They have been largely forgotten during this heated presidential campaign, relegated to the sidelines as their personal nightmares continue unabated.
The nearly five million Americans out of work for more than six months can only wonder when relief in the form of a job might finally start heading their way even as the nation’s overall unemployment numbers slowly improve.
Economists have decried their continued plight as one of the nation’s most pressing economic challenges as well. The Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund and a bipartisan swath of policy experts have implore Washington to act so as to alleviate human misery and to ensure the strength of the economy.
The latest unemployment 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.
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, 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.
“I don’t enjoy being out of work,” she said in an interview. “I don’t enjoy having to ask friends to give me rides or get things for me. I want to take care of myself. I’ve been on my own since I was 18 years old. It’s hard for me. It’s demoralizing. It’s hard to ask people for things when you’ve been independent the rest of your life.”
Stronger economic growth may help to whittle the ranks of the long-term unemployed over time, experts said.
But many economists contended that policies to help the long-term unemployed are needed as well, to ensure that they have the skills necessary to compete for the jobs that the economy is adding.
In Washington, many politicians support measures for the long-term unemployed, but few demand them.
The campaigns of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have offered their preferred policies. The White House put out a range of proposals to aid the long-term jobless as part of its stalled American Jobs Act legislation, a few of which made it into a bill extending a payroll tax cut this year. Romney has proposed, among other measures, creating “personal re-employment accounts” to give funds to unemployed workers for community college or vocational training.
But experts worried about a lack of urgency. Gridlock in Washington, the focus on cutting rather than spending, even the simple fact that discussing the topic can be depressing might leave the issue by the wayside, as it has been in the presidential and Congressional races.
For new policies, “there is no political will, none whatsoever,” said Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas.
Statistics suggested that the long-term unemployment problem had begun to recede. The number of workers who reported actively seeking a job for more than six months fell to 4.8 million from 6.2 million in the past year, according to government data. The proportion of jobless workers who counted as long-term unemployed fell to 40 percent from its peak of 45.5 percent in March 2011.
But it remains a bleak situation. About 800,000 workers want a job but have simply given up looking, and so are no longer even counted as unemployed. About 1.7 million people have joined the disability rolls since the recession began at the end of 2007, an increase of 24 percent, as workers use the disability program as a backdoor safety net when their unemployment insurance runs out.