WASHINGTON – A much-awaited economic boom coming off the pandemic recession appeared to edge closer to reality Thursday with fresh data showing the pace of layoffs dwindling, consumers spending freely and manufacturing rebounding.
The latest barometers point to a U.S. economy that's steadily regaining its health as vaccinations accelerate, business curbs are lifted in many states and more people are willing to travel, shop, eat out and otherwise resume their spending habits. Though many Americans who have lost jobs or income are still suffering, hopes are rising that the benefits of the recovery will spread further in the coming months to groups of people who have yet to benefit.
The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits tumbled last week to 576,000, the Labor Department said Thursday, a post-COVID low and a sign that layoffs are easing.
And sales at retail stores and restaurants jumped 9.8% in March, the biggest gain since last May, when the economy first started to rebound from the virus' initial blow. With U.S. household savings high, economists are optimistic that the faster spending is sustainable.
“We are really kicking into that next gear now," said Adam Kamins, senior regional economist at Moody's Analytics. "Things are moving more decisively in the right direction than at any time in the past year.”
The pace of weekly applications for unemployment aid is now down significantly from a peak of 900,000 in early January and has dropped below the 700,000-plus level where it had been stuck for months.
A total of 16.9 million people are continuing to collect unemployment benefits, down from 18.2 million in the previous week. That decline suggests that some of the unemployed are being called back to jobs. But the large number of ongoing recipients also points to the harsh impact of the pandemic on tens of millions of households.
Trillions of dollars of government stimulus, including $1,400 checks that have gone to most adults, as well as higher savings that many households have managed to build, have fueled more spending. Auto sales soared 15% in March, according to the government's retail sales report. Purchases at electronics and appliance stores jumped more than 10%. Sales at clothing stores soared 18%.