BPI Media
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BPI Media

What Double-Digit Unemployment Feels Like.

by Danny Franklin and Jessica Reis

Today’s job numbers are a look in the rear-view mirror. The announced unemployment rate of 4.4% is clearly lagging: most of the data collected was in the first half of March, before stay-at-home orders began to cover much of the country, and before over 10 million Americans successfully filed for unemployment benefits over the past two weeks.

So what is the real unemployment rate? In our own data, we are seeing figures that suggest the real unemployment rate today is in the high teens. Our survey data collection over the past week has seen a significant uptick in the share of registered voters who say they are unemployed — and when we take them relative to the share of people who are in the workforce, we arrive at a range of between 16–18% unemployment.

To be sure, our survey sampling methodology is not designed nor suited to predict the unemployment rate; this figure is an estimate at best. But — given that we have seen this across a few of our surveys, and given that today’s job figures are so plainly lagging — we want people to understand the scale of this unprecedented disruption: the US is in all likelihood experiencing unemployment well into the double-digits.

And of course, the unemployment rate is just one data point in this unprecedented time, and just one way the coronavirus pandemic is touching American lives. Our data show that the outbreak — and the ensuing lifestyle changes, economic impact, and health anxiety — is impacting nearly every American. In BPI’s latest poll of registered voters[1], a plurality report that the outbreak is having a major impact on their lives — with fully 89% in total saying their lives have been affected.

The consequences of this are deeply felt:

· 44% are living in a household that has lost income due to a decrease in hours or less business during the outbreak. This is hitting young people especially hard — 63% of Millennial/GenZ voters’ households have already lost income.

· Nearly a quarter, 24%, are living in a household where someone has already lost a job. Again, this is disproportionally affecting younger people: 41% of Millennial/GenZ households have had someone lose a job, and 27% have personally lost a job. People of color, too, are disproportionately impacted: 41% of households have lost a job due to the pandemic.

· About a third of voters overall say they’ve living in a house where school or classes have been cancelled, including 40% of GenX, 54% of Millennials, and 66% of those under 25.

The situation for many of these folks is dire. Fully 40% percent of those in a household who have lost a job are not confident about covering monthly expenses, and 42% say they couldn’t cover an unexpected $400 expense.

As no surprise, perceptions of the overall economy have plummeted over the past month. The share of votes who thinks the economy is doing well has fallen 24 points, from 64% to 40%, a next-to-unheard-of drop in just four weeks’ time (even in the second half of 2008, Gallup’s monthly economic numbers never fell by double digits).

Yet, the data suggest that — like the official unemployment figures — many voters’ views on their personal finances are lagging as well. Most, especially those who have not lost income, say their personal finances are doing ok, and most still have confidence in their retirement, including 66% of Baby Boomers. Three-quarters still believe that “if I work hard, I can get ahead and meet my financial goals.”

Our interpretation: while many Americans have felt the firsthand impact of pandemic, many are still waiting for the other shoe to drop. They know the national macroeconomy is headed for a shock — but as we shut in and participate in that economy less, it feels less real to many. At least this week.

In a sense, their perceptions are much like today’s unemployment rate: a snapshot in time that will soon be updated. And as shut-ins continue, as more people lose jobs, and as the health risk becomes more real — we suspect that views will update, just like the unemployment rate may update to the high double digits.

[1] BPI conducted a nationally representative poll of 800 registered voters, from March 26–30, 2020. Data from our previous poll refers to a survey of 1200 registered voters that fielded February 25–27, 2020.

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