March 14, 2021, 2:10 p.m. EDT

One year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, is the U.S returning to normal? Many Americans say their finances will take years to recover

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By Andrew Keshner

As the ambitious $1.9-trillion relief package makes its way to President Joe Biden’s desk, COVID-19 vaccinations numbers climb and the public-health crisis marks its one-year anniversary since being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, it might be tempting to think the U.S. is returning to a kind of normal.

Weekly  unemployment benefit claims  dipped by 42,000 to 712,000 in the week ended March 6, the Labor Department said Thursday, the lowest level since the week ended Nov. 7. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal had forecast new claims would fall to a seasonally adjusted 725,000 from last week’s initial estimate of 745,000, which was revised up by 9,000 to 754,000.

During the pandemic, the share of unemployed Americans peaked in April when the unemployment rate was 14.7%, amounting to more than 23 million unemployed Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

However, a new survey of 10,000 people shows how far away normalcy remains for those who have been pummeled by the pandemic.

Just over half of all non-retired adults (51%) said the coronavirus pandemic will make it harder to reach whatever long-term financial goals they may have; 7% of participants said the pandemic forced them to postpone retirement and 17% think they’ll have to put it off.

Recovery is relative, said Juliana Horowitz, Pew Research Center’s associate director of social trends research. “It means getting back to the point where they were already struggling.”

The latest Pew survey paints a picture that’s decidedly mixed, adding more numbers to the idea of a so-called “K-shaped recovery” where rich and poor households diverge.

“There’s a very clear divide based on income in terms of how people are experiencing this,” Horowitz said.

The Pew survey is a reminder of the pandemic’s uneven effects, just like Friday’s jobs reports. Though some economists heralded it as a glimpse of the “ green shoots of recovery ,” there’s a more sobering take when looking at the numbers through a race and gender lens.

Women still had 5.1 million fewer jobs than they did in February 2020 while men had 4.4 million fewer jobs, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“Millions of women in hard hit industries are out of work and will need support to pay their bills and get back to paid work ,” said C. Nicole Mason, CEO at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “This month’s Jobs Day report shows that one in 10 fewer Black and Hispanic women are employed compared to a year ago.”

For example , the unemployment rate for Black woman edged up in February, to 8.9% from 8.5%, a reflection of the fact that many Black woman worked in hard-hit industries like child care and hospitality.

Clear divide based on income

Overall, 21% of participants in the Pew survey said they emerged from 2020 in worse financial shape, while 30% said they in better shape. Nearly half (49%) said they were essentially the same as before.

More than half of the people who told the Pew Research Center they left 2020 in worse money shape say they won’t fully recover until 2023.

Just over half (26%) of the people who told Pew they were in worse shape now than before the pandemic say they’ll need between three and five years to get back on their feet.

Some 6% estimate it will take them up to 10 years, and 12% say their money situation will never bounce back to the way it was in early 2020.

Others see a rebound coming, like analysts at Goldman Sachs /zigman2/quotes/209237603/composite GS +2.33% who forecast a 6.6% growth in gross domestic product this year, 2.5 percentage points above consensus. Other economists believe a full recovery for the economy will take two years — and that’s the quickest timetable for a personal finance recovery.

Lower-income participants in the Pew survey were far more likely to reduce spending, use rainy day savings, go into debt and borrow from friends and family, the survey showed.

Economists and health professionals, in the meantime, say the economy’s upward trajectory is directly related to the downward trajectory of new COVID-19 infections.

When asked last month whether Americans will still be wearing masks in 2022 and when life will return to normal, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,  told CNN . “It is possible that that’s the case, and again it really depends on what you mean by normality.”

“If normality means exactly the way things were before we had this happen to us, I mean, I can’t predict that,” he said. “Obviously, I think we’re going to have a significant degree of normality beyond what a terrible burden all of us have been through over the last year.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, officially ended his state’s public face-mask mandate Wednesday, and allowed businesses to reopen, despite opposition, a move decried by many healthcare professionals. Austin, the fourth-largest city in Texas, defied the statewide policy and said the mask mandate will remain in place.

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