Tough numbers: Is staggering unemployment the new normal?

We spend a lot of time wondering what post-pandemic America is going to look like.

Can our kids go back to actual classes? How many of us are heading back to the office? How many of us will feel comfortable shopping in malls or dining in restaurants?

The answers are mostly unknowable, at least for now. But what is clear is that the impact of the coronavirus on jobs is agonizing and will last a hell of a lot longer than we might have imagined.

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Yesterday’s release of new jobless claims–2.4 million, bringing the total to over 38 million–is the latest shock to the system. And the usual Washington political battle is brewing over extending unemployment benefits.

But the bigger picture is not encouraging. “There is growing concern among economists that many jobs will never come back,” the New York Times says. A Stanford University expert estimates that 42 percent of recent layoffs will result in permanent job losses.

If that’s even close to being true, it’s an obvious calamity for those thrown out of work through no fault of their own. And the ripple effect on the economy will be devastating.

First there is the reduced spending power of the newly jobless, many of whom will struggle just to pay the rent or mortgage. They won’t be buying that new winter coat or boots or going out to theaters. They won’t be hiring contractors to fix up the house. And if some companies tell employees to continue working at home, they won’t be grabbing lunch near the office or taking public transportation.

What’s more, even those who are working will undermine the recovery if they don’t feel safe enough to frequent bars and restaurants or work out at fitness centers.

 

It’s a slippery slope because major parts of the economy are so interconnected. If schools stick with online classes, many parents won’t be able to report to work, especially if child-care centers remain closed or are deemed unsafe.

The numbers are so huge that they often seem abstract. Media cutbacks tend to get more attention, such as the Atlantic yesterday laying off 20 percent of its staff in part because its live-events business has vanished.

But there are millions of ordinary folks caught in this net. The Federalist interviewed a Utah man who delivers custom cuts of meat, with demand so reduced he had to lay off his son.

In Washington, the latest clash is over unemployment checks. Congress added an extra $600 a week to jobless benefits, but that expires in July. President Trump told Senate Republicans he’s reluctant to extend the additional payments, and he’s got plenty of company.

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Mitch McConnell told House lawmakers, according to Politico, that the GOP has to “clean up the Democrats’ crazy policy that is paying people more to remain unemployed than they would earn if they went back to work.” Democrats, for their part, are accusing Republicans of caring more about tax cuts for the wealthy than taking care of working people.

This is a replay of an argument that erupts during every recession severe enough warrant an extension of jobless benefits. Republicans accuse Democrats of making things so cushy that people will stay home, and Democrats accuse Republicans of heartlessness.

In this environment, though, I think the vast majority of those laid off are desperate to return to work: for the health benefits, to build a future, to regain a sense of dignity. Unemployment is no picnic, especially when so many other people are also without work and the benefits don’t last indefinitely.

In all 50 states, people want to know when they’ll be able to do the things they used to do before Covid-19 changed the face of America. The brutal economic news suggests that the new normal could be with us for a depressingly long time.

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