Subscribe for 17¢ / day

They are the long-term unemployed, and some call them the elephants in the economic recovery room: They aren't going to go away simply by trying to ignore them.

Yet for most of the recession and subsequent "jobless" recovery, that is exactly what many in Congress and statehouses across the country have done.

Yes, benefits have been extended, in some states reaching 99 weeks through a combination and state and federal insurance (the limit in Arizona is 79 weeks, with a maximum of $240 a week).

But now, with more than 5 million people out of work more than a year and nearly 2 million of those having exhausted all jobless benefits, a possible double-dip recession makes them impossible to overlook.

Last Sunday, the Daily Sun put some faces on those statistics, and the pattern was telling: Many are in late middle-age and, contrary to some stereotypes, they have been persistently looking for work and even going through retraining. They have not simply taken the year off to pursue a hobby or travel.

They have believed, as most of us do whether employed or not, that hard work in a job search will pay off and their lives eventually will improve.

But for many, just the opposite has occurred. The longer they are out of work, the worse their situation becomes: financially, health-wise, and from an employability standpoint. Their self-esteem and even mental well-being are damaged. Studies show they engage in more self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse and suffer more personal bankruptcies and divorces.

For those who attribute long-term joblessness simply to a failure of character, we urge a quick look at the history of the recession. From April 2008 to July 2009, the country shed more than 7 million jobs as the unemployment rate nearly doubled. Now, two years later and with the jobless rate still hovering around 9 percent, the recovery has added back just a million of those jobs.

Do the arithmetic, and of course there is going to be a growing cadre of long-term joblessness until employers start doing a lot more rehiring.

The official number from the Bureau of Labor Statistics is even more startling: The percentage of unemployed people who have been looking for jobs for more than six months is at 45.9 percent, the highest in at least six decades.

And the scary part is that some economists and job counselors don't see that number going down even as a different sector of the unemployed - generally younger workers and new college graduates - manage to cycle back into the workforce more quickly.

When the economy appears to be suffering a structural failure for an entire class of workers, it's time to rethink the basics.

One approach is to change the way that companies are assessed for laying off workers and the way those ex-workers are paid. Some Washington think tanks are beginning to tout a variation of the German jobless "sharing" system. In that country as in the U.S., companies during the recession sharply reduced total payroll hours but spread them across more workers, who received smaller unemployment insurance benefits than if they were laid off.

The effect is underemployment, but it also keeps employees connected to the workplace and virtually eliminates the cost of rehiring and retraining when the economy picks up again. California has allowed some companies to try it on a limited basis, and it might be worth expanding if a double-dip recession means less, not more, hiring.

Another way to increase the labor force participation rate -- the share of people older than 16 who are either working or actively seeking work -- is through more public works programs such as the one at Fort Tuthill administered by the Coconino County Career Center, even if it is temporary. Right now, the national participation rate is just 64.2 percent, the lowest since 1985, and economists say the high living standards of a modern market economy cannot long be sustained when one-third of the population is not performing productive labor.

The more immediate problem is how to talk seriously in policy circles about the elephant in the room when the focus in Washington is on budget deficit reduction. It is a noble goal to cut federal interest payments in half in 10 years. But what about the next two years, when, if trends hold up, the ranks of the long-term unemployed will have swelled by several million more?

Work, whether we admit it or not, organizes our lives and gives us a purpose not equal to those of our families, but important to the community and the nation nevertheless. The long-term jobless are our neighbors and their need is immediate and, in some cases, dire. Putting them back to work can't be postponed much longer, and that will take a refocus of the economic recovery debate on jobs, not just the deficit.


Load comments