September Jobs - LTUs, MAs and Post-Recession Pessimism

Really, it’s all about perspective…about considering the unseen. As is always the case, there is a ton of data in the monthly job numbers released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and JVSWorks is positive that economists and those with strong political views can spend hours parsing, dissecting and theorizing.

In this space, however, I consistently feel like I should hang a Clinton-esque sign that reads “It’s Still the Long Term Unemployed, Stupid!”

No, I don’t actually believe that the DOL or anybody who assembles or comments upon the monthly job numbers are really stupid. I also don’t believe, however, that we can ever point to a declining unemployment percentage and conclude that America is forging its way back from the recession…not with 5.2 million Americans either out of work for eight months or those out of the labor force because they have essentially given up hope of finding employment.

I’m speaking, of course, about the 3 million long-term unemployed who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer and the 2.2 million who are marginally attached to the labor force,  i.e. those who are not actually counted as being in the labor force, but who wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. These individuals were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey.

It feels reductive to make an acronym out of human beings in distress, but let’s call these long term unemployed LTUs and the marginally attached MAs.

A bit more about the MAs: they fall into two subcategories: those who stopped looking for work due to school or family obligations (numbering 1.5 million in September) and the 698,000 “discouraged workers” who halted their job hunt because, well, it’s fairly obvious. Because they don’t think there are any jobs out there for them.

(I frankly wonder how anybody out of work for more than, say, two weeks can be anything but discouraged, but that’s neither here nor there.)

JVSWorks has had occasion to speak to more than a few LTUs and the occasional MA at job fairs or at one of the JVS career resource of America’s Job Centers. In fact, we recently had an LTU who became something of a celebrity after he was featured in a Labor Day story written by Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times.

Not that this is the kind of celebrity that anybody wants. The title of Lopez’s article is “Labor force excludes many Americans who desperately need jobs," and it is both sobering and depressing. Equally gloomy is  “Unhappy, Worried, and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession,” a research study published by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

The Heldrich study surveys more than 1,100 people about their perceptions of the nation’s economy five years after the official “end” of the recession. Even with overall unemployment falling, the survey respondents are not popping champagne corks.  Only 20 percent of currently employed workers surveyed have confidence that they could land another job if they were laid off. That’s right…the people who currently have jobs are as unhappy, worried and pessimistic as those who do not.

The Heldrich survey also cites research from the Brookings Institution to remind people that the recession is not exactly as much in America’s rear-view mirror as people may think.  Yes, we added 248,000 nonfarm jobs in September, but it will take the addition of 7 million jobs to return to the once full employment experienced at the beginning of the century. At our  current rate, we won’t get back to pre-Recession levels until early 2019.

One more nugget: “Declining unemployment is also due in part to the large number of workers who quit looking for jobs and left the labor force altogether; more than one in six men – over 10 million workers – in their prime working years are either unemployed or no longer looking for work.”