When people just stop looking for work

Application for unemployment benefits

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: If we are, indeed, on the cusp of some sort of recovery, then it's definitely the jobless kind. The stock market may have rising 15 percent in the last quarter, but the current unemployment rate is almost 10 percent. Most of the newly laid off will probably start pounding the pavement. Sure, they've heard there aren't many jobs to be had, but their hopes haven't yet been dashed. That dubious honor goes to the 2.5 million unemployed who've simply stopped looking.

We wondered who those people are, so we sent Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman to find out.


Mitchell Hartman: The standard unemployment rate -- the one we hear about every month -- counts people who are actively searching for a job. Meaning, they filled out an application, sent in a resume, went to an interview in the last four weeks.

But the Department of Labor also tracks people who were in the job market some time in the last year, but haven't done anything to try and land a paycheck recently. Maybe they had to care for a child or they got laid off, and they're close enough to retirement to just be retired. Or maybe they're so fed up with not finding anything, they've stopped looking.

Ross Anderson: My name is Ross Anderson, and I'm 54 years old.

Anderson is one of nearly 700,000 Americans officially classified as "discouraged" workers. He lives in a modest ranch house in the Minneapolis suburbs. Over a 30-year career in manufacturing, he worked his way up from shop floor to manager to owning his own high-tech equipment firm. He shut it down in 2005, after most of his customers sent their work to China. He picked up temporary contract jobs, until a year ago.

Anderson: And it seemed at first that there were some opportunities. I did some interviewing, and then it seemed that all the opportunities just dried up. For every opening that would be announced on a Sunday night, Monday morning they'd have over 300 resumes.

Anderson, his wife and teenage daughter are living off his wife's salary as a government secretary. He wasn't laid off, so he doesn't get unemployment benefits. He got a mortgage modification to keep the house. He's also seen a doctor for depression.

Anderson: There's been just serious retrenching with the family budget. We cut coupons, we buy only on double coupon days at the grocery store. We're just floating on the very ragged edge.

Of course, in a recession this deep, unemployment doesn't discriminate. Some who've barely gotten into the job market, have already dropped out.

Janeane Marie Ceccanti: My name is Janeane Marie Ceccanti. I am 28 years old, and I live in Portland, Ore.

I met Ceccanti at a local farmer's market. She was counting her cash to see if she could afford a $5 sandwich. Ceccanti finished a degree in fashion design last December. Then, her student loan payments kicked in.

Ceccanti: And there are absolutely no jobs to be had. I've actually kind of given up. The hardest part is entering a field where you're competing against people with 20 years experience, because they lost their jobs.

So Ceccanti's gone out on her own. She's trying to develop a line of clothing. But that's not paying the bills.

Ceccanti: And my husband is supporting both of us on his salary as a kitchen manager at his family's restaurants.

Daniel Hamermesh: In an awful lot of couples like this, one spouse is still working.

University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh.

Hamermesh: That spouse will have health insurance, which solves a lot of problems and be bringing in some income.

I asked Hamermesh why the standard unemployment measure doesn't include discouraged workers. After all, shouldn't it reflect how many people want a job, even if they've given up looking for now?

Hamermesh: Their commitment to work is clearly less. They aren't looking in the last month, for whatever reason.

And then there are those who refuse to give up, no matter how hopeless it seems. Take James Lawson. He's an ex-con, and though he's been out of prison for 15 years, finding work remains tough. His wife is a medical aide. She supports them, when she can find work. Lawson was at the Portland unemployment office recently filling out job applications.

James Lawson: Actually, I've pretty much applied to two to three places a week for pretty much past five years.

HARTMAN: How do you keep doing that?

Lawson: It's just plain and simple: I don't want to be a lazy person just sitting on my butt having everything handed to me.

Neither does Portland resident Seth Reams. But he found himself doing just that for awhile. Reams has a high school diploma and found steady work in restaurants, until last year.

Seth Reams: After I got laid off, I thought, 'You know, no biggie, I'll find a job any day, a couple weeks.' And then the weeks turned into months, and I really just got dejected and depressed. It really eats at you in a million different ways. I'm a grown man, I'm 35 and I can't support myself.

Reams started drinking heavily, stopped looking for work, and had to depend on his girlfriend to pay the bills. Then a light went off. He thought, why not organize unemployed people to do community work -- fixing roofs, planting trees? His group, We've Got Time to Help, now has a 100 volunteers. And Reams is reenergized.

Reams: I'm applying for everything and anything. In fact, I even applied for a window washing position, and I am deathly afraid of heights.

No-longer-quite-so-discouraged worker, Seth Reams.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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