The number of Americans applying for unemployment insurance have been defying expectations and hovering near historically low levels, but they’re not a good indicator of the state of the labor market right now, according to a Bloomberg Economics analysis.

The latest weekly data showed initial claims at 187,000 — near the lowest level of this century — and continuing claims falling to 1.81 million. The figures don’t necessarily suggest that the job market is tight, economists Anna Wong and Eliza Winger wrote in a note.

That’s because a historically low share of unemployed Americans are applying for benefits, in part because fewer are eligible and also because the weekly payouts haven’t kept up with inflation, the economists said. In other words, many people may be out of a job or struggling to find one but are not applying for benefits.

The economists calculated that if eligibility and the take-up rate of unemployment benefits had remained similar to levels before past recessions, unadjusted continuing claims would have been about 500,000 higher over the past year — on par with figures before the 1980, 1990-’91 and 2001 recessions.

“The exercise shows that the unique circumstances of the pandemic, as well as some longstanding structural factors with the system of unemployment benefits, have made jobless claims a less reliable signal of labor-market conditions,” the economists said.

The current share of jobless people eligible for unemployment insurance is low, the economists said, either because they have already exhausted their benefits during the pandemic, or because they’re just entering the labor market and don’t qualify for benefits.

Meanwhile, payouts haven’t kept pace with the recent gains in weekly wages. This might encourage more people to take up part-time gig or freelance work instead of applying for benefits.

Written by:  @Bloomberg

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