Down and out of sight: Job growth and long-term unemployment

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Article Social Justice
Those who’ve become last in the unemployment line should be our first priority.

The good news in the January Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report produced an exhalation of relief that could be heard from Pennsylvania Avenue to Wall Street. For the first time in months the recovery no longer appeared tentative, though it remains far from vibrant. The private sector in the first month of 2012 generated 243,000 new jobs, and unemployment fell to 8.3 percent, the lowest rate since 2009.

Good news should be celebrated, and what the nation is doing right is worth analyzing. But the news wasn’t all good. Almost 13 million people remain out of work, and as U.S. policymakers map out the best path ahead, it is foolish to pretend that the suffering engendered by the Great Recession is landing on all of America’s communities equally.

The January report had good news for African-Americans—unemployment in that demographic declined to “just” 13.6 percent, a 2 percent improvement. But the long-term unemployment trend for African-Americans remains twice the rate of white Americans. Latino communities are not faring much better, with unemployment at 10.5 percent.

The number of long-term unemployed, at 5.5 million, remains depressingly immune to the improving economy. These workers fall off the charts kept by the Labor Department after six months of unemployment. But these “discouraged” workers, as they are characterized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, don’t somehow disappear after their unemployment insurance runs out, though they certainly disappear from the lists of desirable job candidates at human resources departments, who consider them poor prospects with atrophying job skills and bad attitudes. Unemployment is “sticky,” says one economist; the longer you are out of work, the more your status becomes self-fulfilling.

Despite their official invisibility, the long-term unemployed are still out there struggling to get by; they simply descend into the informal economy, are paid under the table, and scrape by with whatever jobs they can find to keep body and soul and families together.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) reports that the size of this discouraged workforce has increased threefold since 2007 and represents an unprecedented 43 percent of all unemployed. Perhaps the response to their plight should be similarly unprecedented. CEPR researchers say that it would be better to view them as people confronting “long-term hardship,” facing permanently diminished income even if they do find work.

Finding better ways to perceive the specific needs of this troubled portion of the U.S. workforce is welcome. Good jobs, particularly in manufacturing, are out there, but many unemployed do not have the skills employers are looking for. Retraining programs that would better match job candidates to specific industrial needs, perhaps jointly designed and paid for by the public and private sectors, appear to be a critical need.

Last November U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops president Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York issued a dramatic and timely plea to Washington and Catholics throughout the nation to take responsibility for the “scandal of so much poverty and so many without work in our society.” He wrote: “Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and pervasive poverty are diminishing human lives, undermining human dignity, and hurting children and families.”

A similar call to action to bring more focused attention to the problem of long-term unemployment and the specific impact of this crisis on the nation’s hard-hit Hispanic and African American communities would be welcome now. Cardinal Dolan could urge Catholic parishes and dioceses to assess what resources they might bring to bear in response to long-term hardship while urging that Washington politicians reconsider what more the government can do for the people who have been longest and hardest hit by the hammer of unemployment.­

This article appeared in the April 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 4, page 39).

Image: Tom Wright