Everything We Know About the Long-Term Unemployed

Who they are, where they are, and how they got left behind.

long term unemployment.png

Understanding this chart: I'm tracking the growth in unemployment by DURATION with the shortest-term unemployed in orange at the bottom, and the long-term unemployed in blue at the top. I've indexed all numbers to begin at 100 in January 2007. Takeaway 1: People unemployed for 15-26 weeks (red) have doubled. Takeaway 2: People unemployed for 27 weeks and over have quadrupled.

See that graph? Click it. Print it. Tape it to your wall, and maybe give it some lamination. This is what the tragedy of long-term unemployment looks like, with the blue line tracking the quadrupling of those unemployed six months or longer.

The U.S. economy got some much-needed good news this afternoon when the January jobs report showed the unemployment rate falling to its lowest level since the second month of Obama's presidency. Every single indicator -- from hourly pay to unemployment among non-college graduates -- got better.

But here's the really bad news: There are still 5.5 million people out of work for six months or longer. That's enough to fill the state of Minnesota. And even this stat probably understates the crisis. Another 6 million people who should be in the labor force have stopped looking for work entirely. It's safe to assume many of them dropped out of the market for jobs because they were unemployed for so long. Taken together, it's an 11 million-person crisis. Big enough to fill Ohio.

Who are the long-term unemployed? They're mostly the very-long-term unemployed. Of the 5.5 million people out of work for more than 27 weeks, 4 million have been out of work for more than 52 weeks, according to this fantastic report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Here are four things we know about the very-long-term unemployed:

1) They're older. Fully 42 percent of unemployed workers older than 55 have been out of work for at least a year. That's the highest share of any age category. As a general rule, the older the unemployed, the longer the duration of their unemployment.
duration unemployed age longterm.png
2) They're pretty well educated. It's a truth universally acknowledged that workers with more years of education have not only higher wages but also lower unemployment. (The more you learn, the more you earn, etc.) This graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says more in a glance than I can say in a post:
Figure01-earnings by degree.gif

But among the unemployed, education isn't the same kind of weapon. About a third of unemployed workers with a bachelor's degree have been out of work for more than a year. That's comparable to the duration for high school grads (36 percent) and non high-school grads (35 percent).

3) They're more likely to be black or Asian. This really surprised me. Among the unemployed, Asians were most likely to be without work for a year or longer, followed by black workers. For both groups, two out of every five unemployed workers has been out of a job for more than a year.

4) They're ... everywhere (except for maybe the deep south).
Where unemployment is high, very-long-term unemployment is also high. That seems to be the general rule as you glance at this fabulous map from Pew. BLACK numbers are unemployment rate by region. BLUE numbers are very-long-term unemployment's share of the labor force. RED is for share of total unemployed. California and Florida are epicenters A and B of the housing crisis, and their regions have the highest share of the labor force out of work more than a year.

where are the long term unemployed.pngFinally, there is the emotional aspect. To lose a job comes with a considerable amount of both social and economic anxiety. But to look for a job for a year and come up empty is a different league of devastation. We did our best to capture the tragedy of unemployment in our 2011 series "Voices of the Jobless." Here's one humbling example:
"Possibly the worst thing about being unemployed is having to suffer through the pundit and the politician classes gassing on interminably about what it's like to be unemployed, what kind of people are unemployed and how they think and act, when none of them knows or understands one damn thing about it, nor do they even want to. Get down here on the ground, and try to go a year on $350 a week with no hope in sight, and then tell us why the lazy unemployed just need a good swift kick to get the country moving again."
In a Pew survey of the long-term jobless last year, nearly half of those unemployed six months or more said "joblessness has strained family relations, compared with 39% of those who were out of work for less than three months. More than [40% of] long-term unemployed said they lost contact with close friends."

It's necessary to point out the economic costs of long-term unemployment. Skills atrophy, production is wasted, and the country suffers. This gap can be measured in jobs figures and under-capacity GDP numbers. But the greatest costs of this tragedy aren't so easily summed up.
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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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