Monday, September 23, 2013

Solution to Long-Term Unemployment?

Photo of painting in Salem State Library

I was feeling a bit down this past weekend; mainly because I miss doing a lot of the activities that Mike and I used to do when we were both employed, and I miss attending college. While the month that I was employed gave us the opportunity to buy some items that we sorely needed, it didn't provide much income for leisure items (books, movies, or out-of-town hiking trips) or college. While discussing this with Mike I realized something; if I feel this way, then the 4.3 million people in the U.S. who are considered "long-term unemployed" must feel the same way too. This led me to another realization; people like me don't really have access to programs that could help us find gainful employment.

Long-Term Unemployment Defined

The term "long-term unemployment" can be quite subjective; in my case, my definition of long-term unemployment is three months or more when my previous job paid $8.00/hr or less. Seriously... Try saving up enough money to pay three months' worth of bills and necessities when you're making $8.00 or less. It's not impossible, but it's pretty darn tough. However, since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines long-term unemployment as "27 weeks or more of unemployment" (a little over six months), we'll define it as being unemployed for six months or longer for the sake of this discussion.

Most of us understand what unemployment feels like; we worry about the bills, we wonder about how we are going to meet our survival needs, our schedules become all messed up, our diets change, the amount of physical activity we perform changes, we obsess over our resumes, we practice our interviewing skills tirelessly, and we cut back on what we consider "leisure" items or expenses.
However, long-term unemployment is a different creature entirely... Something as simple as buying a gallon of milk from the grocery store is cause to perform a cost-benefits analysis, a bill in the mail is a physical symbol of our inability to find jobs, the resumes we obsessed over and improved in the beginning become declarations of our desperation, we can barely recollect the activities that we used to perform in our spare time, and our sleep is disturbed by dreams about our old jobs or failed interviews.

Long-Term Unemployment Cycle

Chart illustrating the detrimental effects of unemployment
The long-term unemployment cycle is vicious and detrimental. Those of us who experience it may skimp on food, which can cause us to feel tired or ill. We are constantly stressed about finances, which can lead to physical ailments and psychological problems. We might have problems sleeping; which makes it difficult to perform physical activity, cope with the financial stress, or even think logically and coherently. Also, since how we perceive ourselves is negatively affected, it can be difficult for us to convince employers that we would make good employees.

What we Have Now

Back to the discussion that I was having with Mike this weekend... We finally admit to ourselves and our doctors that we may have a problem, and what happens? We are given medications to help "balance our moods," and then diagnosed with psychological disorders. Of course... That's when/if we can afford to go to a doctor.

In a society that stigmatizes the long-term unemployed and people who have psychological disorders; how is this helpful to those of us who have been unemployed for a long period of time?

What we Should Have

I wouldn't be me if I didn't have a solution in mind... Wouldn't it be nice if we had a program in place that offered behavioral therapy, taught new job skills, and offered job coaching at little or no cost to participants? Oh yeah, we do! It's called vocational rehabilitation.

Research published in Social Science & Medicine and by the American Psychological Association has shown that emotional disturbances created by long-term unemployment can cause permanent psychological damage that could be severe enough to limit a person's ability to perform day-to-day activities. If this can be prevented, then why isn't the program available to those who need this preventative care? Why are we waiting until the problem severely limits a person's ability to perform day-to-day activities or obtain employment? We know the warning signs, so let's take care of it before it permanently affects people's lives.What if medical practitioners, instead of just offering antidepressants, could refer people who have physical and emotional issues caused by long-term unemployment to vocational rehabilitation? What I'm proposing is that the program be expanded to include members of the population who need this assistance, but are unable to access it because they don't meet the program's current criteria.

Thoughts, Comments?

According to the BLS, the 4.3 million people that have been unemployed for six months or more make up 37.9% of the unemployed population here in the U.S. This number has decreased by less than a million in a year, so it really is a big problem here in the U.S.
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What are your thoughts on the situation? What can we as a society do to improve this situation?

Title image modified from original "Unemployed Graduates" by  Ram Kumar (1924), Salem State Library CC By-NC-SA 2.0    

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