WASHINGTON -- The national unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent in February as the economy added a relatively impressive 236,000 jobs, the government announced Friday. But the report didn't have great news on the long-term unemployment front.
The number of Americans who have been jobless for at least six months inched up to 4.8 million after declining slightly in each of the previous months since October. The percentage of unemployed Americans out of work six months or longer increased to 40.2 percent after dipping below 40 percent in December and January for the first time since 2009.
"It's significant," Claire McKenna, a policy analyst for the National Employment Law Project, said of the uptick in long-term joblessness. "It's hard to know what really explains the increase this month but obviously the problem of high long-term unemployment persists."
It was hard to know, too, whether the recent decline of long-term joblessness was due to an improving economy, or to desperate workers taking bad jobs or just giving up altogether. In February, nearly 300,000 Americans dropped out of the labor force, meaning they had stopped looking for jobs.
One reason economists say there are fewer long-term jobless Americans is that there is less unemployment insurance to keep them attached to the workforce, since continuing to search for work is a condition of receiving benefits. Congress trimmed the duration of extended compensation last year, and a shrinking percentage of the jobless continue to receive benefits. The recent budget cuts known as sequestration will reduce benefits even further.
Lynn Ehrlicher of Atlanta has been unemployed for 15 months and said she will receive her final unemployment check this week. (If she'd lost her job two years earlier, her benefits would have lasted another several months.) She formerly worked as a proofreader and has worked part-time in an office and as a teacher.
"I realize that being an older worker, I'm unlikely to find employment at a level close to what I made just a few years ago, even though my skills are still intact," Ehrlicher, 55, said in an email in response to a recent HuffPost story.
So Ehrlicher has looked for work that might be less than ideal, including a copy editor job more than an hour from her home. She won an interview, and thought it had gone well.
"I thought I had the job. I was really kind of looking for an acceptance on that because they were saying [things like], 'When you start, when you start,' and they gave me a tour of the office," she said.
In a turn that shows just how picky employers can be when 12 million Americans are jobless, the company took someone who could do one thing Ehrlicher couldn't. "I wasn't familiar with Quark," she said, referring to a program that once dominated the market for page layout software but no longer does.
Ehrlicher feels a knot in her stomach when she gets out of bed in the morning. The physical sensation is accompanied by dread and panic.
"There's nothing to do. I don't have a job to wake up to," she said, describing how it feels. "What is the point? What is the point of my life?"
On the bright side, Ehrlicher said the lack of work has given her time to focus on writing poetry and a memoir.
"That's been kind of a relief valve. I've always wanted to write this book anyway," she said. "I have to do something because otherwise I'll go crazy."
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