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As economy recovers, unemployment claims dip below key threshold

Now that the total is below 500,000 for the first time in 14 months, it's getting easier to see a light at the end of the tunnel.


As regular readers know, progress on weekly unemployment claims has been hit or miss in the early months of 2021, but the new report from the Labor Department represents great news. CNBC reported this morning:

The U.S. employment picture improved sharply last week, with first-time claims for unemployment insurance hitting a fresh pandemic-era low. Initial claims totaled 498,000 for the week ended March 1, against the Dow Jones estimate of 527,000.

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.

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.

And now that the total is below 500,000 for the first time in 14 months, it's getting easier to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

To be sure, it'd be a mistake to see 498,000 jobless claims as good news on its own. In fact, 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 under half of 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.

As for the politics, when President Joe Biden signed the Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID relief package a couple of months ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) scrambled to set public expectations. "The American people are going to see an American comeback this year," the GOP leader said, "but it won't be because of this liberal bill."

McConnell added, "We're about to have a boom. And if we do have a boom, it will have absolutely nothing to do with this $1.9 trillion."

It was foolish rhetoric for a variety of reasons, and as the economy picks up steam in response to the American Relief Plan, McConnell's efforts to deny Democrats credit suddenly looks a little worse.

Postscript: The official tally for job creation in April will be released by the Department of Labor tomorrow. The numbers from March were heartening, and expectations are high that the April totals will be even better.