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Jobless claims hit new pandemic low for third straight week as labor market picks up

WASHINGTON - Weekly jobless claims fell to a pandemic low for the third consecutive week, the Labor Department reported Thursday, with 553,000 Americans filing for initial unemployment benefits for the week that ended April 24.

This marks a decrease of 13,000 compared with the previous week, putting the insured unemployment rate around 2.6%, the Labor Department said.

While claims remain elevated, the trajectory signals that growing vaccination numbers, loosening business restrictions and warmer weather are helping to heal the jobs market. The streak of declining claims started in mid-April, with a surprise drop of more than 175,000. Now, economists say they think the trend will continue.

"With more news of cities set to fully reopen in the coming months and vaccinations picking up speed, we're starting to see some real firepower behind an economic comeback," Chris Larkin, managing director of trading at E-Trade, said Thursday in comments emailed to The Washington Post.

States reported 121,749 initial claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, for gig and self-employed workers, for the week ended April 24. There were nearly 7 million continued PUA claims, for benefits that are set to expire in September.

There are myriad signs of a brightening outlook. The U.S. economic recovery picked up speed in early 2021, the Commerce Department reported Thursday, with economic growth hitting 1.6% in the first three months of the year. The January-to-March period saw some of fastest economic growth in more than four decades, behind only the initial 7.5% surge last year, when businesses first reopened from pandemic-related shutdowns.

The promising economic data, plus strong corporate earnings, helped lift the S&P 500 to another record close. It added 28.29 points, or 0.7%, to close at 4,211.47. The benchmark index has risen more than 10% since Biden's inauguration, putting him on track to have the best first-term markets kickoff of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq jumped 31.52 points, or 0.2%, to close at 14,082.55, while the Dow Jones industrial average climbed 239.98, or 0.7%, to settle at 34,060.36.

"The U.S. economy is going to enjoy a few more months of tremendous data releases on vaccinations, stimulus checks and pent-up consumer demand," Ed Moya, a financial analyst with OANDA, said Thursday in comments emailed to The Post. "The second half outlook is up in the air, but for now everyone wants to ride this last big wave of growth."

Consumer confidence rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in April, according to the Conference Board, as stimulus and improving labor market conditions left households feeling better about their incomes.

This time last year, more than 3.4 million Americans were applying for initial unemployment benefits, and the national unemployment rate was between 15 and 20%.

"How do I file for unemployment" was the most Googled question across the nation the past year, according to research from

But there's still a long way to go. More than 17 million Americans were drawing unemployment benefits across all programs this month. In 2019, average weekly initial claims hovered around 218,000.

Meanwhile, poverty rose to 11.7% in March, the highest level of the pandemic, according to research from the University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame, as Americans awaited the next round of stimulus relief. Children and women were hit the hardest by the spike, researchers said.

Many economists describe the recovery as "K-shaped" because of its diverging prospects for the rich and poor. But the divide is also splintering across gender lines. The U.S. economy added back 916,000 positions in March, but only about a third of these were regained by women. Women would need nearly 15 straight months of job gains at last month's level to recover the more than 4.6 million net jobs they have lost since February 2020, according to the National Women's Law Center.

Biden's March $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package broadened unemployment eligibility and extended some unemployment benefits through September, including the weekly $300 benefit offered by states.

Published : April 30, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Taylor Telford