The Scourge of Long-Term Joblessness

Stephen Franklin

A friend who has hustled up just a handful of interviews in the year he has been out of work sent me an e-mail saying he gave up his telephone line to save money. So call him on his cell phone, he wrote.

I thought: What else has he given up?

What else have he and the 4.3 million people who had also been jobless for more than 27 weeks by June given up?

It’s a question worth asking, because long-term joblessness leaves deep and indelible scars.

We know from the last recession, which ended six years ago, that some people had to give up the hope of working again. One out of four of those who lost a job then never went back to work.

That recession also taught us that old rules don’t apply.

As the economy slowly got better in 2003, the ranks of the long-term jobless continued to grow and then only began to recede very slowly. Under the old economic rules, the long-term unemployed should have benefited along with everyone else.

In the last recession, the ranks of women among the long-term jobless grew. So did the numbers of African-Americans and white-collar and better educated workers.

Fast-forward to our current economic free-fall. We know that lower-income workers, the ones most likely to end up on the long-term jobless list, suffered in the last decade from almost flat wages; that they were targeted by predatory lenders with interest rates as high as 1,000 percent and that they swallowed up a hefty share of the sub-prime mortgages cruelly foisted upon them.

Given all these burdens, it is likely that large number of the long-term unemployed, who account for nearly 30 percent of today’s unemployed, will now have to shed their houses, their credit cards, their once decent credit ratings and their dreams of stable jobs in industries that have been shrunken and uprooted.

But that’s not the end of the losses for the long-term jobless, whose ranks have never been larger, according to government record-keeping that began in 1948.

By the end of next month, 540,000 persons will have run out of their jobless benefits, according to the National Employment Law Project. And by the end of 2009, at least 1.5 million jobless will no longer be able to count on the money from the government that for many has kept the lights on and food on the table, the organization predicts.

That’s why, whenever I hear chatter about an economic rebound on the horizon, I think about my friend and other long-term jobless Americans who have scraped by for the last year.

Just imagine what they have already lost and what more they will lose down the road.

Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.

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