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Jobless claims cross another threshold, drop to pandemic-era low

Unemployment filing 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. That's good news
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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

After months of hit-or-miss progress on weekly unemployment claims, we're starting to see consistent blue skies. As CNBC reported this morning, the new report from the Labor Department offers the best news on layoffs we've seen in a long while.

Initial jobless claims fell below 400,000 for the first time since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Labor Department reported Thursday. First-time filings for unemployment benefits totaled 385,000 for the week ended May 29, a decline from the previous week’s 405,000 and below the Dow Jones estimate of 393,000.

As we've discussed, 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.

And now, that's no longer the case. In fact, today's report -- like the last few weekly reports -- was the best since the start of the pandemic.

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. But now the progress is picking up speed: 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.

To be sure, it'd be a mistake to see 385,000 jobless claims as good news on its own. Under normal circumstances, this would be an awful total. In the early months of 2020, for example, the U.S. average on unemployment claims was roughly 211,000 -- well below the total from today's report.

But given what Americans have been dealing with throughout the pandemic, these new figures are worth feeling good about.

Tomorrow, we'll see the official job totals from May, which will hopefully offer fresh evidence that the U.S. recovery is real and headed in the right direction.