Do the Long-Term Unemployed Deserve Special Treatment?

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There's no debate that long-term unemployment is an economic and social crisis. But what we can or should do for these millions of workers is an open question. 

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More than 5 million people have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, up from 1.2 million in 2007. Today, half of the unemployed take 10 months or longer to land a job. The toll on them, their families, and society is enormous. This week's "Working it Out" question is: Should anything be done to help the long-term unemployed? If so, what would be your #1 recommendation?

Work is so core to people's identity, and the lack of money from six months' unemployment can result in losses of even basics such as health care and housing. Consider the record 3.2 million homes that have been foreclosed in the last three years. And we're not talking just about the uneducated. A Pew Trust study (p. 6, fig. 6) found that 21% of unemployed workers with a bachelor's degree have been out of work for a year, only 2 percentage points more than that of high school dropouts!

Still, it must be acknowledged that people aren't long-term unemployed at random. Yes, some people can't find work purely because of bad luck or undue prejudice. But the pool of the long-term unemployed is less skilled and intelligent, and more high-maintenance. By definition, they've priced themselves high enough that nobody will hire them. The long-term unemployed have been picked through and rejected by employer after employer.

So what would you do? Would you have government add the long-term unemployed to the list of protected classes: gender, race, ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation, as the Fair Employment Opportunity Act proposes?

Or would your #1 recommendation be to increase funding for community colleges, which could provide more job retraining? But what to retrain in? Are there sufficient pockets of opportunity? How likely will there be sufficient good jobs available even for those who retrain? A New York Times review of such programs raises serious questions: "For all the popularity of these government-financed programs, there are questions about whether they actually work."

Or would you extend unemployment checks beyond even the 99 weeks? That would pump money into the economy quickly but would also continue to tempt recipients into procrastination: "When the checks run out, I'll start looking for a job?" Is that fair to them? To the taxpayer?

Or what about a free-market approach? Without "handouts," the long-term unemployed might feel greater incentive to improve themselves and/or to have more realistic expectations--maybe they were overoptimistic to think they had what it takes to be a successful executive? On the other hand, some of people's long-term unemployment is beyond their control. Should they be punished because the economy is weak?

Do you have a better idea? That's this week's Working it Out question: Should anything be done to help the long-term unemployed? If so, what would be your #1 recommendation? Put your thoughts in the comment section. Later in the week, my editor, Derek Thompson, will post your most trenchant or amusing thoughts. Next week, I'll propose my favorite idea or two.

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Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of innovation. His columns have appeared in the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, and his sixth book, just published, is How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School. More

Marty Nemko was called "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. His columns and features have appeared in U.S. News, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. The archive of his hundreds of published articles, his blog, plus chapters from his book, Cool Careers for Dummies, plus mp3s of his KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco) show are on www.martynemko.com.
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