Unmagical Numbers

rampell chart 0820

You know me and math, so maybe it will not surprise you that I can’t make sense of unemployment these days. But I’m guessing I’m not alone.

Yesterday the report for new unemployment filings came out, and another one million Americans filed, the 20th week in a row that at least that many people have done so. Twenty weeks is more than four and a half months. This morning the numbers for July jobs came out, and the economy added 1.78 million of them — it sounded like this was more than expected, although down by more than half from the June gain.

But what I don’t know is: is this a net number? You take the 1-plus million who lost jobs each week in July, for probably a total around 5 million, but nearly 7 million people gained employment? Or are these two numbers completely untethered? Nearly 1.8 million people found jobs while 5 million lost them?

I’m being told (right as I type this) that unemployment has dropped to 10.2%, but I am remembering that when I was being told it was at 13 percent that data collection methods really underrepresented that percentage.

The upshot, then, is that some people have jobs and some don’t, and many of those that don’t either never really got a lifeline during Pandemia or have just lost a large percentage of it through the loss of enhanced unemployment benefits.

I recently read something about the importance of gratitude, but somehow it feels wrong to count my blessing of financial security when CBS interviews an unemployed bartender who has 3 dollars and 83 cents to her name. Her gratitude may go to CBS; since the news channel intervened, the woman’s unemployment office said it would fast-track her stalled case. But what about all the people who don’t have CBS in their corner?

Just as I need it, here comes Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post with a chart and additional explanation, and what it boils down to is: we have a long way to go.

Her estimate is that if you factor in underemployment and those not even looking for work, we get to an unemployment rate of 17%. But she notes that 10 percent, which wasn’t sounding too terrible to me, is higher than the depths of the recession of a decade ago.

She — or someone she quotes in her column — further notes that these numbers have all come with considerable financial assistance, all of which is going away.

For the unemployed, the additional money ran out a week ago. I was going to say Congress allowed this to happen, but if we want to be realistic, the House passed a bill in May that the Senate waited until less than two weeks ago to take up. And while Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now being accused of playing hardball at the expense of Americans, Mitch McConnell and the Senate have not brought her much to swing at.

The Senate has decided, since the senators can’t decide among themselves what they want to do (because apparently they gave this no thought or discussion up until two weeks ago — maybe the problem was going to magically go away just like coronavirus) that they would be willing to extend the extra $600 per week to the unemployed. But only for one week.

That is some serious can kicking right there. Which is obviously Congress’ favorite game, Kick the Can, because that’s all they seem to know how to do. Here’s another number, one that probably doesn’t need any further explanation: the public approval rating for Congress is at 15%.

I did just learn this morning, though, that the Senate has included a deduction for business lunches in their rescue/bail-out/stimulus plan. If it wasn’t clear before which constituency the Senate kowtows to, this process should make it abundantly clear. And I suppose it will work, as long as we use a “wallet test,” along with a color chart, to determine who gets to vote.

If you can afford business lunches right now, with or without a deduction, well, you’re not any small business I know. And business assistance comes to an end today, the final day to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program — assuming you can find any banking entity anywhere to accept your application.

I recently learned that I used my PPP money all wrong — some man in Florida who doesn’t seem to have any employees managed to get one of these loans that can be converted to grants for nearly $3 million, 10 percent of which he used to purchase a Lamborghini for himself, in what turned out to be too obvious a misuse of funds.

And here I was, using mine for payroll. (I also received slightly less than $3 million. Not that I and my long-harbored Lamborghini ambitions are bitter.)

I used the last of my loan that I hope to convert to a grant as soon as I can wade through the paperwork on Aug. 3. With that, I am just about out of assistance money and am now trying to determine what that means for Pat’s Screen Printing, which ought to be having a big party this month to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

After trying to do math that proved beyond me yesterday, I switched metrics and instead toted up my accounts and accounts receivable, determining that we have almost exactly the same amount of cash as we did on Jan. 1, before there was any true notion of Pandemia.

The difference is that on Jan. 1 I knew I had to get to July with that money; now, post-July, I have no date to target and no end in sight. Because I love calendars so much, in my head I keep having the notion that if we can get to Dec. 31 intact we’ll be fine. But that’s hardly correct: even in the best of years we have to have enough in the bank on Jan. 1 to get to July.

So it may be that if this is Jan. 1, I still have to get to July, except that July is really July, a full year away.

I filled out an application this week for a private grant, preferentially aimed at women, minorities, veterans and disabled business owners. It also said “rural,” which is our best chance of qualifying, but not a single question in the application asked about our rural status.

There was a small essay portion, where I pointed out our ruralness and Kara’s womanness (because they only asked about me and not my business partner), but the last time I filled out something similar it set off a cascade of monthly rejection e-mails, which is every bit as deflating as it sounds.

There’s another grant out there, but so far it’s like a presidential health care plan (“coming any ol’ day now — keep waiting!”) with the promise of a vast amount of paperwork for an as-yet-unreleased application form.

The county keeps sending out surveys, wanting to know how business is going and what it can do to help.

The only real help for both businesses and the unemployed, whatever their legions, is for this virus to be brought under control. Not by wishing it away, but through accurate, available, rapid testing and contact tracing. (I did suggest the county either lobby the state or look into joining the coalition Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan put together to bypass the feds to try to really get something done on this front.)

And if that’s asking too much, then the Senate needs to quit wishing the need for business (not the Fortune 500 and their readiness with corporate tax breaks) and unemployment assistance will magically go away, and DO SOMETHING.

So now who’s indulging in magical thinking? That’s the pity, right there.


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