Jobs, COVID-19, & an Honest Take

The June jobs report and declining death numbers from COVID-19 show things might be improving. Here’s why we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back.

The June jobs report from the Department of Labor showed historic national jobs gains. Coronavirus fatalities have been decreasing steadily. Both are obviously much needed good news, but there’s this omnipresent question: Are things actually getting better?

While I had some other ideas for a first piece, I wanted to explore this. The short answer is no, not really. Things actually remain pretty bleak regarding the job market and the pandemic.

So today, I’m going to focus on some circulated talking points about these two areas. These aren’t just “missing the point”—they’re actually red herrings that have been used to gloss over the mess we’re in. I’ll go into more detail on some of this stuff in the next few weeks, but for now I wanted to review some data and info from other sources. Let’s break it down.

‘Record job numbers in June’

Strictly speaking, June looked to be a good month for jobs. About 4.8 million nonfarm jobs created nationally in June and 7.5 million when you include May’s numbers. Unemployment itself dropped 2.2 percentage points. The White House has talked up these historic gains and pointed out that these are much better than expected.

Despite this progress, we still have 17.8 million people out of work and about 15 million fewer jobs than we did in February. The change in unemployment is significant, but a rate of 11.1% in June is still higher than any point during the Great Recession, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The chart below shows that spike and recent dip in the unemployment rate; you can look at the data on the BLS site. Not pictured, unemployment is also higher for workers who are Black (15.4%), Hispanic or Latino (14.5%), and Asian (13.8%) than for white workers (10.1%).

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Even with the gains, 2.9 million people are now permanently unemployed, up from 1.5 million in March. To put it another way, many of the jobs we had anticipated to be temporarily lost won’t be recovered. Additionally, the numbers for new unemployment insurance claims and continuing claims remain stubbornly high, showing that progress in some places isn’t happening in others.

These report numbers also don’t account for several things. For instance, we don’t know how bad things are right now since these numbers were gathered before the latest spike in coronavirus cases, which has forced states to reconsider their economic strategies. But, we do know that Americans continue to be wary: Considering data from the Census Bureau, a third of those surveyed expect a future loss of income.

Understanding the ins and outs of workforce data is tricky. Unemployment rates by themselves leave out important information, like those no longer looking for jobs, and the data itself is quickly outdated. To be fair, economic cheerleaders like the White House have acknowledged that there’s more work to be done. But there’s a necessary sense of urgency that we lack right now when you remember Congress has taken its foot off the gas.

‘We’re seeing more cases because we’re conducting more testing’ & ‘COVID-19 deaths are declining’

While it hasn’t been linear, we are seeing fewer daily deaths related to the coronavirus nationally since April. We’re also testing more people, which has played a part in the increase in reported cases. There are a few things you need to keep in mind here.

Let’s just get testing out of the way first. The imperfect logic you might have heard lately goes something like, “Of course we’re seeing more cases. We’re testing more, dummy!”

Well, yeah. Duh. But it’s not just “we’re testing more, ergo more cases.” The proportion of tests being positive has increased. By the looks of things below, the percent of positive cases nationally has been rising since early June. This fact should put to bed any notion that we have a handle on this virus, and answer any question about the need for consistent, high-capacity testing.

Source: Johns Hopkins.

Next, a decline in lives lost can be partially attributed to two things. First, daily cases declined in May and early June, meaning there were simply fewer COVID-19 patients at risk of dying. Second, the median age of cases in some states has changed from older residents to younger ones.

This latter development brings its own set of problems that I will detail at a later date, but here’s something you should know right now. Younger adults are more likely to be uninsured than older folks. A 2018 finding from the Census Bureau found that those aged 26 to 34 and 35 to 44 made up a larger proportion of the uninsured population than they do the population at large. While that report uses 2017 data, it looks as though that trend holds in more recent data.

Uninsured Americans are also more likely to be people of color, low-income, and employed in jobs with higher potential for turnover. Alarmingly, all of these categories are disproportionately affected by the virus’ health and economic impacts.

Finally, data shows that some of the states with the highest proportions of uninsured working age residents are also the states with the largest surges in COVID-19 cases, namely Texas (24%) and Florida (19%).

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation.

To recap, younger residents, people of color, and low-income communities are more likely to be impacted by the economic and public health effects of the pandemic.

Some of the data we went over above is truly good news. But each aspect of this monster we face is connected to another: jobs and age with health care, current wage loss with future economic inequities, race and economic status all of these and more. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging progress, but we didn’t really turn a corner. We can’t relax or have a “Mission Accomplished” moment right now when you take a look at the stuff above.

And there are a lot of other factors I didn’t get to, like the impending expiration of the CARES Act’s boost to unemployment benefits or the related “eviction cliff” that experts believe is similarly imminent.

We’ve got some ways to go.

Related reading:
  • Check out the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, an ongoing study that tracks the economic well-being of American households. It releases weekly findings on income, housing and food security, health, and schooling. It includes a nifty data portal, too.
  • The Brookings Institute’s Stephanie Aaronson, who spent almost 20 years at the Federal Reserve Board, discusses the goods and bads of the June jobs report.
  • The COVID Tracking Project takes data from several sources and gives you the top-line information. It’s updated daily, and you can download the data for your own use.
  • The Kaiser Family Foundation has its own information on its state health facts page.
  • The Census Bureau also found that health coverage has continued to grow across the country through the ACS, but this piece discussed people of all ages, not working age adults.

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