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• Biden’s 18 million figure accurately represents the combination of traditional unemployment insurance recipients and those who benefited from temporary programs during the coronavirus pandemic.
• The number of unemployment claims today is about 1.6 million, as Biden said.
• However, Biden’s two snapshots in time aren’t precisely comparable because the pandemic programs have been phased out. And some people who received benefits in 2021 also didn’t fit the official "unemployed" definition.
President Joe Biden recently touted his administration’s progress on getting people off the sidelines — and the jobless rolls — and back into the workforce.
"Two years ago this week, 18 million people were out of work needing unemployment benefits. Today, that number is under 1.6 million, the lowest in decades," Biden tweeted Jan. 25.
The standard measures for unemployment show a smaller number of unemployed Americans two years ago. But the White House provided PolitiFact with a spreadsheet that backed up Biden’s numbers. The difference is that the official statistics did not include a large swath of people who received assistance through temporary, pandemic-era programs.
Official Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show there were about 10.2 million unemployed Americans nationwide in January 2021. The most recent data available is for December, when about 5.7 million people were unemployed.
So, using this measurement, Biden was too high on the unemployment figure for two years ago (he said 18 million), and too low on the figure for "today" (he said 1.6 million).
Another measurement — continuing unemployment insurance claims — gets Biden closer to today’s number, but moves him even further from what the figure was two years ago. The two statistics aren’t in lockstep for a few reasons, a major one being that some people who are out of work do not qualify for benefits, or choose not to claim them.
Data for continuing claims is available weekly. For the week of Jan. 14, 2023, (the latest available), there were almost 1.7 million people filing continuing unemployment claims, close to the number Biden cited in his tweet. But if you look at that same statistic about two years ago — the week of Jan. 23, 2021 — 4.8 million people were receiving this type of unemployment compensation. So, by this measure, part of Biden’s claim was off by nearly a factor of four.
So what’s going on?
The White House told PolitiFact that when Biden said there were 18 million people who needed unemployment benefits two years ago, he was also counting people who benefited from two temporary unemployment insurance programs: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. The White House did not cite this evidence when we fact-checked a related statement from White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in June.
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was designed to temporarily expand eligibility for unemployment insurance to self-employed and gig workers during the pandemic. The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Assistance program temporarily extended assistance by 13 weeks.
For unclear reasons, data from these programs isn’t included in the standard unemployment claims data. According to the White House spreadsheet, these two programs pushed the total number of unemployment benefit recipients up to about 18 million in January 2021, as Biden had tweeted. Since both programs have lapsed, the December 2022 figures do not have to be adjusted upward to account for them.
Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington. D.C., think tank, said the White House’s decision to add the two pandemic-era programs to the tally is reasonable. Based on how the programs were structured, there should not be much if any double-counting, he added.
Burtless offered a few caveats. He said that some gig workers — people who work as freelancers or contractors — may have qualified for payments for working fewer hours than normal, rather than being entirely unemployed. People in this category would not have met the official definition of being "unemployed," which is how Biden’s tweet characterized them.
The long-standing government definition of "unemployed" is to be both "available for work" and "actively searching for work." But it’s hard to tell whether state-run unemployment agencies "were zealously enforcing" unemployment rules amid the pandemic’s economic disruptions, Burtless said.
Finally, Burtless noted that wider unemployment insurance options were available in January 2021 than in December 2022, given that the pandemic programs have phased out. Therefore, he said, a direct comparison like the one Biden made in his tweet is an apples-and-oranges contrast.
Still, Biden’s assertion that today’s unemployment claims are the lowest in decades is on target. Although the most recent month isn’t the lowest ever, a string of recent months have all been at historically low levels.
Biden tweeted, "Two years ago this week, 18 million people were out of work needing unemployment benefits. Today, that number is under 1.6 million, the lowest in decades."
The 18 million figure accurately represents the combination of traditional unemployment insurance recipients and those who benefited from temporary programs during the coronavirus pandemic. And Biden’s 1.6 million figure for unemployment claims today is accurate.
But Biden’s two snapshots in time aren’t precisely comparable because the pandemic programs have been phased out, effectively offering more lenient opportunities for assistance two years ago than there are today. And some people who received unemployment benefits two years ago, including gig workers who worked fewer hours than they typically would, also didn’t fit the official definition of being unemployed.
There’s data supporting Biden’s claim, but his statement leaves out important details and context. We rate it Half True.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, unemployment level, accessed Jan. 25, 2023
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, "continued claims (insured unemployment)," accessed Jan. 25, 2023
Labor Department, "Unemployment Insurance Relief During COVID-19 Outbreak," accessed Jan. 25, 2023
Investopedia, "What Was Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)?" accessed Jan. 25, 2023
JPMorgan Chase, "Lessons learned from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program during COVID-19," accessed Jan. 25, 2023
Email interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, Jan. 25, 2023
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