Long-Term Unemployed Winning Jobs Or Giving Up?

Arthur Delaney


The number of Americans unemployed for 99 weeks or longer has averaged just shy of 2 million for the past two years, but their ranks may have begun to dwindle.

In December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted just 1.5 million “99ers,” the smallest number in any month since 2010. The fourth quarter of last year also saw the lowest average number of 99ers in two years. But it’s not clear that more of the very long-term unemployed are finding jobs.

“That decline is likely not due to an improving labor market, because it just hasn’t improved much over the last two years,” Heidi Shierholz of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute said in an interview. “A lot of the decline in the unemployment rate we’ve seen is just due to people dropping out of the labor market.”

The people counted as unemployed for 99 weeks or more have been actively looking for work, or they wouldn’t be considered part of the workforce at all. One thing that may have kept so many people searching for so long is federal unemployment insurance, which from late 2009 through 2011 combined with state benefits to provide as many as 99 weeks of compensation. People are required to search for work — in other words, to remain attached to the workforce — as a condition of receiving benefits.

But the duration of benefits is shorter than before. In February 2012, Congress set in motion a gradual reduction of the maximum duration to 79 weeks in June, then to 73 weeks by September. As of December, the jobless in only nine states qualified for the full complement of benefits.

Jesse Rothstein, an associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley, found in a 2011 research paper that the recent regimen of extended benefits did indeed keep people from giving up their job search as quickly as they otherwise might have. Rothstein and Shierholz said the dwindling long-term benefits might help explain why there were fewer 99ers at the end of last year, though it’s hard to be sure.

“I’ve been surprised at how little anybody’s paying attention — not just to the 99ers, but also the 79ers in the past year,” Rothstein said. (The term “99ers” has most commonly been a nickname for people who used up 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, though the estimate of how many people out of work for 99 weeks is not based on the insurance rolls.)