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Where Are the Long-Term Unemployed?

The depth of this recession is prompting some scrutiny in the media, and soul-searching among policy wonks, on the plight of the long-term unemployed. Last week, the Wall Street Journal profiled several workers among the 5 million nationwide who have been out of work for at least half a year. Brookings’ own Ron Haskins wondered aloud whether the post-welfare reform social contract--government support in exchange for work--can hold up in an era of long-run unemployment.  

While national data don’t reveal exactly where those 5 million workers live, recently released data from the Census Bureau offer a window on the labor markets that were already highly troubled in 2008, which almost certainly contain outsized shares of the long-run unemployed today. This map examines two measures for the 100 largest metro areas in the United States in 2008: unemployment (the share of adults not employed and actively looking for work), and labor force participation (the share of adults employed OR actively looking for work). It restricts these measures to working-age adults (age 25 to 64) who have a high school diploma or less, the educational group most severely impacted by the downturn. Where unemployment rates were already high in 2008, or labor force participation rates were low (signaling dropouts from the labor market), problems are likely to be even greater in 2009.

There are roughly three clusters of these troubled labor markets. The first cluster is in California’s Central Valley, where the subprime mortgage crisis took hold early, and left many less educated workers from the housing sector in its wake. The second cluster is in the industrial Midwest, particularly auto-dependent communities around the Great Lakes that began shedding manufacturing jobs well in advance of the national downturn’s inception in December 2007. And the third cluster is in the Southeast, which includes some communities affected by the manufacturing downturn, as well as others that have exhibited longstanding employment problems among important demographic groups like less educated black men.

Some experts are beginning to talk about the need for subsidized employment to get disconnected workers reattached to the labor market in what may be a long economic recovery. Reasonable people disagree about the potential effectiveness of such programs, but the debate on how to help these workers is certainly a worthwhile one. A diverse group--regionally, demographically, and politically--of U.S. metro areas looks to have a stake in that evolving discussion.