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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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His friends have suggested selling his condo and moving somewhere smaller and cheaper, maybe renting for a while, but that's the last thing he wants. It’s that self-respect again. He's already sold off one motorcycle and various musical instruments, and he and Terri now skip the big vacations that were part of their past life. Which isn't to say that Rembold currently lives like a monk.  He still has the big screen in the basement, the DVD collection, the video-game systems for when the grandkids visit, a life's worth of possessions from decades of earning good money. "Why should you have to give up your home?" he wanted to know. "It's so unbelievable to me that I don't even want to think about it. I'm in denial."

A Lost Generation?

What's to be done for people like Rick Rembold? As in most economic debates, the answer to this question divides economists and policymakers. On the left are those who lobby for more aid to jobless Americans, including another extension of unemployment insurance beyond the present cut-off date of 99 weeks. (In normal times, laid-off workers once got 26 weeks of unemployment insurance.) Some Democrats in the Senate had hoped to extend unemployment insurance by another 20 weeks up to 119 weeks, an effort spearheaded by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) that ultimately failed last week in the face of Republican opposition. That same camp supports a one-time “reemployment bonus,” a lump-sum payment that unemployed workers would receive to reward them for finding a new job and leaving the unemployment rolls.

Another idea gaining traction in policy circles is "wage insurance," in which the government would supplement the income of workers rehired at lower-paying jobs. Consider Rembold who, in his prime, earned $25 an hour. He says can't live on a $10-an-hour job, but if that were to become $12 or $15 an hour, thanks to a government subsidy, he'd be much more interested.

More conservative voices believe cutting jobless benefits -- a bitter pill, to be sure -- will force people back into the workforce. The Rembolds of America will then scramble harder and take those low-wage jobs faster. Of course, those who can't find work at all will be left adrift with no safety net. What's more, the cost of such cuts to taxpayers might actually prove higher, economists note, because without those benefits the jobless might instead apply for disability or other support programs and give up the search altogether.

Ideally, of course, employers and governments should avoid widespread layoffs altogether. One option sometimes suggested would be a "work-share" program. Imagine a factory of 100 workers with a boss looking to cut costs. Instead of laying off 25 workers, he would reduce all of his workers' hours by 25%. The government would then step in to fill the earnings gap. Think of it as the equivalent of collecting unemployment before you're laid off, a preventive measure to avoid the trauma -- to income, health, family -- of job loss.

None of this is likely to happen soon which is little consolation for the long-term unemployed like Rembold. Unfortunately, there are few proven solutions to their situation. Job retraining programs for unemployed workers are all the rage these days, touted by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and President Obama as a transition to a new line of work. But a 2008 study commissioned by the Labor Department found minimal-to-no gains for 160,000 workers who went through retraining, concluding that the "ultimate gains from participation are small or nonexistent."

In the end, facing an economy that may never again generate in such quantity the sorts of "middle class" jobs Rembold was used to, what we may be seeing is the creation of a graying class of permanently unemployed (or underemployed) Americans, a genuine lost generation who will never recover from the recession of 2008. As Mike Konczal and Arjun Jayadev of the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, recently wrote, unemployed workers today are more likely to abandon the workforce than find work -- something never before seen in four decades' worth of labor data. "These workers need targeted intervention," they concluded, "before they become completely lost to the normal labor market."

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