The Truth Behind Today’s Long-term Unemployment Crisis and Solutions to Address It

Earlier this week, EPI economist Heidi Shierholz spoke on a Congressional Full Employment Caucus panel about policy fixes to the nation’s long-term unemployment crisis, convened by Rep. Conyers (D-Mich.). Other panelists included Betsey Stevenson, Member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and Judy Conti, Federal Advocacy Coordinator at the National Employment Law Project. Below is an excerpt of her comments, which explain why we remain in a long-term unemployment crisis, why the long-term unemployed will continue to face tough job odds without substantial policy intervention, and what can be done to address it.

The Great Recession officially ended five years ago this month, but the labor market has made only agonizingly slow progress towards full employment. We’ve had an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent or more for more than five and a half years; as a reminder, the highest the unemployment rate ever got in the early 2000s downturn was 6.3 percent, for one month. And even this headline unemployment rate probably overstates the true degree of labor market weakness, as it has fallen in large part in recent years because people have left the labor force in large numbers—and not just voluntary retirees. If the job market improves in coming years, it is very likely that many of these “missing workers” will return. Because of the ongoing weakness in the labor market, long-term unemployment remains extremely elevated. Though the labor market is headed in the right direction, unemployed workers still vastly outnumber job openings in every major industry, and the prospects for job seekers remain dim.

The labor force is comprised of employed people and jobless people who are actively seeking work. Before the Great Recession started, just 0.7 percent of the labor force was unemployed long-term. That shot up to 4.4 percent by the spring of 2010, and has since dropped part-way back to 2.2 percent. This may not sound high on the face of it, but it is still three times higher than what it was before the recession began and represents 3.4 million long-term unemployed workers. Furthermore, outside of the Great Recession and its aftermath, it is higher than at any other time in more than 30 years, including the entirety of the two recessions prior to the Great Recession. Importantly, it is also far higher than any period in the past when Congress has decided to end extended unemployment benefits. In short, we remain in a long-term unemployment crisis, even if you wouldn’t know it judging from too many policymakers’ actions.

It is important to note that there’s no real puzzle as to why long-term unemployment is high: economic growth remains extraordinarily weak. And this weakness is driven simply by an ongoing shortfall of aggregate demand (spending by households, businesses, and governments) relative to potential output.

Read the full commentary.