Interview with Dr. Carl Van Horn and Maria Heidkamp on Long-Term Unemployment

About Dr. Carl Van Horn, Ph.D.: Dr. Van Horn is a widely respected expert on employment, workforce, and human resources issues. He is the founding director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, which is one of the premier academic centers on workforce practice and policy. He is Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and has served as a faculty member at Rutgers since 1978.

Dr. Van Horn has published more than 90 articles and 15 books, including Working Scared (Or Not at All): The Lost Decade, Great Recession, and Restoring the Shattered American Dream. He has also held numerous senior level policymaking positions in both universities and government, including the Director of Policy for the State of New Jersey, Senior Economist at the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, and Chair of the Public Policy Department at Rutgers. He has also served as a board member on the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, New Jersey Transit, the Amtrak Reform Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Special Arbitration Committee on Labor Protection for Amtrak Employees. Professor Van Horn earned his B.A. in Honors Political Science and Sociology from the University of Pittsburgh and his Ph.D. in Political Science/Public Policy from The Ohio State University. Dr. Carl Van Horn was compensated to participate in this interview.

About Maria Heidkamp: Ms. Heidkamp is a Senior Researcher at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. She is engaged in research and technical assistance projects to help address issues affecting dislocated workers, the long-term unemployed, older workers, and people with disabilities. She recently co-authored a study for the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) on effective community college-employer partnership models and career pathways initiatives, as well as a study for AARP on training and education opportunities for older jobseekers (forthcoming). Ms. Heidkamp is also conducting evaluations of programs geared towards helping the long-term unemployed and adults with disabilities.

Prior to joining the Heldrich Center, Ms. Heidkamp worked overseas for the U.S. Agency for International Development and the USDOL, serving as the director of the Labor Market Transition Project in Hungary and as a technical advisor for dislocated workers. She has also served as director of the Wisconsin Labor-Management Council, and worked as a policy analyst for the National Governors Association, where she covered a range of workforce issues. Ms. Heidkamp earned a degree in government from Cornell University, and received a Random House Publishing Studies fellowship at New York University, where she earned a Master’s degree. Maria Heidkamp was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] What is the definition of long-term unemployment, and what distinguishes it from regular unemployment?

[Dr. Van Horn & Maria Heidkamp] Long-term unemployment is defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as unemployment lasting 27 weeks or more–in other words, unemployed for over 6 months. In the post-Great Recession period, the short-term unemployed have an easier time getting reemployed than those who are long-term unemployed. The short -term unemployment rate is back to where it was before the Great Recession started in 2007, whereas the long-term unemployment rate is still twice what it was before the recession. Thus, even though the economy is continuing to improve, the long-term unemployed are having an exceedingly difficult time getting back to work. An important, but unresolved question is whether the long-term unemployed have become structurally unemployed, meaning that they will continue to have a hard time getting reemployed even if demand for workers continues to rise.

[] How has the issue of long-term unemployment evolved over the past two decades? Is it viewed any differently than it was a decade or more ago?

[Dr. Van Horn & Maria Heidkamp] During the Great Recession, long-term unemployment rose to “unprecedented” levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This included historic highs both in terms of the proportion of the unemployed who became long-term unemployed as well as the duration of unemployment these individuals were facing. Even now, five years after the recession officially ended, 2 million of the 3 million long-term unemployed have been out of work over a year.

Another difference is that we used to think of the long-term unemployed primarily as including individuals with significant and chronic barriers to employment, people who were traditionally on the margins of the labor market. During and after the Great Recession, however, long-term unemployment has affected a much wider swath of the labor force, including many highly skilled individuals alongside those who have typically suffered. People from all occupations, industries, education levels, age, gender, race and regions of the country have experienced periods of long-term unemployment.

[] What are the primary causes of long-term unemployment in America? What are the major barriers that prevent long-term unemployed individuals from finding jobs?

[Dr. Van Horn & Maria Heidkamp] There is a great deal of debate over the primary causes of persistent long-term unemployment in America–even as short-term unemployment has returned to pre-recession levels. There is not a single answer to this question. Economists have been debating the “skills gap” theory, which would imply that those who are long term unemployed are lacking in specific skills employers are seeking, possibly because their skills have deteriorated after being unemployed 6 months, a year, two years, or longer. But the Heldrich Center’s  nationally representative Work Trends surveys found that the long- and short-term unemployed look pretty similar in terms of their demographic background, including education. The long-term unemployed are represented in all age categories, educational levels, geographic regions, and income strata.

Our most recent survey, completed in August 2014, found that a higher number of Americans between ages of 45-59 said they have been out of work for more than 6 months during the past 5 years, as have a higher number of black job seekers. Overall, the long- and short-term unemployed are not vastly different. For some individuals who lost jobs in declining industries that are unlikely to rebound, the skills gap may explain part of the challenge they face, however, especially if they are not able to relocate to other regions of the country where their skills may still be in demand.

In general, there is a shortage of demand for these long-term unemployed workers, but not because they are lacking particular skills. Employers are more likely to consider job candidates who have been short-term unemployed even if they don’t have the relevant skills than those who have been long-term unemployed but with relevant experience for the position. This may be due to a stigma associated with being long-term unemployed–that these individuals are lazy or have been damaged by their unemployment. This stigma seems to be compounded for some groups of the long-term unemployed, such as older workers, who may face discrimination due to their age as well as their employment status.

There are ongoing debates as well about what role mental health and confidence play in the ability of the long-term unemployed to get hired into new jobs. The Heldrich Center’s Work Trends surveys has demonstrated links between unemployment and mental health, including evidence of the devastating effect of long-term unemployment on individuals’ emotional and mental well-being. In Out of Work and Losing Hope: The Misery and Bleak Expectations of American Workers  (Van Horn et al, 2011), Heldrich Center researchers reported the results of a nationally representative survey that found that unemployment, and especially long term unemployment, had devastating emotional and personal impacts on individuals and their families, resulting in high stress levels and deep pessimism, including about their prospects for ever finding another job.

In a Congressional briefing in October 2011, the American Psychological Association  reported that unemployed workers are “twice as likely as their employed counterparts to experience psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, low subjective well-being, and poor self-esteem.” This correlation between unemployment and psychological problems may play a role for some long-term unemployed individuals, and some current programs for helping the long term unemployed have been designed based on the idea that long-term unemployed individuals need assistance to improve their mental health status before they can be successful job seekers.

Another theory that has tried to explain the historically high long-term unemployment rates is that extending unemployment benefits during the recession reduced the amount of effort job seekers put into their job search and effectively encouraged them to stay unemployed longer than they would have otherwise, but there is virtually no evidence to support this conclusion.

[] What are the effects of long term unemployment, both on the individual struggling to find a job, and on society overall?

[Dr. Van Horn & Maria Heidkamp] The Heldrich Center’s Work Trends surveys have chronicled the impacts of long-term unemployment on individuals for several years. One nationally representative survey, conducted in July and August 2014, resulted in a report entitled Unhappy, Worried, and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession . The Heldrich Center then did a deeper dive into the responses of individuals who were long-term unemployed, which included those who are still long-term unemployed or were at some point during the past 5 years. This report, Left Behind: The Long-term Unemployed Struggle in an Improving Economy , found that:

  • 8 in 10 of the long-term unemployed say the recession caused a change in their lifestyle; more than half of those described the change as a major upheaval.
  • 7 in 10 have less in savings and income than they did five years ago.
  • More than 4 in 10 sold possessions to make ends meet.
  • More than a third borrowed money from family or friends.
  • A third of the long-term unemployed moved in with family or friends to save money.
  • 3 in 10 missed a mortgage or rent payment.
  • 6 in 10 experienced stress in relationships with family and friends.

The entire society is negatively affected by having prime-age workers (24 to 54 years of age) sidelined by long term unemployment. It lowers the nation’s overall economic output and competitiveness. Moreover, the long-term unemployed are more likely to turn for help to already stressed social safety nets. Long-term unemployment also has negative impacts on the families of those who are jobless.

[] How can social workers who wish to help the long-term unemployed obtain the knowledge and training they need to support these individuals? When working with unemployed individuals, how does the role of the social worker differ from that of a career counselor?

[Dr. Van Horn & Maria Heidkamp] Social workers can contribute by helping job seekers who are long-term unemployed learn about managing life transitions, including how to live with less money while they are unemployed and quite likely even after they find a new job. They can help job seekers with strategies for how to cope with feeling stressed, anxious, desperate, and angry, knowing that employers will not want to hire individuals who come across this way. They can also help job seekers learn to regard job searches as a marathon, with multiple starts and transitions, rather than as a sprint. They can help them access other social services they may need for themselves and their families.

Social workers interested in helping the long-term unemployed can team up with public workforce system programs that are charged with helping these individuals. Social workers are likely to take a more holistic approach to the problem than typical employment counselors may be trained or have the resources to do.

[] One of the missions of social workers is to reduce social injustice and promote social equality. How does the issue of long-term unemployment in America relate to social injustice?

[Dr. Van Horn & Maria Heidkamp] Many of the 3 million currently long-term unemployed job seekers are at risk of never reconnecting to jobs without concerted efforts by employers, policy makers, advocates, the public workforce system, social workers, and others. Many of the long-term unemployed were at the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up long-term unemployed through no fault of their own. Many have long work histories and an educational background that would, in better economic times, result in stable employment. Others with lower skills and limited education have also struggled, of course. There are moral and economic justifications for helping those in need, especially in a labor market that continues to be turbulent and changing.

[] What measures do you feel need to be taken to address the issue of long-term unemployment on a larger scale–that is, not just at the individual level, but at the community, state, and national levels?

[Dr. Van Horn & Maria Heidkamp] Several strategies should be considered. Since at least 41 states right now continue to have elevated long term unemployment rates, these states should target resources to the communities where the problem is most concentrated. These efforts can start with governors using the “bully pulpit” to raise awareness among their state’s key business leaders urging them to not discriminate against but rather consider hiring individuals who are long term unemployed, much as the President has begun to do over the past year on the national level.

Many states and regions have identified high growth industries, and concerted efforts should be made to match long-term unemployed job seekers with the skills training they may need to transition to jobs in these sectors, which may include targeted short- or long-term education and training. The public workforce system can play an important role in these efforts, partnering with employers, community colleges, community-based organizations, faith-based institutions and others to rally support for the long-term unemployed and develop opportunities that may include subsidized employment or on-the-job training.

The federal government can also expand support for research about what works with different populations of long-term unemployed job seekers so that we have a stronger evidence base for our employment and training policies. The US Department of Labor has just released funding for 23 projects targeting the needs of long-term unemployed job seekers.

Thank you Dr. Van Horn and Ms. Heidkamp for your time and insight into long-term unemployment and helping the long-term unemployed.

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Last updated: April 2020