44 Percent Of Unemployed Americans Have Been Jobless For Six Months Or Longer

Last month, the U.S. economy gained 162,000 jobs, which was the largest gain in three years and a far cry from the 700,000 jobs a month that were being lost in the beginning of 2009. But still, the unemployment rate remained steady at 9.7 percent and the underemployment rate actually ticked up to 16.9 percent. And as this new report from the Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative shows, long-term unemployment is reaching scary new levels:

The federal government defines “long-term unemployment” as a jobless period of six months or longer. In March 2010, over 44 percent of unemployed Americans met or exceeded that standard — the highest rate since World War II. In contrast, during the severe recession of the early 1980s, the percentage of workers unemployed for six months or longer peaked at 26 percent in 1983. The high long-term unemployment rate represents the continuation of a decades long trend, one that has worsened after downturns but has persisted even during periods of growth.

6.5 million Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And this is a problem facing particularly older workers, with the rate for workers 55 and older almost double that of workers younger than 24.

Sadly, this epidemic of long-term unemployment coincides with the expiration of some tiers of extended unemployment benefits, courtesy of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Republican obstructionism. So, if nothing else, these numbers make the case for a more robust system of “triggers” for fiscal stabilizers like unemployment benefits, so the unemployed don’t get hurt by political gamesmanship.

“Relying on Congress to extend benefits episodically to the long-term unemployed is not a good policy solution. The United States is a large nation with a variety of different local labor markets, and Congress may not have the political will to act when only a few states are in dire straits,” wrote Jeffrey Wenger and Heather Boushey. “In contrast, an automatic system that works would help states over multiple ups and downs over time—and really help the country by not having lagging states dragging down the national economy.”

Then, of course, there’s the matter of getting the long-term unemployed back to work, particularly for workers who lost their jobs in industries that may be permanently resetting at a lower level. But there doesn’t seem to be the widespread will in Congress for taking the major steps necessary.

As Boushey noted, “the private sector employs fewer people today than it did at the end of 1998, but our economy has an additional 32 million people over the age of 16. This means that the recovery we are in now must be a strong one, since we have a lot to make up for.” In terms of both the current and future strength of the economy, Congress needs to step up, or we’ll be stuck in this slow job-creation slog for a long time.