As we celebrate this holiday season, let’s remember our fellow citizens who are struggling with the unprecedented chronic unemployment caused by the Great Recession of 2008. While the most recent reports indicate the rate of unemployment is down to 7 percent, the lowest unemployment rate since November 2008—the number of long-term unemployed (those without a job for 27 weeks or more) continues to be stubbornly high. Indeed, while the unemployment rate declined overall by .3 in November, the actual number of long-term unemployed people remained essentially the same at 4.1 million. Compare this to 2007, when only around 1.2 million people were long-term unemployed.
In the face of this reality, Congress excluded extension of unemployment benefits from the bipartisan budget compromise it reached last week. Without congressional action, this means some 1.3 million workers will lose their extended unemployment benefits on December 28th of this year. And the number of chronically unemployed people losing benefits will grow every month thereafter. Needless to say, long-term unemployment and cessation of unemployment benefits is a tragedy for the unemployed workers and their families. However, persistent long-term unemployment also presents troubling long-term repercussions for the economy as a whole, including declining labor force participation, less consumption and a smaller tax base.
Long-term unemployment “is not exclusive to any one industry [or] occupation.” The demographic composition of the long-term unemployed is also diverse, but it is evident that workers ages 55 and older suffer a higher percentage of long-term unemployment of all age groups. Men are also more likely than women to be long-term unemployed.
The economic affect of long-term unemployment hinges, in part, on the issue of whether the workers who are unemployed for a long period of time would at some point become unemployable. This was the subject of a 2012 study by William Dickens and Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University who studied the relationship between job openings and unemployment. Generally, the more job openings there are, the fewer workers there are out of work. But when it comes to the long-term unemployed, a rising number of job openings does not seem to substantially reduce the number of long-term unemployed workers. According to the Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, this dangerous trend is creating “a permanent class of jobless Americans.” He predicts that this reality and the loss of unemployment benefits, will in turn, depress the economy as a whole.
The extension is essential to the long-term unemployed, like Sheri Minkoff of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, who is about to lose her only source of income. Sheri lost her job for the second time in the past 5 years. The first time, she lost her job as a director of a nonprofit that lost its invested funds to the massive Ponzi scheme by Bernie Madoff that defrauded Sheri’s employer and thousands of other investors of billions of dollars. Sheri was able to find employment two years later as a coordinator at a domestic violence shelter, only to lose that position due to the lack of funding. During this period, Sheri has lost all of her retirement benefits and savings. At the age of 50, she spends six days per week trying to find employment. Sheri, and more than a million long-term unemployed Americans will continue to struggle to find employment even with the extension of unemployment benefits. The benefits will not only help cover their basic necessities like food and housing, but will enable them to continue their active search for work.
The White House and Democrats in Congress have called for extending the unemployment benefits, and vowed to try to retroactively extend unemployment benefits in early 2014. There are also a number of outside groups that are organizing a campaign to pressure Congress to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program. The National Employment Law Project (“NELP”), a non-partisan organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers, is collecting and distributing true stories of the long-term unemployed and urging everyone to contact their congressional representatives. Without congressional action, more than a million Americans and their families will be left in desperate financial straits and the economy will suffer as a result.