More than 40 million people lost their jobs in the last few months, in the fastest and deepest economic slowdown ever recorded. More than half of all households with low incomes in the United States have experienced a loss of earnings, as have a quarter of all adults. The numbers are grim — but as bad as things look today, they’re on track to get much, much worse.
The US economy right now is like a jumbo jet that’s in a steady glide after both its engines flamed out. In about six weeks, it will likely crash into the side of a mountain.
What’s kept us in the air so far is an extraordinary government relief effort. In most states, evictions have been temporarily banned, preventing a mass homelessness crisis. Most federal student loan payments have been put on hold, removing one of the largest recurring monthly expenses that millions of people face. Banks were ordered to give their customers a six-month break on mortgage payments if requested.
Most importantly, and counterintuitively, household income sharply increased in April as hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wages were replaced by trillions in government spending. The government sent out more than 159 million stimulus payments of up to $1,200 per adult (more if you have kids), and more than 20 million unemployed people became eligible for an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits. The result, according to Bloomberg, was the largest monthly increase in household income ever recorded.
This happened in April, when there were far fewer things to spend your money on; shops and restaurants were closed, nobody went to the ball game or took the kids to a theme park, and a shaggy nation longed for a haircut. Meanwhile, the prospect of a massive economic crash meant that Americans who were still on the job were more likely to tuck money away that they might otherwise have spent. So the national savings rate — the share of people’s income that is saved rather than spent — hit 33%, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, also the highest level ever recorded. In the same month that we reached the worst mass unemployment in living memory, Americans saved a total of $6.15 trillion — up by $4 trillion from the month prior.