Late last month, Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) reintroduced a bill that promised to inflame one of the most energetic fights on Capitol Hill in the beginning of the year. Their proposal would extend insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed, those who've been out half a year or longer. Those benefits expired (after multiple similar extensions) in December. Democrats briefly made another extension a top priority, but House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made clear that the House wouldn't take it up.

The government tracks unemployment duration in four categories: those unemployed for four weeks or less, unemployed five to 14 weeks, 15 to 26 weeks, and the long-term unemployed, those out of work for 26 weeks or more. Below is a chart of each group since 1948. That giant spike at the far right is the recession; that dark section on top is those long-term unemployed.


In the June jobs report, one dramatic change jumped out. As economist Justin Wolfers put it on Twitter, "The really big news: Long-term unemployment keeps on falling. Down 1.244m (or 29%) this year. Down 293k this month."

You can see that drop at the far right of this graph, which shows each type of unemployment since 2008. The acceleration since the beginning of the year is obvious.


Republicans will almost certainly point to this as evidence that the urgency to renew insurance benefits has declined. Or, more likely, that the cancellation of that insurance prompted the decline, as the long-term unemployed, without support from the government, find jobs. There's a long-standing debate over whether such cancellations actually have that effect or if they simply cause people to stop looking for work entirely. If the latter is the case, those people aren't counted as unemployed, they simply drop out of the workforce. But that's a tough question to answer.

Which makes Reed and Heller's task even harder. The plight of the still-unemployed doesn't get better as their peers find work. But the marked decline in one of the most remarkable statistics from the recession likely means that the political power of that number has declined as well, and it certainly won't inspire Boehner to change his mind.