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The Black Hole of Long-Term Unemployment

Born out of America's economic crisis is the extraordinary growth of a jobless underclass numbering in the millions.

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If the company's interested, the manager says -- and it feels like a kiss-off even to me -- they'll be in touch, and before we know it we’re back out in the smothering heat of an Indiana summer. Rembold tucks his portfolio into one of the Suzuki's leather saddlebags. "Well, that's pretty standard," he says, his tone remarkably matter-of-fact. "At least I got to talk to somebody. You're lucky to get that anymore."

A Perfect Storm Hits American Labor

The numbers tell so much of the story. The 6.76 million Americans -- or 46% of the entire unemployed labor force -- counted as long-term unemployed in June were the most since 1948, when the statistic was first recorded, and more than double the previous record of 3 million in the recession of the early 1980s. (The numbers have since dipped slightly, with a total of 6.2 million long-term unemployed in August.) These are people who, despite dozens of rejections, leave phone messages, send emails, tweak their cover letters, and toy with resume templates in Microsoft Word, all in the search for a job.

Not counted in this figure are so-called "discouraged workers," including plenty of former searchers who have remained on the unemployment sidelines for six months or more. In August of this year, 1.1 million Americans had simply stopped looking and so officially dropped out of the workforce. They are essentially not considered worth counting when the subject of unemployment comes up. Nonetheless, that 1.1 million figure represents an increase of 352,000 since 2009. In effect, the real long-term unemployment figure now may be closer to 7.5 million  Americans.

So who are these unfortunate or unlucky people? Long-term unemployment, research shows, doesn't discriminate: no age, race, ethnicity, or educational level is immune. According to federal data, however, the hardest hit when it comes to long-term unemployment are older workers -- middle aged and beyond, folks like Rick Rembold who can see retirement on the horizon but planned on another decade or more of work. Given the increasing claims of age discrimination in this recession, older Americans suffering longer bouts of joblessness may not in itself be so surprising. That education seemingly works against anyone in this older cohort is. Nearly half of the long-term unemployed who are 45 or older have "some college," a bachelor's degree, or more. By contrast, those with no education at all make up just 15% of this older category. In other words, if you're older and well educated, the outlook is truly grim.

As for the causes of long-term unemployment, there's the obvious answer: there simply aren't enough jobs. Before the Great Recession, there were 1.5 workers in the U.S. for every job slot; today, that ratio is 4.8 to one. Put another way, with normal growth instead of a recession, we’d have 10 million more jobs than we currently do. Closing that gap would require adding 300,000 jobs every month for the next five years. In August 2010, the economy shed 54,000 jobs. You do the math.

Worse yet, if you imagine five workers queued up for that single position, the longer you're unemployed, the further back you stand. Economists have found that long-term unemployment dims a worker’s prospects with each passing day. "This pattern suggests that the very-long-term unemployed will be the last group to benefit from an economic recovery," Michael Reich, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley, told Congress in June.

But when you consider the plight of the long-term unemployed, don’t just think jobs. The 2008 recession was a housing-driven crisis, thanks to the rise of subprime mortgage lending, government policy, and greed. As a result, 11 million borrowers -- or nearly 23% of all homeowners with a mortgage -- now find themselves "underwater": that is, owing more on their mortgages than their houses are worth. Negative equity at those levels creates what Harvard economist Lawrence Katz calls a "geographic lock-in effect," stifling jobs recovery. Typically, American workers are a mobile bunch, willing to bounce from one city to the next for new jobs, but not when homeowners are staying put to avoid selling their underwater houses for a loss.

 
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