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As job market recovers, layoffs reach new pandemic-era low

A week before Biden's inauguration, weekly unemployment claims were still a painfully high 886,000. Now they're 269,000, which is awfully close to normal.
A person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images file

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 we've seen in quite a while.

The U.S. unemployment picture improved again last week, with initial filings for unemployment insurance falling to another pandemic-era low. First-time claims dropped to 269,000 for the week ended Oct. 30, down 14,000 from the previous period and better than the Dow Jones estimate for 275,000, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Circling back to our coverage from last week, 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.

All of that appears to be behind us. Looking at today's report, we haven't seen data this good since before the pandemic began in earnest.

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.

And now, finally, we've seen four consecutive weeks in which jobless claims have dipped below 300,000.

Indeed, what we're approaching is something resembling normalcy. In the early months of 2020, the U.S. average on unemployment claims was roughly 211,000 — and while we haven't quite reached that total, we're at least within shouting distance for the first time in a long while.

As a political matter, it's also a reminder that the economic conditions that acted against Democrats in this week's elections are improving in ways that are likely to help incumbents.

The jobs report for October will be released tomorrow morning. Watch this space.