Long-term Unemployment, Its Causes, and Effects

Why 1.3 Million Can't Find Work Even After Looking for 6 Months

woman at a job interview
•••  Photo by Stuart Sullivan/Getty Images

Long-term unemployment is when workers are jobless for 27 weeks or more. To be counted as such by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they must have actively sought employment during the previous four weeks. That means the number of long-term unemployed is probably under-counted. Most people become discouraged and drop out of the labor force after six months. They are not included in the labor force participation rate.

Long-term Unemployment Statistics

In May 2019, there were 1.3 million long-term unemployed individuals. That's 22% of the unemployed who have been looking for work for six months or more. It's a significant increase over the record-low rate of 13.1% recorded in May 2018. But April's rate is still better than the record high of 46% in the second quarter of 2010. The number of long-term unemployed dropped below 2 million in May 2016. 

The chart below illustrates the divisions between unemployed workers based on the length of unemployment, ranging from the year 2000 to 2019.

The rate is also better than the darkest days of the 1981 recession. At that point, 26% of the unemployed were out of work for more than six months. Total unemployment then was also worse than it is today. The overall unemployment rate was 10.8%. Although the Great Recession initially created a higher percentage of long-term unemployment, it has subsided.

Causes

The two causes of long-term unemployment are cyclical unemployment and structural unemployment. Cyclical unemployment itself is often caused by a recession. Structural unemployment occurs when workers' skills no longer meet the needs of the job market.

Long-term cyclical and structural unemployment feed off each other. A recession causes a massive rise in cyclical unemployment. Those who can't find jobs become long-term unemployed. If out of work long enough, their skills become outdated. In time, this contributes to structural unemployment. They have less money to spend, resulting in reduced consumer demand. It further slows economic growth, leading to more cyclical unemployment.

Some say that there are three other reasons for long-term unemployment: welfare, unemployment benefits, and unions. But government assistance programs require the recipients to look for work. That requirement inflates unemployment statistics by 0.5% to 0.8%. Not all the recipients would be actively looking for work without these programs.

Those people really shouldn't be considered part of the labor force. Benefits may also encourage people to hold out for better-paying jobs, further extending unemployment.

Unionization creates classical unemployment by forcing companies to offer higher wages than they otherwise would. These companies must lay off workers to maintain budget and profit goals. These workers may only have skills suited for a particular industry and may be unwilling to take lower wage jobs. That can result in structural, and ultimately long-term, unemployment. 

Effects

Only 10% of the long-term unemployed find a job each month, according to a report by the San Francisco Federal Reserve. It is worse than the 30% per month of the short-term unemployed who are successful.

The situation is not hopeless though. The report also found that half of the long-term unemployed find a job in six months, and 75% do so within a year. Even those who hadn’t found a job in 18 months find something in the end if they keep looking. The San Francisco Fed found that the chances of finding a job didn't decline even though they had been unemployed for so long. 

Being unemployed for six months to a year will almost always strain personal finances. A Pew Research study found that recession affected the long-term unemployed worse than others in the areas of personal relationships, career plans, and self-confidence. In particular, the long-term unemployed reported the following:

  • More than half or 56% saw their income decline, compared to 42% of the short-term unemployed and 26% of those who kept their job.
  • Almost half or 46% experienced strained family relations. That's compared to 39% of those who weren't unemployed as long. Forty-three percent lost close friendships.
  • Thirty-eight percent lost self-respect. Almost one-quarter sought professional help for depression. That's compared to 10% of the short-term unemployed.
  • The recession had a "big impact" on their ability to achieve career goals for 43% of them. That's true for only 28% of their short-term peers.
  • More than 70% say they changed careers. Another 29% became underemployed with lower pay and benefits than their previous job. It’s no surprise that they became very pessimistic about their chances of finding a good job. Only 16% of the short-term unemployed were worse off. 

Swedish study found that the long-term unemployed began losing their ability to read. On average, a person who had been unemployed for a year dropped 5% on reading comprehension test scores. 

How Long-term Unemployment Benefits Extensions Help

Federal unemployment benefits extensions assisted the long-term unemployed in their job search efforts.  Congress approved the extensions in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. They were reauthorized every year until 2013. 

The benefits provided the long-term unemployed with up to 99 weeks of unemployment checks. It helped support them until they could find decent jobs. Without the extensions, they would have had to take any job they could, leading to underemployment. This might preclude them from ever catching up as their skills became more outdated.

Unemployment benefits only help those who were laid off, though. Some employers fire workers for cause or ask workers to resign in return for a severance package so that they don't have to pay benefits. Workers who quit, part-time workers, the self-employed, and students or mothers just entering the workforce aren't eligible for benefits.

Also, not all of those eligible for benefits received the entire 99 weeks of unemployment checks. They had to live in a state that meets a minimum unemployment rate.

How to Calculate the Long-term Unemployment Rate

The long-term unemployment rate is easy to calculate because the BLS breaks down the statistics each month in the Employment Situation Summary. The number of people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more is in Table A-12. It also calculates the percentage they make up of the total unemployed. This table gives you the data for the previous three months, seasonally adjusted. It also allows you to compare the last two months and year-over-year, not seasonally adjusted.