The Great Recession’s Last Casualties

For many Americans who’ve been out of work long-term, there may never be a recovery.

The Department of Labor reports that the unemployment rate continues to decline. In June 2015, the economy added 223,000 jobs, bringing the jobless rate down to 5.3 percent.

But even as the jobs picture is improving, the plight of the “long-term unemployed” remains a persistent problem – thereby threatening to stain the otherwise rosy picture of the post-recession recovery.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that about 2.1 million Americans were “long-term unemployed” in June 2015 – meaning they were out of work for 27 weeks or more. Among these workers, nearly 1.4 million Americans have been out of work for a year or more.

The BLS also counts two other categories of workers who share many of the characteristics of the long-term unemployed but don’t fit within the technical definition of “long-term unemployed.” These include Americans whom the BLS calls “marginally attached” to the workforce – people who have looked for work in the past 12 months but aren’t currently working or looking for work – and “discouraged workers” – people who’ve stopped looking for jobs because they don’t think work is available.

According to BLS, 1.9 million Americans were “marginally attached” to the workforce in June 2015 – a figure little changed from the year before, while 635,000 workers were considered “discouraged,” also basically unchanged from a year ago. All told, more than 4.6 million Americans are long-term unemployed, “marginally attached” or “discouraged.” And the hardest hit workers are in the sectors that are the most economically volatile: manufacturing, construction, leisure and hospitality.

The persistent problem of long-term unemployment is worrying for several reasons. For one thing, in comparison to past recessions, many more people who’ve lost work have been unemployed long-term. In May 2010 – after the official end of the recession – long-term unemployed workers accounted for as much as 46 percent of the total unemployed, according to BLS. During the 1982-83 recession, by contrast, long-term unemployed workers made up at most 26 percent of the jobless.

While the BLS reports that the number of long-term unemployed is down by 955,000 from a year ago – which is good news – long-term unemployment levels remain at historically high rates and still have a ways to go before they drop to typical levels. The long-term unemployed accounted for about 24 percent of all unemployed workers in June.

Second, society’s most vulnerable workers are also more likely to be among the long-term unemployed, thereby compounding the challenges facing these groups:

â–ª The Urban Institute, for example, found that among long-term unemployed workers in 2012, 18.1 percent were high-school dropouts, 13.3 percent were single parents, and 34.1 percent were living below the poverty line.

â–ª BLS reports that among male workers, 41 percent of black men have experienced a spell of long-term unemployment, versus 19 percent of white men and 26 percent of Hispanics. This analysis also found that 41 percent of men without a high diploma have been long-term unemployed, versus just 11 percent for men with a four-year degree or more.

â–ª And even though highly-educated workers are less likely to become unemployed in the first place, the Pew Research Center finds that they are just as vulnerable to long-term joblessness once they become unemployed. According to Pew, 31 percent of unemployed workers with a bachelor’s degree in 2012 were jobless for a year or more.

Many long-term unemployed workers may end up never rejoining the workforce. As a report by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee put it:

As job searches drag on, skills atrophy and networks fade, making it harder for the long-term unemployed to find work. In addition, technological advancements and shifts in high-growth sectors of the economy likely mean that the location of and knowledge and skills required for jobs of the future will not be the same as those of the jobs that were lost in the recession.

And if these workers do eventually find work, they are likely to do so at lower wages, says BLS. Four years out, men who had been long-term unemployed end up with average hourly wages that are about 7 percent lower than when they had a job.

Finally, long-term unemployment may have broader fiscal impacts as well.

Pew argues that in addition to increased federal spending on unemployment insurance and other safety net programs such as SNAP (formerly food stamps), the federal government collects less revenue in income and payroll taxes. Even though the number of long-term unemployed has declined over the last year, the economy will feel the effects of long-term joblessness for some time to come.

For Americans who are among the long-term unemployed, a growing economy by itself may not be enough to bring them back as productive members of the workforce. This means that even as the job picture begins to improve, policymakers need to consider ways to ensure that this group of Americans – eager to work and contribute to the economy – aren’t being left behind.

An earlier version of this piece appeared here.