Americans last year saw their first significant decline in household income in nearly a decade, government data showed, with economic pain from the Covid-19 pandemic prompting government aid that helped keep millions from falling into poverty.
An annual assessment of the nation’s financial well-being, released Tuesday by the Census Bureau, offered insight into how households fared during the pandemic’s first year. It arrives as Washington debates how much more to spend to bolster the economy during the worst public-health crisis in a century.
Median household income was about $67,500 in 2020, down 2.9% from the prior year, when it hit an inflation-adjusted historical high. It came as the U.S. last year saw millions lose their jobs and national unemployment soar from a 50-year low to a high of 14.8%.
The last time median household income fell significantly was 2011, in the aftermath of the 2007-09 recession.
The Census Bureau’s topline income figure includes unemployment benefits but doesn’t account for income and payroll taxes nor stimulus checks or other noncash benefits like federal food programs. If those had been counted, the median household income would have risen 4% to $62,773.
The pandemic and the work-from-home environment it spawned also led many economists to speculate that workers would become better adapted to technology, more efficient and strike a healthier balance between work and life. This, in turn, would leave them more mobile. A Microsoft Corp. workplace trends survey found that 40% of Americans are considering leaving their jobs this year. And many are doing just that, with 2.5% of the employed quitting their jobs in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Opening and Labor Turnover Survey. Although that’s down from the record 2.8% in April, it’s still higher than any other point since at least before 2001. Plus, consider that the quit rate was only 2.3% in 2019 when unemployment was just 3.6%, compared with 5.8% this May.
Congressional lawmakers from both parties are considering incentives such as providing federal funding to pay for hiring bonuses for workers and expanded tax credits for employers. A handful of states are moving to implement such programs on their own, without waiting for Washington.
Some economists, Republican lawmakers and business owners say enhanced federal unemployment benefits are contributing to the labor shortage, because many workers receive more in government aid than they would get on the job. Those benefits — $300 a week on top of regular state payments — are due to expire after Labor Day.
Other economists say the payments have provided a boost to many lower-income families, who have disproportionately lost jobs in the coronavirus pandemic, while in turn pushing money back into the broader economy.
Mortality in 2020 significantly exceeds what would have occurred if official COVID-19 deaths were combined with a normal number of deaths from other causes. The demographic and time patterns of the non-COVID-19 excess deaths (NCEDs) point to deaths of despair rather than an undercount of COVID-19 deaths. The flow of NCEDs increased steadily from March to June and then plateaued. They were disproportionately experienced by working-age men, including men as young as 15 to 24. The chart below, reproduced from Mulligan (2020b), shows these results for men aged 15–54. To compare the weekly timing of their excess deaths to a weekly measure of economic conditions, Figure 1 also includes continued state unemployment claims scaled by a factor of 25,000, shown together with deaths.
It’s getting harder for the Biden Administration to claim we’re in an economic crisis that demands more spending. It’s closer to the truth to say the economy is growing in a way that calls for spending and monetary restraint.
The latest evidence arrived Monday with the Institute for Supply Management’s news that its March survey for service businesses hit 63.7. That’s an all-time high, and it signifies rapid growth and optimism. The only problem is that many businesses say they can’t find enough workers or supplies to meet their order books.
That follows Friday’s blowout employment report for March, with a net total of 1.07 million new jobs including revisions from the previous two months. Wage gains were bigger than they looked at first glance, given that many returning workers were those in lower-wage services jobs hurt by the pandemic.
• The American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden allocates state and local aid based on the extent of unemployment in a state in late 2020. Critics say this punishes states that opened their economies earlier, under the assumption that their unemployment levels were lower.
• It’s not so clear-cut. Preliminary academic research shows that government policies on reopening had only a modest impact on unemployment. States that depend on especially hard-hit industries like tourism and oil and gas show high unemployment regardless of the government policy.
• Experts say that no method for targeting aid to the states is perfect; each has pluses and minuses.
States are discovering and news outlets are reporting some surprising features of the new law. For starters, the President Biden-approved American Rescue Plan tweaks the funding formula to distribute funding based on average unemployment during the three final months of 2020 — rewarding Democratic-controlled states like New York, California and Illinois for their draconian COVID policies that resulted in the nation’s highest levels of unemployment. And it offers states billions more in Medicaid funding if they agree to boost their own Medicaid spending.
Perhaps the most troubling is a legislative rider barring states that accept the aid from using the funds “to either directly or indirectly offset a reduction in the net tax revenue” derived “from a change in law, regulation, or administrative interpretation during the covered period that reduces any tax (by providing for a reduction in a rate, a rebate, a deduction, a credit, or otherwise) or delays the imposition of any tax or tax increase.”
Massachusetts state government employment has been virtually flat during COVID-19 even as employment in the state’s private sector workforce remains nearly 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute. The study, “Public vs. Private Employment in Massachusetts: A Tale of Two Pandemics,” questions whether it makes sense to shield public agencies from last year’s recession at the expense of taxpayers.
“Compared to restaurants, retailers and other businesses, there was very little pressure on state government to cut costs associated with COVID’s economic fallout,” said Serena Hajjar, who authored the study. “The private sector has felt the bulk of the pain of this contraction.”
At one point in April 2020, total employment in Massachusetts was 23 percent below pre-pandemic levels, while at the same time state-level government employment was higher than it was in February 2020.
Job losses during the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately hit the private sector workforce in Massachusetts, according to a Pioneer Institute report being released Monday.
The report found the state government payroll has been flat throughout the pandemic, while the private sector workforce remains 10 percent below its pre-pandemic level. At the peak of job cuts last April, the state’s overall unemployment rate was 23 percent, even as state government employment rose higher than it had been in February 2020.
“Compared to restaurants, retailers and other businesses, there was very little pressure on state government to cut costs associated with COVID’s economic fallout,” said Serena Hajjar, who authored the study for the conservative think tank. “The private sector has felt the bulk of the pain of this contraction.”
At least 235 brick-and-mortar businesses have closed permanently in D.C. since the first known coronavirus case was reported on March 7, 2020, with 100 more shuttered temporarily, a count by DCist/WAMU found. (The status of another 40 is unknown.)
As of December, more than 36,000 residents were unemployed — a 77% increase over the prior year. Downtown D.C., once an economic engine that contributed nearly 16% of the city’s tax revenue in 2019, is today an effigy of its former self. At night, the bars and restaurants that propelled so much of D.C.’s economic growth seem funereal without scores of intoxicated revelers streaming through the doors and swiping their credit cards.
RECESSIONS TYPICALLY hit men harder than women, not least because they tend to disproportionately affect male-dominated industries, such as construction and manufacturing. In the recession of 2008-09, for example, men accounted for some three-quarters of American job losses. The most recent downturn, by contrast, has weighed on female-dominated sectors, such as retail and hospitality. Last year the share of women on American payrolls fell from 50% in March 2020 to 49.1% two months later, before inching back up to 49.8% today.
A recent paper by three economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco suggests that some of the disparity can be explained by differences in parental responsibilities. Using monthly data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, the researchers analysed the labour-market outcomes of four groups of prime-age workers (those aged from 25 to 54): mothers; fathers; women without children; and men without children. They found that women suffered more than men in the wake of the pandemic but mothers fared worst of all. Between February and December the employment rate of mums dropped by 7% and their labour-force participation rate fell by 4%. Fathers, by comparison, suffered the least among the four groups—even less than childless men. Their employment and labour-force participation rates fell by 4% and 1%, respectively. Another recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that that the effect was biggest for mothers with children under five.