Effect of long-term unemployment on the labor participation rate

Alan B. Krueger is Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University and an NBER research associate. Here he discusses the effect of long-term unemployment on the declining labor participation rate:

….The SIPP [Survey of Income and Program Participation] data indicate that, irrespective of the business cycle, the probability that an unemployed worker will be “steadily” employed in a full-time job for at least four consecutive months a year later is strikingly low and declines further as the duration of joblessness rises. Even in the strong job market of the late 1990s, the chance of a long-term unemployed worker finding steady, full-time employment after a year was only around 20 percent. This likelihood did not change very much during the 2001 recession, and it didn’t change substantially during the Great Recession. Conversely, the likelihood that an unemployed worker will leave the labor force a year later increases substantially as the duration of joblessness rises. According to the SIPP, 35 percent of workers who became long-term unemployed during the Great Recession were out of the labor force by 2013.

Why does long-term unemployment have such an adverse effect on workers? There has been a long, unresolved debate in the economics profession about whether the job finding rate is lower for the long-term unemployed because of either unobserved heterogeneity in the characteristics of such workers or something about the nature of unemployment that adversely changes people. Although this is an inherently difficult question to answer, the literature suggests that duration dependence plays a larger role than unobserved heterogeneity in explaining this phenomenon….. Much research suggests that long-term unemployment has a negative impact on both the supply side and the demand side.

On the supply side, an individual’s mental health and self-esteem can be affected by the experience of long-term unemployment. Till von Wachter has done good work showing that one’s physical health and mortality are adversely impacted by joblessness. Andy Mueller and I did a longitudinal study where we asked workers who were receiving unemployment insurance about the intensity of their job searches. We found that job search activity tends to decline the longer people are unemployed. We also found that the long-term unemployed tend to be socially isolated…… Furthermore, long-term unemployment tends to be associated with repeated job loss and lower re-employment earnings. All of these findings point to a decline in human capital and disengagement from the labor market as a result of long-term unemployment.

On the demand side, studies have shown that employers discriminate – at least statistically – against the long-term unemployed. Kory Kroft, Fabian Lange, and Matt Notowidigdo conducted a study in which they sent out resumes with varying gaps of joblessness, and they found that the likelihood of receiving an interview depended upon the duration of unemployment. Rand Ghayad also found similar results.

My take on the evidence is that the experience of being unemployed makes it harder for people to get back on their feet, and that even a strong economy doesn’t solve this problem. In addition, once a person leaves the labor force, he or she is extremely unlikely to return. The labor force flows data from the CPS bear this out (Figure 6). According to CPS data, the monthly rate for transitioning from out of the labor force to back in the labor force is unrelated to the business cycle. We didn’t see a wave of people returning to the labor force either in the late 1990s or earlier in the 2000s, and we’re not seeing one now……

To conclude, I will briefly comment on policies to address the problem of long-term unemployment. One of the overriding lessons that I take away from this body of research is that, if left untreated, long-term unemployment can have hysteresis-type effects on the labor market. A cyclical recovery does not cure the problems created by long-term unemployment. Going forward, I think one of the lasting legacies of the Great Recession is that the labor force participation rate will be about one percentage point lower than it otherwise would have been. This analysis argues in favor of using “overwhelming force” in a deep recession to prevent those who lose their jobs from becoming long-term unemployed in the first place.

Since long-term unemployment has been so widespread throughout sectors of the economy, “industry-specific” policies are insufficient to solve the problem. In 2012, for example, only 10 percent of long-term unemployed workers were from the construction sector, and only 11 percent were from manufacturing, despite the fact that these industries were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession.

Instead, I would prefer more targeted measures geared specifically toward helping the long-term unemployed stay in the labor force and find employment, such as a tax credit for employers who hire the long-term unemployed or direct employment. There also has been some research to support the notion that volunteering can help jobless workers make new connections, learn new skills, and stay engaged in the labor force. In the United States, job search assistance has typically been found to be effective in helping workers regain employment. I also think wage loss insurance might be worth considering, especially for older long-term unemployed workers.

Lastly, given that many of the long-term unemployed have already left the labor force, we should consider policies that address the structural decline in labor force participation. For example, more family-friendly policies might help greater numbers of women either enter or remain in the labor force. Likewise, reforms to the disability insurance system could possibly prevent some workers from permanently exiting the labor force.

Source: NBER Reporter Online

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