Unexpected ways the economy has responded to the pandemic : The Indicator from Planet Money Stacey and Cardiff discuss some of the non-obvious ways the coronavirus pandemic — and the policy response to it — has reshaped the U.S. economy.

A Few Freaky Facts

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

The COVID pandemic has transformed our lives in so many ways, a lot of them just really big, really obvious. Here on THE INDICATOR, we've talked about a lot of them. People have been struggling to pay rent. Schools have been closed. People have been spending more time at home. Also, industries like the performing arts and restaurants have really struggled. But every once in a while, we also like to zoom in on some of the non-obvious ways things have changed - things that might have slipped under the radar.

GARCIA: Yeah. And so today on the show, we are sharing three frankly bizarre, unexpected facts - facts about economic trends that we've been following, facts that show just how unpredictable the economy's response to the events of the past six months has been.

VANEK SMITH: Fun facts - OK, they're not fun.

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: It's, like, freaky...

GARCIA: Freaky facts.

VANEK SMITH: Freaky facts.

GARCIA: It's like fun facts Friday but...

VANEK SMITH: For economics.

GARCIA: But it's not Friday, so it's, I guess, freaky facts Fuesday (ph)...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: ...Maybe. I don't know. We'll work on it.

VANEK SMITH: I like Fuesday. I like - it's like when a Tuesday feels like a Friday. It's Fuesday. I think...

GARCIA: Well...

VANEK SMITH: We could make that work.

GARCIA: ...Whatever they are (laughter), those three facts right after a quick break.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

GARCIA: Strange facts about the COVID economy - here we go. First up, at the end of July, more people said that they were doing OK financially than before the pandemic and the huge recession that was caused by the pandemic. That's according to a big, new survey by the Federal Reserve that was just released.

VANEK SMITH: Specifically, 77% of adults said that they were doing OK financially at the end of July. That's more than the 75% of adults who said the same thing toward the end of last year, before all this started. And this just seems really strange. I mean, 11 million people have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. And, you know, the economy also totally collapsed at the second quarter of the year.

GARCIA: Yeah, so what could explain this apparent contradiction between a terrible economy and so many people feeling fine about their finances? Well, one reason, according to the Fed, is that how people assess their financial situation is closely tied to whether they are still employed, whether they kept their job. And even though so many jobs have been lost, it's still the case that most people did keep their jobs and that millions of people who initially lost their jobs when the pandemic started have now been rehired.

VANEK SMITH: Another reason so many people say that they are still doing OK - unemployment benefits were expanded by $600 a week for people who lost their jobs. Plus, a lot of adults also got checks for $1,200 as part of the economic stimulus bill passed in March. The Fed says these benefits really blunted the worst effects of the recession for a lot of people.

GARCIA: But here's something to keep in mind. Those $1,200 stimulus checks only went out once. And the expanded unemployment benefits from the stimulus package expired at the end of July. So if the Federal Reserve is right, then this really odd fact that more people say they're doing OK now than before the pandemic might just soon stop applying.

VANEK SMITH: OK. Next in our lineup of freaky Fuesday facts...

GARCIA: (Laughter) Bizarre, weird - yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...Surprising success stories. There are some companies that have done quite well, even companies within sectors that have been really badly damaged by this recession.

GARCIA: Yeah. For example, the travel and tourism sector has been hit really hard. But Airbnb is actually doing pretty well, partly because a lot of people have booked more long-term staycations through the site, and they're avoiding hotels.

VANEK SMITH: But, you know, I think our favorite example was pizza.

GARCIA: Pizza.

VANEK SMITH: Pizza.

GARCIA: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: So the overall restaurant sector has obviously struggled. Restaurants and chains that focus on pizza have been these huge winners during the recession. Within just a couple of months into the pandemic, spending at pizza restaurants was running more than 40% higher than last year. We're eating 40% more pizza than we did last year. That is - you know, I mean, that puts pizza in just a way better category than anybody else - fast food chains, coffee shops, casual diners - the works.

GARCIA: Yeah. And the possible reason for this trend is also really interesting. Big pizza chains have been kind of first to make it easy for customers to choose how they wanted to get their food in ways that were easy and safe. Their online apps were just way better designed. And Domino's, for example, introduced something called car-side pickup so that you can drive through a Domino's location, check in with the app, and then an employee deposits the pizza directly into the trunk of your car. So there's no need to go inside and no contact between you and the employee.

VANEK SMITH: Also, do you think it's that, like, pizza is the easiest of all the foods? Like, it's just the whole meal's in - right there in a box.

GARCIA: That's got to have something to do with it, right? Like, when things are hectic...

VANEK SMITH: You don't even need a plate with pizza.

GARCIA: Yeah, just a paper towel.

VANEK SMITH: Like, lockdown, you've got kids at home. You're working from home. Like, the idea of just not needing a plate is very appealing.

GARCIA: You're just, like, forget it. Things are too crazy. I'm getting pizza.

VANEK SMITH: Getting pizza.

GARCIA: That's it.

VANEK SMITH: It's good...

GARCIA: We're done.

VANEK SMITH: ...The next day.

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: You can...

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: You know, I mean, pizza's a flexible food...

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...Among its many attributes.

GARCIA: I suspect that has something to do with it. Yeah. OK. Next up, the third surprising fact of pandemic life is about remittances. Now, remittances are the money that immigrants working in the U.S. send to relatives or friends back in their home country. And, in fact, no country sends more in remittances to other countries than the United States does.

VANEK SMITH: And for some smaller countries like Honduras and El Salvador, for example, remittances that they get from the U.S. are just a huge deal - more than 20% percent of their whole economies. And in the first six months of the year, remittances to both of these countries fell, which is what you would expect in a terrible recession.

GARCIA: Yeah. And that applied to some other countries as well. But here is the surprising fact about remittances. Remittances to Mexico, which receives more money in remittances from the U.S. than any other country - almost $40 billion a year - have actually gone up in the pandemic. In fact, remittances to Mexico were more than 10% higher in the first half of the year than they were at the same time last year.

And remittances have also been recovering fast in other countries throughout Latin America, even in the countries where they collapsed in the early months of the pandemic, even though the U.S. economy remains so weak.

VANEK SMITH: OK, so what is going on? One possible reason is that Latino immigrant workers are more likely to work in so-called essential jobs - jobs that they kept doing during the pandemic because they were considered necessary for the economy to keep running. So these immigrants were still making money, and they could send that money home.

GARCIA: Yeah. And another possible explanation is that the economies of so many other countries are in even worse shape than the U.S. economy. This especially applies to the Mexican economy, which was already shrinking before the pandemic and now is on pace for its worst recession in a century, which means that even though things are obviously terrible here in the U.S., a lot of Mexican immigrants are still finding ways to help their loved ones in Mexico who are facing a situation that might be even more desperate.

And that would be it - three surprising economic trends or facts about life in the pandemic. But, Stacey, you and I kind of last minute decided to throw in, like, a small bonus fact - a sort of mini-fact.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, exactly - in honor of our producer's birthday today.

GARCIA: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: This one is for you, Jamila Huxtable. But yeah, Stacey, you and I were talking about this one yesterday. And it's that for the first time since roughly the era of the Great Depression - so, like, 80-something years ago - more than half of young adults aged 18 to 29 are now living with their parents - more than half, the majority.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. To be precise, before the pandemic, roughly 47% of these young adults were living with their parents. That has gone up to 52%. One simple reason for this - young adults are more likely to lose their jobs or to take a pay cut because of the pandemic.

GARCIA: Yeah. Another big reason - just so many college campuses are still closed, so a lot of young adults who would be undergrad or graduate students have stayed home.

VANEK SMITH: You know another reason, though, Cardiff, that could be there?

GARCIA: What's that?

VANEK SMITH: It's love.

GARCIA: Love for the folks.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

GARCIA: That could play a role, I guess.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) You don't believe it.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Yeah. It's not an economisty (ph) reason, but it doesn't mean it's wrong. So there it is - 3 1/2, I guess, surprising facts about life in the pandemic - three and a bonus.

VANEK SMITH: We could call it four facts.

GARCIA: Four facts - yeah, four...

VANEK SMITH: Four fun facts...

GARCIA: ...Fun...

VANEK SMITH: ...For Fuesday.

GARCIA: Four freaky fact Fuesday, exactly.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable. Happy birthday, Jamila.

VANEK SMITH: Happy birthday.

GARCIA: And also Darian Woods - it was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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