August job gains for the US were disappointing, with an increase in total nonfarm payroll employment of 235,000 and the unemployment rate down 0.2 percentage point to 5.2%. An increase of this magnitude isn't bad by historical standards and is, in fact, somewhat above the average during the 11 years of expansion prior to the pandemic. However, it's not the strong economic recovery from the COVID downturn we would like to see, and it's a far smaller increase than those observed in recent months.
A year ago, the economy had begun to stabilize after two months of cataclysmic decline due to COVID-19 and the massive response. Almost overnight, millions of jobs disappeared, and an economy in the midst of a record-shattering expansion suddenly went into freefall.
Although the pandemic has spared no one, it has had a disproportionate impact on working women. Over the past year, females have been more likely to leave the workforce due to job losses or conflicts with the added responsibilities surrounding childcare and household sustainability. As the economy recovers, these valuable members of the workforce will be essential. The latest Census numbers make that abundantly clear. Moreover, for many, working is indispensable for financial stability.
It's now been a year since COVID-19 began to upend the lives of people around the world. The human cost has been tragic, and measures needed to slow the spread of the virus have also taken a toll on mental health and wellbeing. From an economic perspective, the pandemic has caused substantial and, in many cases, catastrophic losses.
The latest stimulus comes with a price tag of $1.9 trillion, adding to the $4 trillion authorized last year. The final bill is a "mixed bag," with numerous provisions crucial to sustaining the recovery but others less essential. Such is inevitably the case when anything of significance grinds its way through the Congressional sausage-maker. Make no mistake, however, a substantial package was indeed necessary.
With the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, one of the vital services impacted was public transit. Ridership across the nation plummeted due to safety concerns, falling to 80% below normal early on and lingering around 60% below 2019 levels at the end of 2020. Public transit ridership in Texas was slightly more stable, ending the year at around 50% of prior rates in major metros such as Houston and Austin (hardly a distinction).
Every industry has been impacted by the pandemic, though obviously to varying degrees. In construction, work substantially slowed in most segments in 2020, although housing (buoyed by historically low mortgage rates) was one relative bright spot. Many contractors faced delayed or cancelled projects due to lower economic activity and uncertainty. According to a survey from the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), 44% of contractors had at least one project cancelled and 59% had projects postponed to 2021. Many of those initiatives remain in limbo. Overall volume was down about 16% in 2020. While there are small signs of confidence increasing as the path forward becomes somewhat clearer, it remains uncertain when or even whether demand will improve this year.
The pandemic created upheaval in multiple areas of Americans' lives last year, including where they live and how they work. The overall volume of moves was down last year due to the complexity created by the virus, but the patterns were both enlightening and harbingers of things to come. While the US population is always mobile in response to economic conditions and preferences, a recent survey by Hire a Helper found that about a quarter of 2020 moves were related to COVID-19, with the most commonly cited reasons being (1) escaping the worst of the pandemic, (2) losing a job or income, and (3) sheltering-in-place with or taking care of family.
One of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic has been airlines. The sharp decrease in demand for air travel due to shutdowns and safety concerns has severely crimped revenues and profits. Companies are struggling to maintain service and, in some cases, to survive intact.
After a rugged and seemingly endless 2020, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. We are not done yet, but with vaccination programs ongoing and the disease and effective treatments better understood, we should be able to establish a new normal at some point in 2021. There are myriad challenges, but the path is beginning to emerge.