It took a while, but unemployment filings finally fall below 1 million

For 20 straight weeks, at least one million Americans filed initial unemployment claims. The streak has finally been broken.
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A person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images file
By Steve Benen

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 still have a long way to go.

In the week ending August 8, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 963,000, a decrease of 228,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 5,000 from 1,186,000 to 1,191,000. The 4-week moving average was 1,252,750, a decrease of 86,250 from the previous week's revised average.

Though it seems absurd to point to 963,000 jobless claims as evidence of progress, it's worth emphasizing that this is the lowest -- and therefore, the best -- total we've seen since the economic crisis began in earnest in March. Indeed, it's the first time we've seen a weekly total below 1 million in 21 weeks.

That said, the cumulative effects also matter: these 963,000 Americans who've just filed for jobless benefits are in addition to the totals from the last several weeks. In other words, more than 56 million Americans have filed initial unemployment claims since mid-March -- a total unlike anything the country has seen in modern times.

A reader asked me a good question last week about this statistic: if 56 million Americans have sought jobless benefits, why do most reports indicate that roughly 31 million Americans are out of work? The answer is, many of those who were forced from the workforce after the crisis began in earnest were laid off temporarily, and have since either returned to their new jobs or found new ones. That said, the fact that there are roughly 31 million Americans still looking for a job is a brutal total by any fair standard.

It's also 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 law added $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.

That lifeline expired in July in the face of Republican opposition.

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.