38.6 million have filed for unemployment during the pandemic—greater than the combined population of 21 states

May 21, 2020, 12:59 PM UTC

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Another 2.4 million initial unemployment claims were filed last week, marking the ninth straight week with jobless claims topping at least 2 million.

Since mid-March more than 38.6 million Americans have filed unemployment claims, according to the U.S. Department of Labor—a figure greater than the total population of the country’s 21 smallest states.

The 2.4 million jobless claims is down from last week’s 2.7 million claims and represents the seventh straight week of a decline in the overall number of claims. But this figure is still more than four times the previous pre-coronavirus record of 695,000 claims in October 1982.

“There are fewer people filing for unemployment insurance claims, but we’re still seeing millions [of claims]. This is not a sign of relief,” says Pavlina Tcherneva, an associate professor of economics at Bard College and author of the upcoming book The Case for a Job Guarantee.

The Federal Reserve projects the number of unemployed Americans could top out at 47 million. But since 38.6 million have filed claims already, unemployment levels could be “way worse than the Fed projects,” Tcherneva says. 

The number of jobless claims—2.4 million—was right in line with most economists’ forecasts, which were between 2.3 million and 2.4 million.

With each passing week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 14.7% official unemployment rate looks all the more dated; its count covered the period through mid-April. Since then, another 12.2 million Americans have claimed unemployment benefits. When those 12.2 million are added to the already 23.1 million unemployed Americans in the latest jobs reports, it brings the total unemployed over 35 million. That would be a real unemployment rate of 22.5%, just below the 25.6% peak unemployment rate during the Great Depression.

The official unemployment rate doesn’t match up with the number of unemployment claims because only out-of-work Americans who are searching for new positions are categorized as unemployed and in the labor force. And many jobless workers are choosing to wait out the virus and stay-at-home order before starting their search.

Americans on the unemployment rolls are receiving an additional $600 weekly in benefits on top of their state benefits, but unless extended, the additional unemployment benefit payments will end on July 31.

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