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Unemployment Claims Stay Stubbornly High As Biden Takes Office

The number of Americans filing for new state unemployment benefits dipped to 900,000 — down from the previous week but still high by historical standards, signaling the economic challenges facing the Biden administration.

The latest weekly data from the Labor Department was likely distorted somewhat by the ebb and flow of government relief programs, but the overall picture continues to show a struggling U.S. job market as President Biden takes office.

Claims for help under a federal program for gig workers and the self-employed rose sharply, suggesting many people are trying to renew their benefits after that program briefly lapsed in December.

Between the two programs, a total of 1.3 million unemployed workers sought help last week, a modest increase from the week before.

Biden has made clear he will prioritize dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout as the recent surge in infections continues to weigh on in-person businesses such as bars and restaurants.

The unemployment rate held steady last month at 6.7%, but job growth has stalled. And as the pandemic drags on, more people are exhausting traditional unemployment benefits, which typically last just six months. An emergency extension approved last spring expired just after Christmas.

Congress provided a temporary extension of unemployment aid as part of a $900 billion relief bill passed last month. But that lasts only until mid-March. And it's doubtful many of the nearly 16 million people currently receiving unemployment benefits will be back to work by then.

Last week, Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan that includes extending emergency jobless benefits at least through September or longer if conditions warrant, as well as $1,400 stimulus checks for most Americans.

Whether the bill can pass Congress is uncertain given its magnitude.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., complained this week about what he called "snooze button" legislating, in which Congress has to repeatedly renew aid programs because they don't last long enough. That can result in temporary lapses of aid as recipients have to reapply to overwhelmed state unemployment offices.

Biden's nominee to head the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, tweeted on Tuesday, "Let's automatically adjust the length and amount of relief depending on health and economic conditions so future legislative delay doesn't undermine the recovery and families' access to benefits they need."

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.