The most disturbing aspect of the high unemployment rate during the past 4 years has been, namely, the large number of the unemployed who have been out of work for at least 6 months. Last month 5 million men and women had been unemployed for at least 6 months, and they comprise about 40% of all the unemployed. This fraction has been stuck at a little over 40 percent since the first quarter of 2010. Moreover, a truer picture of the extent of long-term unemployment requires the inclusion also of most of the 2.4 million individuals who have given up looking for work.
During past recessions, the U.S. typically has had relatively low rates of long-term unemployment, especially in comparison to most Western European countries. But that is no longer the case. American long-term unemployment has been so high during past few years partly because of the extension of unemployment compensation to 99 weeks, and partly because of the slowness of the recovery during this recession compared to previous recessions. Another contributor is the decline in sectors, such as parts of manufacturing, which will never recover fully. Since workers who invested a lot of their human capital in declining sectors would have to take a big hit in earnings if they take jobs in most other sectors, they may continue to look for jobs in sectors where their human capital is more valuable.
Long-term unemployment creates several long run social costs in addition to the psychological and other damage from being unemployed for many months. Some of the long-term unemployed become discouraged and leave the labor force prematurely rather than continuing to look for the work that has eluded them for many months. This is especially likely for the older unemployed since they take much longer to find jobs. In addition, younger workers who have been unemployed for a long time and are not highly skilled may retire from the regular labor force to enter the informal labor market where they are only sporadically employed. Food stamps and other benefits help them supplement their occasional earnings from jobs.
Persons who have been out of work suffer some erosion in their job skills because they have not been using them. This is obviously a much bigger problem for the long-term unemployed. Most workers can probably manage up to six months of unemployment without much skill erosion, but after that it can become a problem, particularly for persons with skills in fields that are changing more rapidly.
Much cyclical unemployment involves a waste of time and productivity, but the social cost is especially severe for the long-term unemployed. Unfortunately, the past several years has seen a dramatic rise in this group, not only in absolute numbers, but also as a fraction of all unemployed workers. This social cost of long-term unemployment has received insufficient attention from the media and during this presidential campaign…
Adapted excerpts by JMM from