finally dipped below 300,000 — putting us within shouting distance of the levels seen before the Covid-19 crisis began in earnest — and now, finally, we've dipped below 200,000, which hardly seemed possible in the recent past.

For nearly two years, the goal was to reach a number that resembled normalcy. In the early months of 2020, the U.S. average on unemployment claims was roughly 211,000, and many have wondered how long it would take to get back to such a total.

As of today, we've not only reached the pre-pandemic average, we've also improved on it.

As a political matter, it's also a reminder that the economic conditions that are acting against Democrats now are improving in ways that are likely to help the incumbent governing majority.