Work in America A Long Time Comin

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

While the unemployment picture has improved since the depths of the Great Recession, certain aspects of employment in America are still in terrible shape, none more so than the length of time that workers are unemployed.
 
Here's a graph from FRED showing the mean duration of unemployment in weeks since the middle of 2011:
 
 
Looks pretty good, doesn't it?  The way that the mean duration of unemployment dropped in late 2012 is a thing of beauty!  The mean dropped from a high of 40.7 weeks in November and December of 2011 to its current mean of 35.3 weeks, a drop of 5.4 weeks in one short year.  Amazing!  Outstanding!  Congratulations to all involved.
 
Ah, but, as usual with statistics, there's a fly in the ointment.
 
Even though the Great Recession "ended" in July of 2009, nearly four years ago, the duration of unemployment is still wickedly high.  How so, you say?
 
Take a look at this graph which shows the same statistical data back to 1947:
 
 
Now you can see the problem.  While the headline U-3 number has shown a drop of a couple of percentage points from its peak, the duration of unemployment has barely budged when taken into historical perspective.
 
Immediately after the three most recent recessions in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the mean duration of unemployment peaked at around 20 weeks.  Since the end of World War II, the longest mean duration of unemployment hit 21.2 weeks in July 1983 and fell fairly rapidly to 15 weeks or less during the economic expansion in the mid- and late 1980s.
 
Such is certainly not the case this time.  If the Great Recession had been a "normal" economic contraction, the mean length of time that a worker would be out of work at this point in the economic cycle would be around 15 weeks.  Instead, we find that the current mean is 35.3 weeks, nearly 2.5 times as long as it should be.
 
Not only that, but to heap insult upon injury, of the total unemployed, 36.1 percent have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, a level that is nearly twice as high as what it should be at this point in the economic recovery as shown here:
 
 
So, when you read headlines in the mainstream media or listen to the propaganda spewing forth from central bankers and politicians, keep in mind that the data behind the headline statistics is not always a pretty sight.  In this case, it means a dramatically extended period of suffering for millions of American families who are spending very long periods of time without work.
 
Click HERE to read more of Glen Asher's columns

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