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8 Unemployed for Every Job Opening: What Are They Supposed to Do Once Their Benefits Run Out?

Is there any hope of help arriving for the "99ers"?

There are now approximately 14 million Americans who want a job and can't find one. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), if they stood side by side, they'd stretch from Bangor, Maine to Los Angeles, California and back.

While plenty of ink has been dedicated to distant crises in the Middle East and Japan, and a wholly trumped up “deficit crisis” that haunts the sleep of the Beltway media, this disaster occurring right here at home has received far less attention than it should.

Those who have been out of work for an extended period of time face not only extreme economic suffering, but also unique barriers to getting back into the workforce. Yet the political establishment has all but ignored the pain being felt by this broad swath of working America. Economist Paul Krugman called them the “forgotten millions,” and warned that “we’re well on the way to creating a permanent underclass of the jobless.”

That disconnect has left a gap that some individuals and grassroots organizations have attempted to fill. Their efforts are commendable, and at times innovative, but a number of activists interviewed by AlterNet said that absent a serious effort by the federal government, they are merely tinkering around the edges of a deep and avoidable catastrophe.

36 Weeks

In February, the average length of joblessness for all unemployed workers was a record 36 weeks. Many of those people relied on their unemployment insurance to get by until it ran out and still haven't found work -- they've come to be known as "99ers," as extended unemployment benefits in many states last a maximum of 99 weeks. NELP researchers estimate there were 3.9 million 99ers out of work last year, and project a similar number for 2011. 

“It's pretty tragic out there for a lot of people,” says Mike Thornton, a writer and activist who runs a Web site dedicated to providing information and resources for the jobless called the LayoffList. “The long-term unemployed are discriminated against for being long-term unemployed,” he said. Employers are hesitant to hire those who have been out of work for a lengthy period of time because they think there must be something wrong with workers who haven't been picked up by another firm by now, but the reality is that there are now five unemployed people for each job opening. According to NELP, when you include people who are working part-time while looking for a full-time gig, that ratio jumps to eight to one.

Making matters worse, extended periods of unemployment crush people's sense of self-worth. “There are a lot of self-esteem issues there,” says John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. “There are obviously issues of maintaining the basic necessities – people are losing their homes. It's a very depressing situation for the long-term unemployed – they have to worry about their benefits running out, and many of them have.”

“It's not easy on anyone,” says Mitchell Hirsch, who was out of work for more than six months after being laid off from his retail job of over 20 years and has since become an organizer with NELP. “The first thing that hit me,” Hirsch said, “is just the loss of the place to go. Whether people have worked in an office or a factory or a store or a restaurant, most working people go to work at a place, and when that place no longer exists, it's like a part of your soul is removed,” he said, adding, “You find yourself very much alone.” Despite the number of Americans who don't have a job, “people unemployed these days feel virtually invisible.”

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