The jobs crisis roared on during Donald Trump's last full week as president, with 900,000 Americans filing for first-time unemployment benefits on a seasonally adjusted basis.
It was down from the prior week's upswing, when claims rose to 926,000. It's a good sign that benefit applications fell again, but "good" is relative here: Millions of Americans still need government help to make ends meet, and there haven't been any real improvements for months.
Although Wednesday's inauguration of President Joe Biden spurred hopes for more government stimulus, help can't come fast enough for the unemployed. Last week's initial claims figure was still more than four times higher than in the same period last year.
"It is promising that last week's large increase was not repeated," said Indeed Hiring Lab economist AnnElizabeth Konkel in emailed comments. But she noted "both the magnitude and direction of the total initial claims remain a problem, with no substantial improvement since late summer."
On top of regular claims, 423,734 Americans applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides benefits for workers such as the self-employed, the Department of Labor said. That figure was an increase of nearly 140,000 from the prior week. This number is not adjusted for seasonal swings.
Added together, first-time claims totaled 1.4 million on an unadjusted basis last week. This total has remained stubbornly high.
Continued jobless claims, which count workers who have applied for aid for at least two weeks in a row, fell to 5.1 million.
Experts think part of the reason for the recent increase in claims is a surge in applications after the passage of the latest stimulus package at the end of December. Meanwhile, economists are also tasked with seeing through seasonal patterns in a time where things like seasonal holiday hiring is upended.
Overall, nearly 16 million Americans received some form of government benefits in the week ended January 2, a decrease from Christmas week.
But the details are less encouraging. Claimants of regular state benefits, federal employees and veterans on benefits, as well as workers who have exhausted all other options and have rolled onto the Extended Benefits program, all increased.
Workers who have exhausted their state benefits, as well as aid from the Pandemic Unemployment Emergency Compensation program that is designed to bridge the gap, may then be eligible for extended state benefits depending on where they live.
It's a complicated system of many different programs, but the bottom line is this: Millions of Americans still need help.
Ultimately, economists believe the vaccine rollout will help usher in the real recovery in the jobs market. But until then it's about supporting those still out of work while the nation battles the ongoing pandemic and rising infections.