April 30, 2014

Long-term unemployment is still high; new research suggests geography could be one reason

chart of unemployment duration
Median number of weeks unemployed people have been out of work (seasonally adjusted). Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

One of the defining features of the Great Recession and not-so-great recovery has been the surge in long-term unemployment. As of March, more than 3.7 million Americans had been out of work for more than six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the median duration of unemployment (seasonally adjusted) was 16.3 weeks — down from the record high of 25 weeks in mid-2010, but well above pre-recession norms.

Analysts have advanced several explanations for the persistence of long-term unemployment: an unintended consequence of extending jobless benefits; a mismatch between the skills unemployed workers have and what employers want; a breakdown in the efficiency of labor markets; or simply bad timing. Whatever the reason, it’s a major concern for policymakers, who fear that many of the long-term unemployed may never find their way back into the workforce.

It may not be an unfounded fear: One recent study sent thousands of mock resumes to employers and found that the longer a candidate had been unemployed, the less interested the employer was in interviewing the candidate. There was a particularly sharp drop-off in interest for candidates with more than six months of joblessness. And earlier this year, researchers from Brookings Institution found that even when the long-term unemployed eventually found work, only 11% were continuously employed in full-time jobs.

Now, new research that examined joblessness in the early 2000s provides evidence that some of the problem might also be geography. A paper written by government and academic experts suggests that living near where the jobs are significantly reduces the amount of time it takes unemployed jobseekers to find work. The research found that to be especially true for blacks, women and older workers.

The so-called “spatial mismatch hypothesis,” which originally grew out of research on the effects of segregated housing markets, has been debated among economists and social scientists since the 1960s. But while there’s general agreement that “job accessibility” has some impact on unemployment duration, researchers have disagreed about how important it is and for which groups of workers.

A team from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Census Bureau, the University of Maryland and Harvard looked at job accessibility among a particular group of jobseekers: 247,000 lower-earning workers (those making less than $40,000 a year) in nine Great Lakes-region metro areas, all of whom had lost their jobs in mass layoffs. They combined data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, state unemployment-insurance records and elsewhere to estimate how many jobs, at different pay grades, there were within commuting distance of each jobseeker; whether they were more likely to drive to work or take public transit; and how many other people might be competing for those jobs.

The researchers created accessibility measures for three categories of jobs: any job at all and jobs that paid 75% and 90% of what the laid-off worker’s previous job did. For all jobs, they found that moving from the 25th to the 75th percentile of accessibility reduced unemployment duration by 4.2%; for jobs that paid 90% of the previous job, better job accessibility cut unemployment duration by 7%. Blacks were 71% more sensitive to job accessibility than whites when it came to finding any new job, and 35% more sensitive when it came to finding a job that paid close to their old job.

Although the study was limited to the 2000-05 period, its conclusion — that “a worker with locally inferior access to jobs is likely to have worse labor market outcomes” — could help explain the current situation, depending on where jobs have been lost and created. What we know for sure is that as of March, more than a third (35.7%) of all unemployed Americans had been out of work for more than 26 weeks, according to the BLS. (April data will be released on Friday.) Blacks and Asians are most likely to experience extended joblessness: Last month, 44% of unemployed blacks and about as many unemployed Asians had been out of work longer than 26 weeks, versus a third of unemployed whites and 32% of unemployed Hispanics.

Topics: Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Kirsten3 years ago

    I live in seattle Washington and can’t find work the only people with jobs are non American is this still america its like our country is not looking out for us anymore were being relpaced with people who were not born here and its not fair we cant go to their countries and take over

  2. John3 years ago

    if your out of work your ought a work don’t matter what color you are put all the numbers together the american people are screwed.

  3. John3 years ago

    Were do the people over 50 people over 60 fall in. Veterans were do they come in. The disabled.

  4. chellieroo3 years ago

    Freaking brilliant. Next you are going to tell us that the reason that people are unemployed is that that no one will hire them. Or that racism and age discrimination are real! “Researchers have disagreed”…of course they have; that is JOB SECURITY! They wouldn’t last long as if they talked about the uselessness of DOL-funded programs for professionals (maybe everyone? but it seems as though instead of insulting people by telling them they should be on time for an interview perhaps information about where those jobs are might be handy); how blaming the victim functions to protect those in power (clearly there aren’t any incentives to employers to have a little desperation among the un and underemployed!) and those in jeopardy (cause you know, if you just stopped being such a loser or used linked in better); or how other economic factors impact the mobility of the workforce.

  5. Terry3 years ago

    This is important. The mortgage interest tax deduction is federal policy which has the unintended consequence of making it economically advantageous for more people to buy more expensive homes, which makes it harder for people to move to where the jobs are. One advantage of being a renter is that you can move to find employment easily.

  6. Robert3 years ago

    I’m a 29 year old male in his working prime. I’m about to go on food stamps and can’t even get a job at a former employer because I’ve been out of work more than 26 weeks. IT SHOULD BE AGAINST THE LAW TO EXCLUDE PEOPLE BECAUSE OF HOW MUCH TIME THEY’VE BEEN OUT OF WORK!!!!!!!!

  7. GMack3 years ago

    They know that us American’s are hurting, they don’t care about us, those in power don’t have to worry about “who’s going to eat the last crumb,” they go home and rest well! They made the dollar bill to control us, and without it, u starve!

  8. American Shafted By Government3 years ago

    Why don’t they get out and talk to people instead of their stupid statistics?


    So, we’re supposed to take a hit on our house IF WE CAN SELL IT and relocate?

    Get off your high horse. You know nothing of what you are writing about. Our greedy governmenet with their outsourcing and pandering to Wall Street and other special interest groups are who put us out of business. PLAIN AND SIMPLE — YOU come by and sell my house for a profit and I’ll move. This country sucks and it’s going to get suckier.

  9. Juliska3 years ago

    So is this essentially saying that if the long-term unemployed would simply move to where the jobs are, much unemployment would vanish?