Catherine Rampell
Opinion writer March 24

Say it with me: The long-term unemployed are not lazy. Nor are they coddled, hammocked or enjoying a coordinated, taxpayer-funded vacation.

They are, however, extremely unlucky — and getting unluckier by the day.

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. View Archive

Take Renardo Gomez of Fitchburg, Mass. In three years, Gomez ricocheted from a stable hospital job of 20 years that paid $34,000 annually to a sudden layoff to a series of low-paying, short-term gigs interspersed with longer and longer spells of unemployment. He expects an eviction notice soon.

“I keep putting in 110 percent and getting 10 percent back,” he says.

A new Brookings Institution study that tracks the fates of those unlucky workers who don’t manage to find stable new jobs in their first few weeks of unemployment suggests that this post-layoff tailspin is distressingly common.

It was already known that the longer workers have been out of a job, the lower their chance of finding work in the coming month. The Brookings paper — by the former Obama administration economist Alan Krueger and his Princeton colleagues Judd Cramer and David Cho — took this analysis a step further: What about (gulp) these workers’ longer-run prospects?

It turns out that from 2008 to 2012, only one in 10 people who were already long-term unemployed in a given month had returned to “steady, full-time employment” by the time government surveyors checked in on them a little more than a year later. “Steady” in this case means that they were working for at least four consecutive months. And the other nine in 10 workers? They were still out of work, toiling in part-time or transitory jobs or had dropped out of the labor force altogether.

In other words, like Gomez, the vast majority of people caught in long spells of joblessness do not find work again, or at the very least have trouble hanging on to whatever replacement jobs they had initially thanked their lucky stars for.

It’s unclear why unemployment becomes increasingly self-perpetuating. Perhaps it is merely selection bias — that is, the most desirable jobless workers get picked off early, leaving the less desirable workers behind to rack up more and more weeks of unemployment. But the Princeton researchers had difficulty detecting obvious differences between the short-term unemployed and the long-term unemployed. These two groups are about equally spread around the economy by sector, occupation and educational attainment, and for the most part are similar demographically (though the long-term unemployed skew older).

Such demographic similarities suggest that something about the experience of joblessness tarnishes workers’ marketability.

One possibility is stigma. In another recent study, researchers sent out fake resumes in response to job postings. All other qualifications held equal, employers were much less likely to respond to resumes from applicants who had been out of work longer. (Some employers are quite naked about these prejudices, declaring in job ads that applicants must be currently or recently employed.)

Workers’ skills may deteriorate as they spend more time on their couches instead of in cubicles or on work sites. Professional networks might also fray, which is especially damaging for those in sales. Hard skills in dynamic industries such as technology might become outdated. Even softer skills, like showing up on time or exhibiting self-confidence, may erode.

One car dealership manager I spoke with last year said that applicants who had been job-hunting longest seemed to have the most trouble making eye contact with him and expressing any enthusiasm or hopefulness about their future. “Why would I hire someone like that?” he said. “He isn’t even trying to sell himself. There’s no way he could sell a car.”

One implication of the Brookings research is that policymakers should have done more to prevent the short-term jobless from falling into long-term joblessness in the first place. Of course, time machines are rarely an effective policy tool.

Which is why many economists have been hoping that a strengthening recovery would be enough to help Gomez, insecure would-be car salesmen and the nation’s 4 million other long-term jobless workers. As demand picks up, many analysts have declared, businesses would have no choice but to absorb workers with more pockmarked resumes. After all, in a booming economy, supposedly even ex-felons are in high demand.

Alas, the Brookings paper makes that deus ex machina appear unlikely. The authors looked at the reemployment chances for long-term unemployed workers around the country and found that these workers do not fare substantially better in states with booming job markets (e.g., North Dakota) than in states with struggling job markets (e.g., Michigan).

Which means that even as the overall U.S. economy improves, those already deeply scarred by the financial crisis are unlikely to share in the bounty.