WASHINGTON — In the economy-focused presidential campaign, the two candidates and their teams have scarcely mentioned what economists describe as not just one of the labor market’s most pressing problems, but the entire country’s: long-term unemployment.
Nearly 5 million Americans out of work for more than six months are left to wonder what kind of help might be coming, as the Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, and a bipartisan swath of policy experts implore Washington to act — both to alleviate human misery and to ensure the strength of the economy.
The pain of the long-term unemployed has persisted even as the overall jobs picture has brightened a bit and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8 percent. The new government report for October was due to be released Friday morning.
“The problem is incredibly urgent,” said Kevin A. Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign. “Spain had a financial crisis in the late 1970s and has never seen its unemployment rate drop back to where it was before that crisis. The unemployed become discouraged, and ultimately the employment to population ratio might take a permanent hit.”
On the agenda for the next Congress and the next president is ensuring that the unusually long spells of unemployment now afflicting jobless workers remain a temporary setback of the recession.
Economists warned that long-term unemployment could be transformed in the next few years into structural unemployment, meaning that the problem is not just too few jobs and too many job seekers, but a large group of workers who no longer match employers’ needs or are no longer considered employable.
“Skills become obsolete, contacts atrophy, information atrophies, and they get stigmatized,” said Harry Holzer of Georgetown University.
That has been the experience of millions of workers like Beatrice Hogg, 55, of Sacramento, Calif., a college-educated white-collar worker who has slid from the middle class into poverty.
Her last job — doing administrative work and advising students at a community college — ended in June 2009. Her unemployment benefits ended more than a year ago. She was evicted from her apartment in December and has been staying at friends’ homes and occasionally at train stations. Despite her efforts, she has been turned down for job after job after job, and is surviving on food stamps.