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Despite improved jobs numbers, Americans are still struggling

The U.S. economy is continuing to climb back from its worst depths during the pandemic. The latest unemployment report contained good news about workers returning to the labor force, and about half of the 22 million jobs originally shed have been recovered. But how are average Americans faring financially? We hear from some of them, and economist Diane Swonk joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The economy is continuing to climb back from the worst depths of the pandemic. Today's unemployment report did contain good news about more workers returning to the labor force, but hiring in August slowed compared to the previous few months.

    The U.S. economy has now recovered about half of the 22 million jobs shed during the plunge.

    Before we look at the latest, let's hear from a few Americans about the huge struggles they are facing.

  • Umut Bayramoglu:

    My name is Umut Bayramoglu. I live in Lawrence, Kansas.

  • Michael Dorsey:

    My name is Michael Dorsey. I'm in San Diego, California.

  • Shawn Nanney:

    My name is Shawn Nanney. I'm from Martin, Tennessee.

  • Michael Dorsey:

    My weekly unemployment benefits is $317 a week. My rent is $290 a week. It doesn't take much math, man; $317 minus $290, that's $27 a week. So, that's — that's it.

  • Umut Bayramoglu:

    This is the first time in my life that I have applied for any sort of assistance at all. I started going to the food bank in March. And that was a difficult adjustment to make. It was a food bank that I actually previously had volunteered for.

  • Shawn Nanney:

    I was pursuing my Ph.D., and I was in the last year of that.

    We didn't qualify for unemployment insurance. So, I had to, unfortunately, make the call last week to sell my house. And I guess I was fortunate enough that it happened pretty quickly.

    But it was — you know, it was my house. And I had to give that up in order to — so that I could have health insurance, so that, you know, that I could pay my bills. I'm in debt, maxed out on my credit cards, and not really a lot of options.

  • Michael Dorsey:

    We are one people, one country. So, if one of us is hurting — it's just like in your family. If your brother is hurting, you're hurting. And you help your brother out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we thank each one of you for sending in what is going on in your life.

    Millions of Americans, we know, are enduring exactly the sort of profound economic hardship we just heard about. Given that, what do today's jobs numbers tell us?

    Diane Swonk is the chief economist with Grant Thornton. She's back with help to with some answers.

    Diane, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, 1.4 million jobs added last month. What does that tell us?

  • Diane Swonk:

    Well, the good news is that we generated over a million jobs in the private sector, but 240,000 of those job gains were temporary census hires that will go away at the end of September.

    So we still had a million job gains, over a million job gains in the private sector. The problem is, that is not nearly enough or fast enough to get us out of this deep hole we are still in, which is more than 11 million from the peak we saw in February.

    That is a huge number compared to the 8.8 million jobs we lost during the Great Recession. And so we really are still sort of chasing a moving target here. And the pace of job growth is slowing, and our ability to pull workers back in from the sidelines is starting to diminish.

    In fact, we have lost 3.7 million workers in the labor force since that peak in February. So, if you included those as the unemployed, you would have an unemployment rate closer to 10 percent or higher than what we have today, the official rate of 8.4 percent.

    Also, the ranks of the permanently unemployed are rising right now, and that is something that we don't want to see happening right now. The people that are on long-term unemployment and that have figured out they are not going to be recalled to their jobs in a still socially distant world is rising.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we said, fewer jobs added in August than have been added in June and July.

    Which sectors, Diane Swonk, are doing well, are robust, and which ones are struggling?

  • Diane Swonk:

    Well, there's really no robust sectors out there. The finance sector has lost the fewest number of jobs. But every major sector has lost jobs since February. And that is important to remember as we look at this data.

    Of course, the leisure and hospitality sector lost the most jobs and has regained the most jobs, but they are still 4.4 million down from their peak in February. And that really gives you a sense of, even as we reopen, how much it is a struggle for restaurant and bars to be able to fully restaff, when you still need to socially distance. The same is true of hotels.

    So, I think that is really what the moral of the story is. Those hardest hit, those low-wage jobs hardest hit, are the hardest to bring back. And, of course, there's still many workers that are working from home, or they are at home and being paid, but not working.

    Those workers, 11.4 percent of the unemployed, those workers are important — of the employed — are important, because they are the most vulnerable for additional layoffs as we go into the fall. And that includes high-wage workers as well.

    So, even though low-wage workers continue to get hit the hardest, and women have sort of not even come back into the labor force — we got a nice uptick in labor force participation, but it wasn't by women, because, of course, their kids are still online and at home, and that makes it harder for them to rejoin the labor force.

    That's really compromising many households' ability to pay for food and rent, as you noted in your earlier segment by all of those voices of people that are still struggling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So quickly, Diane Swonk, the reason that jobs aren't coming back faster than they are, it all goes back to COVID?

  • Diane Swonk:

    You can't — actually, we cannot — the course of COVID will determine the course of the economy.

    As viruses surge again on the heels of colleges and schools reopening, you see again people pull back. And we really have seen a plateau in job growth, a slowdown in the pace of job growth, and a plateau in spending at the places we need to see job growth most, restaurants, bars and hotels.

    So that really is hard going into what will be a colder season and an inability to also have outside service at many of these establishments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So tough hearing this and hearing these stories of real Americans.

    Diane Swonk, thank you so much. Good to see you.

  • Diane Swonk:

    You too.

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