Lately, we tend to talk the fate of the long-term unemployed in terms of extending their unemployment benefits, partly because the machinations of Congress are easier to discuss than the vague hope that folks who’ve been out of work for 27 weeks or more will be able to find jobs. Worse, there’s good evidence that many of them won’t find work — perhaps ever.
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“At the height of the jobs crisis, 6.8 million Americans had been unemployed for more than six months,” writes Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight. “The number is much smaller today not because the long-term unemployed, as these Americans are defined by the Labor Department, have found jobs, but because they have given up looking for work. And 3.8 million long-term jobless in February is still three times as many as before the recession.”
You read that right: there are technically fewer long-term unemployed, but only because of the people who have given up — taking early retirement, say, or resigning themselves to live on other government programs, or go off the economic grid entirely into shadow economies, doing odd jobs and other “legal hustling.”
In fact, as Casselman points out, the fate of the long-term unemployed has always been grim. Prior to 2007, only 15 percent of those who had been out of work for an extended period of time were able to find jobs in any month; short-term unemployed rejoined the workforce at twice that rate.
The numbers are worse from 2008 to 2011, according to a Brookings paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, and graduate students Judd Cramer, and David Cho. The paper showed that only 11 percent of workers unemployed 27 weeks or longer returned to work on a full-time basis. Twenty-four percent found part-time work, 30 percent continued to look for work, and 35 percent stopped looking altogether.
The real question is how to break the cycle and give workers who’ve been unemployed for longer a better chance at re-entering the workforce.
“Overcoming the obstacles that prevent many of the long-term unemployed from finding gainful employment, even in good times, will likely require a concerted effort by policy makers, social organizations, communities and families, in addition to appropriate monetary policy,” Krueger and his co-authors write.
In short, just restoring benefits won’t be enough. We’ll also have to change how employers and citizens think about the long-term unemployed.
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