Friday’s May jobs report shocked economists and analysts: After weeks of speculation that the new figures might show unemployment topping 20 percent—Great Depression–era levels—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, national unemployment dropped from 14.7 percent in April to “just” 13.3 percent. National payrolls, which experts had been predicting might have officially shed another 8 million jobs, actually added more than 2 million.
That indicates that the crush of economic devastation from the pandemic might be easing, even as the numbers remain so monstrously large that they’re hard to grasp. So far, we’ve seen a group larger than the entire population of California lose their jobs since March. As the pandemic coverage is swept aside by protests over police brutality and systemic racism, one calculation holds that half of all black adults are now jobless.
The new jobs report, while a welcome improvement, hardly captures what really appears to be happening across the country. Look instead at the literal breadlines forming in city after city.
In my hometown of Burlington, the Vermont Foodbank planned last Tuesday to do one of its now-almost-daily mass food distributions at the local high school. Organizers, though, quickly balked as they realized the scale of recent events would cause traffic difficulties for the downtown. A similar recent event, down the road in Montpelier, attracted 1,900 cars—a line 5 miles long.
Instead of using a high school parking lot, the city shut down an entire highway.
Images of cars awaiting food their drivers can’t afford, filling entire airport tarmacs and stadium lots—2,000 cars in Dallas, 6,000 in Los Angeles, 10,000 in San Antonio—are the socially distanced breadlines of 2020, the modern analogue to the haunting black-and-white photos of hat-wearing men and families huddled outside soup kitchens during the Great Depression. The iconography of that desperate, national hunger is so ingrained that a life-size breadline sculpture is incorporated into the presidential memorial for FDR in Washington, DC, a portrait of one of the nation’s darkest hours, as the land of plenty was found wanting.
Today the photos of endless lines of automobiles, trucks, and SUVs idling are no less heart-wrenching—each car representing a person or family in need amid the coronavirus. In Georgia, during one event at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, organizers distributed 13,000 meals. Demand was so high that they doubled it the following week.
These long lines are the physical manifestation of the seemingly precise calculations in these job reports, the embodiment of a country that surely is still facing one of its darkest chapters in nearly a century.
In a sign of astounding optimism—surely to be boosted by the unexpectedly strong May jobs report—some Democrats are already worrying that the economic bounce-back will give Donald Trump a success story just as the fall elections approach. The stock market, which has rebounded strongly in recent days and spiked Friday morning as Wall Street processed the good news, seems to be discussing a different planet entirely from the one where thousands of cars still idle in breadlines.
Yet across sector after sector, the facts on the ground seem to belie the optimism sweeping Wall Street. Any economic “bright signs” are really just the yo-yo effect at work, as Neil Irwin recently outlined in The New York Times—that is, numbers that appear large only because the denominator is so small. “Did you hear about the booming air travel industry? It’s up 123 percent in just the last month!” he wrote, tongue-in-cheek. Of course, Irwin pointed out, it’s still off by nearly 90 percent from normal levels.
We’re likely to see a similar effect in the jobs numbers. It’s entirely possible that, to pick a number, 10 million jobs successfully flow back into the workforce by the fall, as states and cities reopen. But it seems just as likely, if not certain, that millions more people will newly lose their jobs over the months ahead as temporary closings become permanent and businesses realize revenue won’t return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. As surprisingly good as Friday’s monthly jobs number was, it comes a day after Thursday’s weekly jobs number showed another 1.9 million jobs lost the last week of May, numbers not yet accounted for in the monthly totals. That’s the “best” week we’ve seen since March, but roughly three times worse than the highest jobless claims week in history pre-pandemic.
The signs abound that there’s no imminent recovery, no matter the magical thinking emanating from the White House and no matter the government’s official calculations. Companies continue to announce layoffs and cuts even as the country moves toward reopening, and not just workforce nip-and-tucks but wholesale restructurings.
Despite President Trump’s baseless optimism, private companies and nonprofits are almost universally saying adieu to any hopes of salvaging 2020. Look no further than the first letter of the alphabet: Amtrak is aiming to cut 20 percent of its workforce; Airbnb has cut a quarter of its employees; American Airlines is cutting 30 percent of its management staff; the financial startup Acorns is cutting staff; The Atlantic cut nearly 20 percent of its staff; the Oakland Athletics baseball team announced it will cease paying its minor league players even their $400 weekly stipend; overseas, the hotel chain Accor is cutting 800 jobs. Let’s not even start talking about the letter B: Boeing last week announced mass cuts of as much as 10 percent of its workforce.
Entire teams, departments, and revenue streams are being eliminated; corporate experiments and expansions shelved; whole line items zeroed out. The nation’s biggest marketers are pulling back from their fall advertising spending, as the nation’s biggest companies anticipate American consumers who aren’t really in a spending mood. Bankruptcy has befallen shopping mall staples like Neiman Marcus, J. C. Penney, and J. Crew, with more sure to follow. Economists are saying to prepare to measure the rebuilding in years, not months.
Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell seems to be one of the only policymakers stating plainly that there will be no return to normalcy until a vaccine is in widespread use. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin has urged a speedy reopening, even though it’s not government orders that are keeping people out of stores. Consumer spending, JP Morgan has found, is off dramatically whether the government orders stores closed or not. It turns out that people are reluctant to engage in commerce that might harm them or their families.
Despite President Trump’s Twitter bluster about packing a convention center for the Republican National Convention in August, all one has to look at is the recent reporting on the extreme contagions launched by “superspreader” events to know that large conferences and gatherings aren’t coming back until months after a vaccine has been widely produced and distributed. The arts world is coming to terms that it won’t be reopening in the fall; theaters from Minneapolis to Charleston won’t begin their “fall” season until early next year. The travel, tourism, and hospitality industries are going to remain down for a long time. Facebook has canceled all events of more than 50 people through June 2021; Microsoft’s not holding any new in-person events until next July.
And still the US government continues to squander time. Our national testing system still can’t be called a system and lags behind similar countries. Responses, when they come, are inadequate to the soaring, massive need: The New York Times reported last week that a key aid program meant to help hungry children—vulnerable children who found their regular free and federally subsidized lunches and breakfasts evaporate when school cafeterias closed—is reaching only 15 percent of eligible kids.
President Trump continues to tweet wildly, working hard to define down success, calling the 100,000-plus Covid-19 deaths the US has experienced a miracle of leadership. But no other country has yet crossed 40,000 deaths. The US and South Korea both had their first positive case on the same day in January; South Korea has had fewer than 300 deaths. It seems unlikely that cultural differences can account for a death toll more than 56 times higher per capita and 300 times higher in lives. To reopen their economies more quickly and more widely, other countries are moving to aggressive, preemptive testing. China has tested 9 million of Wuhan’s 11 million residents in just 10 days recently. The stateside response is such an outlier that a US passport may prove to be a liability as the world reopens.
Given how far we trail other advanced nations, is there any reason to believe we have the national leadership in place to minimize the economic pain of the months ahead? A dozen other countries, from Denmark to the UK, have stepped in with creative solutions to provide ongoing monthly checks to laid-off workers or to underwrite their wages. Two of the world’s most important economies—the European Union and Japan—are moving ahead with large-scale relief and stimulus programs, and US economists who once were deeply concerned about the federal deficit are touting urgent efforts in the trillions of dollars. “Any sensible policy is going to have us racking up the deficit for a long time, if you can,” Harvard debt expert Kenneth Rogoff said earlier this month. “If we go up another $10 trillion, I wouldn’t even blink at that now.”
Despite the obviously urgent need for action, the US appears to have no meaningful plan to support workers specifically beyond the $1,200 checks it has already distributed. Those checks were reportedly delayed a few days in order to stamp Donald J. Trump’s signature at the bottom.
If the breadlines of 2020 are already measured in miles, what happens after July—when the initial payments from the Payroll Protection Program have run out, expanded unemployment benefits end, and those $1,200 checks are a distant memory? Eviction procedures, paused by human decency or government order across much of the country, are already lurching back to life. Homeless who were moved into shelters during the peak of the crisis are being turned back to the street.
For its part, the Republican-led Senate appears to slumber. The House passed a $3 trillion stimulus bill nearly two weeks ago, but the Senate seems to be in no rush to even consider it. The Senate actually took vacation last week and returned this week—amid the growing, unfurling protests rocking the country coast-to-coast—to do the urgent and important work of confirming another Trump-nominated federal judge to the bench for a lifetime appointment in the Middle District of Florida.
The president has managed to make any expression of pessimism seem partisan, so let me be clear: I hope I’m wrong and he’s right about what he’s calling America’s “transition to greatness.” I hope Friday’s jobs report actually is the leading indicator of a strong V-shaped recovery that sees business booming by the time we gather for Labor Day cookouts. I hope the economy bounces back soon and am as desperate as anyone for the “old” times to return. I had a haircut this week, now that Vermont’s barber shops have reopened—and I can’t wait to relax, eating out at a restaurant. I can’t wait to get back out on the road; I recently had a dream just about eating nachos in a Marriott lounge. I hope, too, that a vaccine arrives quickly and safely.
Mostly, though, I worry my assessment of the path ahead for our country isn’t pessimistic enough.
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