A separate survey of workers found that 6.7 percent of workers remain officially unemployed. A broader measure of underemployment — including those who can’t find jobs, can’t find enough hours or have become discouraged and given up applying for work entirely — stands at 11.7 percent.
A few observations about these dire numbers.
First is my standard chart (updated by my colleague Sergio Peçanha) showing how the pandemic recession compares with previous postwar downturns. The jobs deficit today is still bigger than it was at the very worst point of every previous postwar downturn, including the Great Recession. And of course, with employers cutting jobs in December, this jobs deficit is growing. That is, the economy is not catching up.
This is not what most people would call a “V-shaped recovery.”
Among other promises Trump has broken — getting Mexico to pay for a border wall, say, or his oath of office — there’s also his pledge on jobs. Trump once vowed that he’d be the “greatest jobs president that God ever created.” Instead, with Friday’s jobs report, he’s on track to become the first president since modern employment statistics began to leave office with fewer U.S. jobs than existed when he was sworn in.
Contemporary employment statistics date to 1939, which means the first president whose entire tenure can be assessed by these metrics is Harry S. Truman. He and every president since have always left the White House with more jobs on the books. That is, until now. Which makes sense — the long-term trend in employment is upward, because the U.S. population and economy generally grow over time.
The economy endures shocks and downturns, of course, and Trump was unlucky enough to sustain an unusually large shock toward the end of his presidency. This shock was so big that it wiped out all the prior gains under his tenure (which had been good, as I’ve noted before, but not appreciably different from those under his predecessor, Barack Obama).
Trump is not responsible for a global pandemic or the economic crisis it caused. As I’ve said ad nauseam, presidents get too much credit when the economy is good and too much blame when it is bad; they can affect things only on the margin. That said, a number of his administration’s decisions made things worse on the margin.
That includes discouraging Americans from taking simple precautions (such as mask-wearing) that reduce the spread of the virus, whose latest wave is undoubtedly the reason for the service industry’s significant losses. Among the other missteps was the dillydallying, for months, on further fiscal aid. Trump should have been pressuring Congress, particularly lawmakers of his own party, to get a deal done much sooner. Instead, he could not seem to make up his mind about whether more aid was necessary. Then, when a deal was finally reached basically without him, in late December, Trump dragged his feet before eventually signing the legislation.
Had the White House shown more leadership on non-pharmaceutical measures to control the coronavirus, and had fiscal relief come sooner, perhaps the country might have escaped December’s further job losses. Of course, the overall decline in employment since the pandemic began is so enormous that even modest job growth in December would not have improved Trump’s position on that chart of presidential jobs records. He still would be the only president with net losses from inauguration to departure. (He’s in a hole of 3 million jobs right now relative to the start of his presidency.)
In any event, December’s job losses should help focus the federal government, soon to be under unified Democratic control, on what further relief or stimulus measures are necessary.
Among the top priorities should be adding additional weeks of enhanced unemployment benefits, which currently are slated to expire in March. This and other aid targeting those with the greatest financial insecurity are absolutely essential. (In the longer term, Congress should also index to the state of the economy emergency unemployment benefits and other expanded safety-net services, such as more generous food stamps, so that this aid kicks in automatically.)
Second, Congress must give more assistance to state and local governments.
Mayors and governors of both parties have pleaded for more help, given that their tax revenues are down and their expenses are up. They have gotten some aid from Washington but not enough. Already, state and local governments have shed about 1.4 million jobs since February on net; most of them are in education. More layoffs — of teachers, police officers, public hospital employees, etc. — are probably coming. One of the lessons from the Great Recession was that public-sector job losses significantly slowed down the ability of the private sector to recover. Congress must prevent this foreseeable problem from happening again.