The Bureau of Labor Statistics released its latest estimates for the state of the labor market on August 7. The economy gained 1.8 million jobs in July and the unemployment rate fell to 10.2% in July from 11.1% in June. Still, 16.3 million workers were looking for a job but unable to find one and the unemployment rate stayed at double digits for the fourth month in a row. Moreover, the pace of job gains has markedly slowed from 4.8 million new jobs in June to a little over a third of that rate with 1.8 million new jobs in July.
The U.S. is looking at a deep, prolonged recession with massive economic pain for many workers. The continuation of the labor market picture requires swift and large-scale policy interventions from helping the workers hurt the most by the recession and from further worsening the economic outlook.
Five points are worth highlighting with respect to the latest jobs data.
First, the job market slowdown occurred as many states bungled their pandemic response. Several states rushed to reopen their economies in May, even as the virus’ spread was not under control. Many experienced massive surges in new infections. These surges prompted new public health measures, while people also curbed their own activities. Businesses closed and laid off people anew. Job gains stalled and economic pain deepened in states that had taken fewer precautions to stemming the virus’ spread. It is now abundantly clear that getting the spread of the novel coronavirus under control is key to a sustained economic recovery and to quickly bringing people back to work.
Second, this is still a recession that heavily falls on women. White, Latina and Asian women have higher unemployment rates than is the case for White, Latino and Asian men.
This trend reversed, though, among African-American men and women over the spring. Initially, Black women had higher unemployment rates than Black men, but Black men have had higher unemployment rates than Black women in June and July. In July, the unemployment rate for Black men stood at 15.2%, while that for Black women was 13.5%.
Third, all communities of color suffer from higher unemployment than white workers do. The unemployment rate was 14.6% for Black workers, 12.9% for Latinx workers and 12.0% for Asian workers in July 2020. In comparison, the unemployment rate for white workers fell below 10% with 9.2% last month. The difference in unemployment rates by race or ethnicity was thus largest between Black and white workers.
Moreover, the unemployment rate has declined more for white workers than for either Black or Asian American workers. The unemployment rate for white workers dropped by five percentage points from April to July 2020, a little less than the six percentage point drop for Latinx workers. In contrast, the unemployment rate only fell by 2.1 percentage points for Black workers and by 2.5 percentage points for Asian American workers. Slower labor market improvements for African-Americans than for white workers reflect the pattern of “first fired, last hired.” In any recession, Black workers suffer from more widespread, longer-term unemployment than white workers do.
Fourth, people are looking longer for a new job as the deep recession persists. The share of unemployed workers who have permanently lost their jobs grew from 11.1% in April to 22.6% in July. At the same time, the average length of unemployment almost tripled from 6.1 weeks in April to 17.9 weeks in July. As a growing share of workers have difficulties finding a new job amid double-digit unemployment rates, they will face economic hardships such as delayed or deferred rent payments and an inability to regularly pay for food.
Fifth, older workers now have relatively high unemployment rates. The unemployment rate for workers 55 years old and older was 8.8% in July, while that for workers from 35 to 44 years old was 8.1% and that for that for workers from 45 to 54 years old was 7.8%. This is a reversal from prior recessions, when older workers typically had lower unemployment rates than younger ones. Many older workers are staying in the labor market because they often lack savings and have high costs, for instance, from widespread debt and insufficient health insurance.
The Trump administration has abdicated responsibility for identifying and coordinating a national pandemic response. State and local governments have not gotten the pandemic under control in large parts of the country. With the public’s health at a high risk, people are slowing down on their own to protect their health and governments reimpose measures to control the spread of the virus on businesses. Job losses and widespread unemployment continue on a massive scale. To avoid making the recession even worse, Congress will need to quickly provide assistance to unemployed workers, struggling businesses and cash strapped state and local governments at the front line of the efforts to defeat the virus and bring the job market back.