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Economics

The Plight of the Long-Term Unemployed

Still hopeful: A line stretches around the block for the Women for Hire Career Expo in New York, Feb. 24, 2009
Still hopeful: A line stretches around the block for the Women for Hire Career Expo in New York, Feb. 24, 2009Photograph by Seth Wenig/AP Photo

Not all unemployment is created equal—there are better and worse ways to be without a job. The worst way is to be jobless for a long time. As a raft of economic studies have shown, the longer a person is unemployed, the harder it becomes for him ever to find work. In some cases, skills grow obsolete; in many others, companies are reluctant to hire those who haven’t worked in a long time, figuring they’re damaged goods. Unemployment is a setback; long-term unemployment is a sentence. There are 6.7 million Americans not officially counted as part of the labor force who say they’d like a job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Bringing these lost and largely invisible people back into the economy will be a long and expensive undertaking.

Today the overall unemployment rate is declining, but the number of long-term unemployed remains near historic highs: In late 2009 the percentage of the unemployed who’d been looking for a job for more than six months rose above 40 percent, a level the BLS hadn’t seen in the six decades it’s been tracking unemployment. The number has stayed above 40 percent since. The statistics are even more stark for those who’ve been out of work for more than 99 weeks—the point at which, in most states, unemployment benefits run out. In January 2009 there were 467,000 99ers. Last month the number was 1.8 million.