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Another 1.5 million Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week

The US economy is reopening gradually but America’s joblessness crisis continues to roar on.

Another 1.5 million Americans filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Department of Labor reported on Thursday.

Although initial jobless claims have been falling every week since peaking at 6.9 million in the last week of March, millions of people remain reliant on government aid to make ends meet since the pandemic eliminated their jobs.

More than 44 million people have filed for initial unemployment benefits since mid-March, when then US economy shut down to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Stripping out seasonal adjustments, last week’s unemployment claims still stood at 1.5 million, a decrease of nearly 83,000 from the prior week. In normal times, seasonal adjustments are used to smooth out the data set, but during this unprecedented crisis, the adjustments can distort the picture somewhat.

In addition to regular unemployment insurance, nearly 706,000 people in 42 states filed initial claims for the pandemic unemployment assistance program last week, slightly down from the prior week.

Congress created the program to temporarily provide benefits to independent contractors, the self-employed, gig workers and certain people affected by the coronavirus. That’s in addition to the more than 2.1 million Americans who filed first-time pandemic program claims over the two weeks ending May 30. None of these applicants are included in the seasonally adjusted data for the regular unemployment program.

More than 9.7 million Americans in 42 states were claiming benefits under the PUA program in the week ending May 23, a decrease of more than 1.2 million from the prior week. Michigan had the highest number of residents filing initial claims and receiving payments under the pandemic program, followed by California and Pennsylvania.

Continuing claims, counting the people who have applied for unemployment benefits for at least two weeks in a row, declined to 20.9 million, compared with last week’s reported 21.3 million.

Economists have began focusing on continued claims as a better indicator of the state of the labor market last month, as many states began reopening their economies. Even if initial claims keep falling in weeks to come, the massive number of continuous unemployment claims to really claim that the jobs market is recovering.

In April, at least 20.7 million jobs vanished in America, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One month later, the economy added 2.5 million new jobs, reflecting that the reopening of the country was bearing some fruit. In spite of the undeniable improvement, the unemployment crisis remains acute.

On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said it was likely that the central banks, as well as the federal government, would need to do more to get the country through this crisis.

Help from Washington

As the crush of unemployment filings starts to recede and businesses call back their employees, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are divided over whether to extend the $600 federal weekly boost, which was part of Congress’ $2 trillion coronavirus relief package and is set to expire at the end of July.

The partisan split was on view at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on unemployment benefits Tuesday, with Democrats arguing that it’s too early to pull back when more than 20 million Americans remain out of work. Some want the enhanced benefit to taper down slowly as the unemployment rate declines. House Democrats’ latest stimulus package would continue the $600 boost until early next year.

“So bottom line, this crisis will go on a lot longer if the Trump administration and Senate Republicans start yanking out these key pillars of economic support like supercharged unemployment benefits,” said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the committee’s top Democrat who has proposed a bill to tie the enhanced payment to states’ jobless rates.

Republicans, however, are concerned that the $600 increase will deter people from taking jobs because many make more on unemployment benefits than they did at work. This would be the case for roughly five out of six folks if the boost were extended for six months, according to a Congressional Budget Office report released earlier this week.

“That doesn’t sound like a recipe for economic growth, especially given last week’s jobs report, which shows people are returning to their jobs and that millions more expect to return soon,” said Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

Spending on unemployment benefits has skyrocketed to nearly $197.5 billion so far this fiscal year, up from $12.7 billion at the beginning of March, according to Treasury Department data.

Nearly $39 billion has already been spent this month alone.

In May, the federal government paid out more than $64 billion in unemployment benefits, bringing the total spent under Congress’ historic enhancement to the program to just over $91 billion, Treasury Department data shows.

States, meanwhile, delivered nearly $30 billion in benefits in May, up from just over $21 billion in April and about $4 billion in March.

The surge in jobless claims has drained several states’ unemployment trust funds, forcing them to borrow from the federal government to pay for their share of benefits, which typically last 26 weeks. It’s not unusual for states to turn to the federal government for loans to pay unemployment benefits during economic downturns.

The jobless are guaranteed to get their payments regardless of whether the money comes from the state’s trust fund or a federal loan.

New York has borrowed almost $1.6 billion, while California and Texas have taken out loans of nearly $900 million and almost $73 million, respectively, according to Treasury Department data.

Seven other states have also received authorization to borrow but have yet to actually do so. The Federal Reserve, meanwhile, rolled out a lending facility to support state and local governments in April.

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