Fact-check: Were 20 million people on unemployment insurance when Biden took office?

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Karine Jean-Pierre: When Joe Biden “walked into this administration … 20 million people were on unemployment insurance benefits.”

PolitiFact's ruling: False

Here's why: During a recent press briefing, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre played down the impact of President Joe Biden’s policies on inflation.

Inflation has recently been at a 40-year high. Many economists say the American Rescue Plan — the coronavirus relief package that Biden, with only Democratic support in Congress, signed into law shortly after taking office in 2021 — has contributed to the rise in prices. Critics say putting more money in Americans’ pockets when they didn’t need the assistance has been a contributor to inflation, along with pandemic-related supply-chain troubles and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, both of which have disrupted flows of energy, food and other goods.

At a June 13 press briefing, Jean-Pierre played defense against the notion that the American Rescue Plan had a role in worsening inflation. The issue came up when a reporter asked about the precipitous drop in the stock market that day; by the end of the day, the benchmark Standard & Poors 500 had fallen by nearly 4%, pushing stocks into bear market territory, which is defined as the markets losing at least 20% of their value from recent highs.

"We know that the high prices are having a real effect on people's lives," Jean-Pierre said. "We get that. And we are incredibly focused on doing everything that we can to make sure that the economy is working for the American people. But we are coming out of the strongest job market in American history, and that matters. And a lot of that is thanks to the American Rescue Plan, which only Democrats voted for, and Republicans did not. It led to this historic economic boom that we're seeing with jobs."

The reporter followed up by asking, "Didn’t it also lead to historic inflation?"

Jean-Pierre responded, "That is not how we're seeing the American Rescue Plan. … We have to remember what the president walked into. When he walked into this administration, the economy was at a standstill. Schools were closed. Businesses were shutting down. Twenty million people were on unemployment insurance benefits. That is what he walked into."

A reader asked us whether Jean-Pierre was correct to say that when Biden "walked into this administration … 20 million people were on unemployment insurance benefits."

Jean-Pierre’s figure is way off.

To check what Jean-Pierre said, we looked at two federal statistics.

The first is the number of unemployed Americans, estimated every month from a federal survey of households. The unemployment level did peak at about 23 million people in April 2020, right when the economy was closing down due to the coronavirus. But that was nine months before Biden took office — and the number fell significantly before Biden was sworn in.

By January 2021, when Biden was being sworn in, the number of unemployed Americans had fallen by more than half, to 10.2 million. So according to this metric, Jean-Pierre cited a figure roughly double the actual number.

But there’s an even better metric to describe the number of Americans who "were on unemployment insurance benefits." And using this metric, Jean-Pierre is even further off base.

Like the unemployment level, the number of Americans collecting continuing unemployment benefits peaked at 23.1 million in early May 2020, only a few weeks into the pandemic’s initial burst.

But this figure fell even further than the unemployment level did. (The difference stems from the fact that not everyone who is unemployed qualifies for unemployment insurance.)

On the eve of Biden’s inauguration, the number of Americans collecting continuing unemployment insurance was a little under 4.9 million. That was still higher than the typical level prior to the pandemic — about 1.8 million — but less than a quarter of the 20 million figure that Jean-Pierre cited.

Jean-Pierre argued that the economy was so terrible that the American Rescue Plan was a must. But this glosses over the fact that the worst economic hit from the coronavirus-driven shutdowns occurred in the spring of 2020. Nine months later, when Biden took office, the economy was rebounding.

The White House did not respond to an inquiry for this article.

Our ruling

Jean-Pierre said that when Biden "walked into this administration … 20 million people were on unemployment insurance benefits."

The number of unemployed Americans did crack 20 million early in the pandemic, but Donald Trump was president at the time. By the time Biden was sworn in and was seeking passage of the American Rescue Plan, the number had fallen by about half, to 10 million.

An even more appropriate statistic for evaluating Jean-Pierre’s statement — the number of Americans continuing to collect unemployment insurance benefits — had fallen even further by the time Biden took office, to less than 5 million, or just a quarter of what Jean-Pierre had said.

We rate the statement False.

Our Sources

  • White House, press briefing, June 13, 2022

  • Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, unemployment level, accessed June 14, 2022

  • Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, continued claims (insured unemployment), accessed June 14, 2022

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: White House wrong on unemployment level when Joe Biden took office