Long-Term Unemployment's Strain On The Job Search

Oct 6, 2011
Originally published on October 7, 2011 10:05 am

Long-term joblessness is one of the unfortunate legacies of the recession. Earlier this year, the Labor Department started tracking longer periods of unemployment. According to that data, there are now more than 2 million people who have been jobless for at least two years, and 700,000 of those have been looking for work for at least three years.

"We have an army out there that is in dire straits," says Kenneth Goldstein, an economist with The Conference Board. "And it's a group that's growing in numbers and is going to continue grow in numbers at least over the next six months, possibly for another year or more."

Thomas Hutton is among the long-term unemployed. He lost his job three years ago this month after 24 years at a financial services company, and he thinks the problem is bigger than what the numbers suggest.

"I think that there are some people that drop off the map. I don't know that they're captured in all the statistics," he says.

Hutton has had some part-time work and volunteers with a group trying to help others find jobs. At 55, Hutton says a lot of people his ag­e get discouraged and drop out of the job search, and people assume they're just retired.

He says it's easy to feel invisible and isolated without a place to go and people to work with.

"We've had people come in who end up getting divorced; their relationships obviously have been very stressed," Hutton says. "We've had people who come in who've just fallen into tears and, you know, been suicidal."

Kevin Purcell, a 52-year-old engineer who has been out of work for two-and-a-half years, says the long-term unemployment is extremely difficult.

"My relationships are still good but they've undergone just absolute hell," he says.

Being out of work for a long time makes people lose touch with their professional networks, and it's also a financial strain.

Debate Over Benefit Extensions

Currently about half of the 14 million unemployed receive jobless benefits. Congress extended those benefits from their usual 26 weeks to up to 99 weeks in some states, but with a strong push in Washington to cut back on spending, Congress may allow that emergency extension to expire at the end of the year.

That's welcome news to critics of jobless benefits, who say they create an incentive for people to stay at home or hold out for a better job. Letting them expire, they say, will leave many people no choice but to get a job.

Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, argues that allowing the benefits to expire could cost the country more jobs.

"It's almost counterintuitive, but these extensions actually support a lot of jobs," Shierholz says.

If government withdraws that money, she says, people will spend even less, which means there will be even less reason for businesses to hire people. The only real way out of a jobs problem, Shierholz argues, is to help the economy grow.

But with economic growth so meager right now, it's not terribly encouraging for people like Linda Steadman. She left work as an executive director of an organization years ago to take care of ailing family members. For the past two years, she has actively looked for work without luck.

"I think the fact that I'm not working right now is a negative," she says.

Steadman says employers don't seem to be interested in hiring people who don't have a job. In the interim, she says, she volunteers so at least she can say, "I'm doing something."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host: This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

LYNN NEARY, host: And I'm Lynn Neary.

The Labor Department will release its monthly unemployment numbers later this morning. Analysts expect the figures will reveal there was only modest job growth last month, with the unemployment rate holding steady at around nine percent. At the same time, things are not looking any better for the millions of long-term unemployed people.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Long-term joblessness is one of the unfortunate legacies of the recession. Earlier this year, the Labor Department started tracking longer periods of unemployment. According to that data, there are now more than two million people who have been jobless for at least two years. Seven hundred thousand of those have been looking for work for at least three years.

Dr. KENNETH GOLDSTEIN: We have an army out there that is in dire straits.

NOGUCHI: Kenneth Goldstein is an economist with The Conference Board.

GOLDSTEIN: And it's a group that is growing in numbers and is going to continue grow in numbers at least over the next six months, possibly for another year or more.

NOGUCHI: Thomas Hutton is one of them. After 24 years at a financial-services company, he lost his job three years ago this month. He says he thinks the problem is bigger than what the numbers suggest.

THOMAS HUTTON: You know, I think that there are some people that drop off the map. And I don't know that they're captured in all the statistics.

NOGUCHI: Hutton has had some part-time work and volunteers with a group trying to help others find jobs. At 55, Hutton says a lot of people his age get discouraged, drop out of the job search, and people assume they're just retired. He says it's easy to feel invisible and isolated without a place to go and people to work with.

HUTTON: Well, we've had people come in who, you know, end up getting divorced; their relationships obviously have been very stressed. We've had some people come in who've just fallen into tears and, you know, been suicidal

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

KEVIN PURCELL: It's extremely difficult.

NOGUCHI: Kevin Purcell is a 52-year-old engineer who's been out of work for two and a half years.

PURCELL: My relationships with friends and family are still good. But they've undergone just absolute hell.

NOGUCHI: Being out of work for a long time makes people lose touch with their professional networks. It's also a financial strain. Currently about half of the 14 million unemployed receive jobless benefits. Congress extended those benefits from their normal 26 weeks to up to 99 weeks in some states.

But with a strong push in Washington to cut back on spending, Congress may allow that emergency extension to expire at the end of the year. That's welcome news to critics of jobless benefits, who say the benefits create an incentive for people to stay at home or hold out for a better job. Letting them expire, they say, will leave many people no choice but to get a job.

Heidi Shierholz is an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. She argues that allowing the benefits to expire could cost the country more jobs.

Dr. HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: It's almost counterintuitive, but these extensions actually support a lot of jobs.

NOGUCHI: If government withdraws that money, she says, people will spend less which means there will be even less reason for businesses to hire people. The only real way out of a jobs problem, Shierholz argues, is to help the economy grow.

But with economic growth so meager right now, it's not terribly encouraging for Linda Steadman. She left work as an executive director of an organization years ago to take care of ailing family members. For the past two years, she's actively looked for work without luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

LINDA STEADMAN: I think the fact that I'm not working right now is a negative.

NOGUCHI: Steadman says employers don't seem to be interested in hiring people who don't have a job. In the interim, she's says she volunteers so at least she can say, 'I'm doing something.'

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.