The US economy bounced sharply back from the record-setting slump at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to government figures released on Thursday, handing Donald Trump a key talking point days before the election.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis gross domestic product (GDP) rose at an annualized rate of 33.1% between July and September and was up 7.4% compared to the previous quarter. The previous record was a 3.9% quarterly increase in 1950.
But the numbers show the US still has a long way to go to escape the devastation wrought by Covid-19 and were boosted by extra unemployment payments, business loans and direct payments, none of which have been replenished for the fourth quarter.
The news comes just five days before the US election and is the last major economic release before polls close. Even before the figures were released the Trump campaign released ads boasting: “FASTEST GDP GROWTH IN HISTORY.”
Big issues remain for the economy, however. The growth rate announcement came on the same day that the labor department announced that another 751,000 people filed for unemployment claims last week and the unemployment rate, at 7.9%, is twice as high as it was in February before the pandemic struck the US.
A closer look at the numbers shows that the US’s economic woes are far from over. Thursday’s figures follow an equally historic slump in the second quarter. The US economy shrank by a revised annual rate of 31.4% between April and June, its sharpest contraction since the second world war, as much of the country went into lockdown to control the virus.
The annual rate suggests the economy will continue on its current trend for the rest of the year. But such huge swings make the annualized figures misleading – no one expects such massive losses or gains to continue but most economists expect the US economy to be smaller at the end of the year than it was at the beginning.
Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC, said the figures represented “real growth” but added “there is still a long way to go before we get back to normal.”
The decision to reopen much of the economy has provided a considerable boost, especially to consumer spending, which drove much of the recovery. But it comes as coronavirus infections are soaring in the US. Covid cases hit new highs over the weekend and the US now has the largest number of infections, more than 8.6m, and deaths, over 225,000, in the world.
There are also signs that the recovery has slowed in recent months. Unemployment claims remain at historically high levels and the number of new jobs being created has dropped month on month. The economic situation for women, people of colour and teenagers remains difficult. The unemployment rate fell to 7.9% for the US population overall in September. For Black Americans it was 12.1% and for Black teens (16-19) it was over 20%.
GDP is the broadest measure of the economy and includes personal consumption, business investment, government spending and net exports. The figure has often been criticized as a measure of economic health - GDP growth has, for example, done little to address growing income inequality.
For some still feeling the impact of the pandemic and its attendant recession the latest GDP news was little comfort, especially as Congress remains deadlocked over further stimulus relief.
Tim Swartz in Mesa, Arizona, stopped receiving unemployment benefits on 5 September after the unemployment office flagged an issue with his payments. When the pandemic hit he had to stop working as an Uber and delivery driver to care for his five children, including one with special needs. His wife works full-time as a medicine technician at a facility for Alzheimer’s patients.
“I cannot get any answers from anyone on the phone or through emails. I’m behind on rent and utilities,” Swartz said. He has now received an eviction notice. “I’m not sure how we will pay the outstanding balances for rent and utilities,” he said.
“Many of us are losing hope along with everything we have worked so hard for,” said Swartz. Three of his children had to recently return to online learning after exposure to classmates who tested positive for coronavirus, further delaying his return to work. “Without any relief package to help keep the economy going I don’t see much growth in the near future and unfortunately even darker times ahead for American families.”