. . . and the Victims Get Blamed

With one-third of jobless Americans out of work for more than half a year, and with unemployment holding steady, we have a very, very long-term problem, a mental health problem – and a form of social discrimination as well.

The probability that a laid-off worker will find a job grows smaller the longer people have been out of work, according to studies in the 1980s by economists Lawrence Katz of Harvard University and Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago. “Someone unemployed for six months is much less likely to find a job in the next month than someone unemployed for one month,” Mr. Katz says. (See “Long Term Slog: Out of Work, Out of Hope.”)  That is even more true today.

These are the statistics and probabilities, reported today in The Wall Street Journal.  But extending benefits is only part of the solution.  Even for those who stave off poverty, unemployment easily leads to hopelessness and depression.  Part of this is inactivity.  The unemployed person is deprived of the routine activities that help make him or her feel engaged with others, competent, useful.  Popular opinion to the contrary, self-esteem is not something that is securely possessed by some and lacking in others.  It is something that we all work at every day, usually without thinking about it.  It is the by-product of an active daily life.

But part of it also stems from the attitudes of others who blame the unemployed for their “failure.”  The unemployed often blame themselves, feeling embarrassed, ashamed, guilty.  We all have a tendency to see ourselves as the source of the problems we face – that is if we are not aggressively trying to place the blame elsewhere.  But that tendency to blame ourselves can be powerfully and subtly reinforced by what we see in the attitudes of others.

The Journal did a nice job in its coverage of those who are struggling with hopelessness and those trying to help them, but they make it clear that potential employers, recruiters, and even job counselors harbor doubts about whose fault it is.  Scott Thompson, president of a technology recruiting firm, said that employers he deals with don’t ever explicitly say they are less interested in people who have been out of work for an extended period, “but their actions tell me exactly that…. More often than not, the guy who has recent experience up to last month is the guy that gets the interview.”

It is a vicious cycle, and a large part of it is because those who can lend a helping hand don’t know they know this about themselves.  And those of us at a greater distance may gain some comfort from believing that the unemployed have only themselves to blame.