Why America’s economic recovery is stumbling as experts badly misjudge the labor market

Now Hiring sign
A BevMo store on April 2 in Larkspur, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • April’s jobs report was a big miss, suggesting the hiring rebound many anticipated was an illusion.
  • Virus fears, childcare pressures, and unemployment benefits all likely drove the weak payrolls read.
  • Biden has proposed massive packages focused on jobs, but they likely face months of negotiation.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Democratic political advisor James Carville became famous in the 1990s for his phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

After April’s shockingly disappointing jobs report, it looks more like: “It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s the virus.”

March’s strong jobs data – along with widespread projections of a coming economic boom – had raised optimism among economists for a continued recovery in the labor force. It prompted Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to deem March an “inflection point” for the reopening of the economy, and experts saw it kicking off a season of outsize payroll increases. But the drop in April makes clear the virus continues to bite.

Economists had expected payroll gains to reach 1 million, but the country added just 266,000 jobs last month. It was the smallest monthly increase since January and the biggest miss of payroll forecasts in more than two decades. The unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, female employment declined, and while hard-hit sectors like leisure and hospitality had healthy gains, most others posted either meager growth or shed jobs entirely.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Friday release underscores just how much the labor market still has to recover, and that the climb won’t be as easy as most economists anticipated. Even if April stands out as a gloomy outlier, the average pace of payroll growth suggests it may take years to fully recoup the millions of jobs lost to the pandemic.

What went wrong?

The jobs report was such a shock that it’s hard to find a single explanation at first glance. It also highlights just how inadequate forecasting tools are for measuring this unique economic moment.

Economists typically use a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to estimate growth. Indicators like weekly jobless claims and hours worked join anecdotal evidence and broad surveys to create forecasting models. Economists’ calculations, when tallied together and averaged, usually come close to guessing monthly payroll additions.

The April data serves as a wake-up call for the many forecasters who didn’t even come close to guessing correctly. Whether models overlooked details like COVID-19 fears, or bullish biases tarnished forecasts, economists need to reconcile how they were so wrong.

The disappointment was likely fueled by several factors instead of one solvable hurdle. Despite President Joe Biden’s overdelivering on vaccinations, the country is far from placing the coronavirus pandemic behind it. Daily case counts still averaged about 50,000 at the end of last month, and highly contagious strains continue to spread across the US.

The coronavirus pandemic has also been notable for the “she-cession,” hurting female employment much more than men. The absence of affordable childcare and lack of in-person schooling around the country likely kept some Americans home instead of working, as seen in the April report, which showed women – who disproportionately take on childcare responsibilities – losing jobs through the month.

How big is the labor shortage?

Last month, several businesses across the manufacturing and service sectors reported difficulties in finding workers. The jury is still out on how widespread worker shortages might be, as about 10 million Americans remain unemployed. On one hand, some economists suggested boosted unemployment benefits cut into the incentive to find work. Strong wage growth in the leisure and hospitality sector also signals businesses may need to lift compensation to attract workers.

“The benefits are due to expire in September, but perhaps people think jobs will be just as easy to find then as they are now, so why take a job today?” Ian Shepherdson, the chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said. “If people continue to resist taking the jobs on offer at the pay on offer, then wages will have to rise more quickly.”

The Chamber of Commerce called on lawmakers to withdraw the federal benefit to unemployment insurance following the April report. The supplement results in 25% of recipients earning more from unemployment benefits than by working, Neil Bradley, the executive vice president and chief policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.

“We need a comprehensive approach to dealing with our workforce issues and the very real threat unfilled positions pose to our economic recovery from the pandemic,” he added.

The April data does not quite agree with the chamber’s argument, showing labor demand overshadowing anecdotes of a supply shortage. April job gains were strongest in lower-wage industries and in sectors with in-person jobs. The composition of last month’s job additions “doesn’t scream supply constraints as the problem,” Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed, wrote on Twitter.

Separately, the number of Americans temporarily laid off ticked slightly higher in April. That also signals labor demand wasn’t as robust as businesses’ anecdotes suggested.

In other labor-market data, the steady decline in weekly jobless claims now looks much less encouraging for the recovery. The April uptick in unemployment comes as filings for unemployment benefits fell throughout the month to numerous pandemic-era lows. The drops initially seemed to signal that more Americans were returning to work, but BLS’s report suggests the downtrend has more to do with Americans dropping out of assistance programs than finding employment.

It could take months for the government to lend a hand

Much of the past few months’ promising job gains were linked to massive stimulus packages. The CARES Act helped a sharp hiring rebound after initial COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020. And Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan in March spurred stronger economic activity last month.

The president has since rolled out two new spending proposals, the larger of which would spend $2.3 trillion on job creation. The American Jobs Plan would create millions of jobs by funding traditional infrastructure projects, clean-energy initiatives, and nationwide broadband, Biden said in a speech Thursday. Biden’s administration has at other times cited a Moody’s Analytics projection of 2.7 million new jobs from the American Jobs Plan.

The smaller package, named the American Families Plan, could support hiring in its own right by overhauling the care economy, as it seeks to provide paid family and medical leave and childcare support.

But such support is likely months away. Republicans have balked at both plans, criticizing their hefty price tags and the tax hikes proposed to offset them. Democrats seem to face a challenge in passing the package on a party-line vote via reconciliation, as some moderates in their party have yet to throw their full support behind the follow-up packages as they exist.

To be sure, the April report represents just one month of hiring. May numbers could show a healthy rebound and revive the positive trend. The economy is not even fully reopened from virus-safety considerations yet, so rebounds are likely.

But with additional fiscal support far on the horizon and economists highlighting a number of obstacles hindering job growth, the resurgent spring recovery for jobs that many economists were predicting is gone.