If anyone required further evidence of the havoc that the coronavirus pandemic has wrought on the U.S. economy, the Labor Department delivered it Friday: In a matter of weeks, more than 20 million people have been thrown out of work.
There's a lot more that Congress can and should do to help.
The jobs report for April is a catalog of extremes. The unemployment rate, at 14.7%, is the highest since the Great Depression (and that is probably an underestimate). The share of the population employed, at 51.3%, is the lowest. The number of nonfarm jobs lost is by far the largest on record in a single month.
The data further reveal the heavy toll the crisis is taking on the poor and the marginalized. Job losses, for example, were concentrated in relatively low-wage sectors such as leisure, hospitality and retail, as hotels, restaurants and stores shut their doors.
Black and Latino people have suffered disproportionately, exposing and deepening the inequities that fracture American society. From February to April, their employment rates declined more sharply (10.6 and 13.8 percentage points, respectively) than those of their white counterparts.
Congress has acted to cushion the shock, most notably with the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that it approved in late March. But implementation has been weak. Emergency cash payments have been frustratingly slow to reach the people who need them most. Overwhelmed state bureaucracies have made it hard to collect enhanced unemployment benefits. The first-come-first-served forgivable loans of the Paycheck Protection Program have left out many of the businesses and jobs the measure was supposed to protect.
Now, legislators are struggling to reach agreement on another economic relief package. There's no shortage of options to make the response more effective. Enhanced food stamp benefits could quickly reach the non-tax filers and unbanked that stimulus checks can't. More federal funds could help states deliver better benefits faster. And design tweaks, together with refunding, could make PPP better at keeping people employed.
The cost is enormous and mounting, but so be it. Congress should mobilize resources commensurate to this crisis —g and do it as quickly as possible.
(c) 2020 Bloomberg News