Coronavirus hit US economy harder than great recession, minorities affected worse

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American unemployment rose more sharply in three months of coronavirus-spurred recession than it did in two years during the great recession, new data from Pew Research Center show.

In May, there were around 20.5 million unemployed Americans, up from 6.2 million in February. The unemployment rate stood at 3.8 percent in February, one of the lowest on record in the post-World War II era, but by May it was 13 percent – the era’s second highest, behind only April’s figures at 14.4 percent, the US-based research institute found.

“The rise in the number of unemployed workers due to COVID-19 is substantially greater than the increase due to the Great Recession, when the number unemployed increased by 8.8 million from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2010,” the report read.

During the great recession that spanned December 2007 to June 2009, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.6 percent in January 2010, “considerably less than the rate currently,” Pew’s analysis of government data found.

No demographic group was immune to job losses, but women and black men lost jobs at greater rates than white men. In the COVID-19 downturn, the unemployment rate for women reached 14.3 percent, where for men, it topped out at 11.9 percent. However, during the great recession, women fared better than men, peaking at 9.4 percent, where 12.3 percent of men found themselves jobless a decade ago.

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“One reason women have seen a greater rise in unemployment in the current downturn is that they accounted for the majority of workers on the payrolls of businesses in the leisure and hospitality sector and educational services sector in February,” Pew analysts wrote.

For minorities, those rates are higher. For minority women, those rates are even higher. The unemployment rate for black women in May 2020 was 17.2 percent; for Asian women, 16.7 percent; and for Hispanic women, 19.5 percent. Across the board, male minorities fared slightly better than their female counterparts, but all were four percentage points higher than white men. For black men, the unemployment rate was 15.8 percent.

A pedestrian walks past a closed barber shop in Ward 7 as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2020. (Reuters)
A pedestrian walks past a closed barber shop in Ward 7 as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2020. (Reuters)

However, during the recession unemployment for black men peaked at 21 percent.

“The reasons for this are not entirely clear but are likely rooted in the occupation and industry distributions of black men. Recessions in which the turmoil is centered in goods-producing sectors, such as the Great Recession, appear to take a greater toll on the job prospects of black men,” Pew analysts said.

African Americans have also faced unemployment in higher numbers than their white counterparts, leading to massive income inequality in the US. The average net worth of an average white family is $171,000, compared to $17,150, the average for a black family, research from Brookings found.

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“The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens,” authors of the Brookings study wrote.

Recent protests in America over police brutality and systemic racism have highlighted this gap as many have called for police departments to be defunded with funds reallocated toward community programs, and shifting police functions to other municipal departments or community groups.

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