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Unemployment claims improve to the lowest point of the pandemic

For 55 consecutive weeks, the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits was worse than at any time during the Great Recession. Not anymore.
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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

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

The U.S. jobs market recovery accelerated its pace last week as fewer Americans headed to the unemployment line, the Labor Department reported Thursday. First-time claims for unemployment insurance totaled 547,000, well below the Dow Jones estimate for 603,000 and a new low for the Covid-19 pandemic era.

The report quoted Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, saying, "This dip in jobless claims looks good in isolation but what really matters is that it confirms that last week's unexpected plunge was no fluke. We expect further declines over the next few months as the reopening continues, while payroll growth will accelerate markedly."

As we discussed 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.

And now, that's no longer the case.

To be sure, it'd be a mistake to see 547,000 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 evidence of amazing and overdue progress.