WASHINGTON — It’s still about jobs. What will determine the core success of President Obama’s second term is progress — or the lack thereof — in reducing long-term unemployment. We know this from exit polls, which ranked the economy as the top issue (selected by about 60 percent of voters) and, more important, from common sense.
To be sure, the labor market has improved from its low point. At 7.9 percent, the unemployment rate is down from its peak of 10 percent in October 2009. The ratio of job seekers to job openings has declined from 6.7-to-1 (nearly seven unemployed for every job) in July 2009 to 3.4-to-1 in September, reports Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. Still, that’s much higher than the 1.5-to-1 or 2-to-1 that prevails in a stronger labor market.
What truly defines the bleak job market is long-term unemployment, which is near post-World War II records. Beginning in December 2009 — that is, for 35 consecutive months — the share of the unemployed who have been jobless for more than six months has exceeded 40 percent. The previous postwar high occurred in 1983, just as the economy was emerging from the harsh 1980-82 slump, when the long-term unemployed exceeded 25 percent for a single month. Typically, the long-term jobless represent from 10 percent to 20 percent of the total.
The social consequences have been devastating, although — because this is so new — studies are few. As unemployment persists, the jobless deplete their savings and lose confidence. Marriages become strained; paying everyday bills and the mortgage grows harder or impossible. Contacts with the labor market weaken; potential employers grow more suspicious of long stretches without work.