It’s a large group, and a quiet one. Easily forgotten. Large in number, with a small voice, dwindling political capital, growing disenfranchisement and withering finances. They are the long-term unemployed, those who have been out of work for six months or longer, languishing on what some describe as “unemployment island.” Looking around in all direction for any of those signs of an improving economy that have so many on Wall Street beaming wide and spending again.
But just as the Great Recession hit some more than others, so too has the gradual recovery come with an uneven distribution of relief. For those 5 million who have been unemployed six months or longer, over 53% are 55 and older.
“Too young to retire, too old to get hired,” says Bob Greeney, 55, at the tail-end of a sort of lost-generation that has seen heavy job losses during their prime working years. Those middle-aged workers who have kept their jobs have seen retirement and savings accounts decimated.
Greeney, a former sports writer of 29 years, has recently been accepted into a program called Platform to Employment, which is rolling out across ten cities this year with the sponsorship of such names as AARP and Walmart. More than a thousand applicants apply for the 20-25 spots in each session.
“I was out of work for so long and it was almost like, professionally, I was adrift at sea and was kind of just hanging … onto a plank,” Greeney says.
“They are victims,” explains Joe Carbone, founder of the program. Carbone is sympathetic to the sort of sink-hole that many fall into after several months of unemployment. “They are victims during the worst recession since the Great Depression, and they are no different than victims of a natural disaster.”
He says that the perception that unemployment is diminishing shows only one piece of the picture. While the economy added 175,000 jobs in May, the number of people out of work six months or longer held steady. And while the number of the long-term unemployed has dropped by 1 million over the last year, it is difficult to say whether that’s because they found work or left the labor force altogether.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people unemployed for less than five weeks has dropped back to 2007 levels. Those out of work more than 27 weeks has soared 257% in that time.
“I am exactly the sort of person screwed over in every way by this economy,” says Laurel Rockefeller, whose vision has been impaired due to a head injury that limits her to looking for employers along bus lines, “and people’s insistence that despite an impressive resume, I am a broken doll, just because yes, I have some visual limitations.” Rockefeller’s disability application to the Social Security Administration was denied.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) has tried to enact relief legislation, but has found little support from his colleagues.
“The fact of long-term unemployment in the numbers we have seen, the magnitude that is so dramatic, is really a call to action for the country,” he says. He has sponsored the Pathway Back to Work bill, but has found little enthusiasm from the rest of the Senate. “The obstacles are partisan gridlock. It’s so frustrating to me, maybe the most frustrating part of my job. The paralysis that comes from partisan fighting has blocked many of the measures that I and others have supported to put people back to work, to provide pathways back to work.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conneticut)
Some researchers are now saying that it doesn’t matter who you are, or even what you know — that unemployment discrimination has become so bad that a hole in your resume could close you out entirely. Rand Ghayad, a Ph.D candidate at Northeastern University, sent out thousands of resumes to various employers and analyzed the response rate. He found that of those resumes showing short-term unemployment with the relevant skills, 16% got a response. That number dropped to 9% for a resume that showed short-term unemployment, with no relevant experience.
And those resumes with the requisite skills who had been out of work for more than six months? Just 3% solicited responses.
“Once you are long-term unemployed, even if you come from the same industry, even if you have the right skills, it doesn’t matter to employers anymore,” Ghayad says. “They prefer someone who’s short-term unemployed.”
The National Employment Law Project came across similar findings, including 73 businesses that actually required current employment in job posting. “This perverse catch-22 is deepening our unemployment crisis by arbitrarily foreclosing job opportunities to many who are otherwise qualified or them,” the report finds.
“I’m determined not to be a casualty of this recession,” Rockefeller continues. “I can survive anything if I can just catch a break.”