Jobless numbers at odds with our perception of reality

Initial jobless claims next week may reach 2.25 million. We have no frame of reference for a number like that.
Image: Unemployment
People wait in line for help with unemployment benefits at the One-Stop Career Center, on March 17, 2020, in Las Vegas.John Locher / AP
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By Steve Benen

When Americans lose their jobs, they file for unemployment benefits, and the government has kept track of the number of these filings every week for more than a half-century. Up until very recently, with a healthy domestic job market, the weekly tally has been about 210,000.

But 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, say, a couple of months ago. During the U.S. recession in 1982, the number was a little higher, reaching nearly 700,000.

I mention these numbers in order to provide some important context for what's about to happen.

David Choi, an economist from Goldman Sachs, says initial claims for the week ending March 21 may jump to a seasonally adjusted 2.25 million. His analysis is based on recent anecdotes from press reports as well as company announcements. Over 30 states have provided preliminary data.

This is, of course, an estimate, and the actual number could be better or worse. But the preliminary rough tally helps capture the severity of the circumstances: the worst report from recent history showed about 700,000 first-time unemployment filings, and it's reasonable to think next week's report will be three times worse.

Imagine in baseball that the single-season homerun record was 61. Then imagine someone came along and hit 200. It wouldn't just be surprising; it wouldn't just set a new record; it would be a number at odds with our perception of reality.

Similarly, if the next report on initial jobless claims is in line with the latest projections, it will be at odds with our perception of reality. We have no frame of reference for this.

Ahead of the next report, which will be released next week, the Trump administration is reportedly asking states not to release their own preliminary tallies. The New York Times reported, "In an email sent Wednesday, the Labor Department instructed state officials to only 'provide information using generalities to describe claims levels (very high, large increase)' until the department releases the total number of national claims next Thursday."

It's not yet clear if state officials will go along.