WASHINGTON ― The U.S. economy has improved a lot in recent years, but not for everybody. As of September, there were some 600,000 jobless Americans who have been looking for work for at least 99 weeks.
The total number of these “99ers” topped out at nearly 2 million in 2011 and has been declining ever since. Yet Labor Department data going back to 1967 show that before the Great Recession, the U.S. never saw more than half a million people unemployed that long.
Diane Zapasnik and her husband were among the 2 million very-long-term jobless in 2011, and they still haven’t recovered from the experience. Zapasnik, 59, said they lost their house and now live in a trailer. They’re counting down the days until they can apply for Social Security retirement benefits.
“I’m done crying because we’re just trying to pick ourselves up and keep going,” said Zapasnik. “I’ve worked my whole life and never had a problem finding a job. Never.”
When she was laid off in 2008, Zapasnik said, she’d been working as a medical billing specialist for five years. Before that, she was employed at assisted living facilities and as a home health care aide. Prior to his layoff in 2007, her husband had worked for the same manufacturing company for more than 20 years. They lived in Barre, Massachusetts, at the time.
I’m done crying because we’re just trying to pick ourselves up and keep going. Diane Zapasnik
By 2011, they’d become 99ers. Back then the term was shorthand for people who’d run out the full 99 weeks of unemployment insurance benefits. At the time, Americans could receive nearly two years’ worth of benefits, between the 26 weeks usually offered by states and the federal extensions added by Congress in the face of the Great Recession.
Using the 99ers as a symbol of just how bad the economy had become, some Democrats pushed for the federal government to add even more weeks of benefits. Instead, Congress let the extended benefits lapse in 2013 and people forgot about the plight of the 99ers.
“We’re not being talked about at all,” Zapasnik said. “It’s almost like the past couple of years we’ve been swept under the rug. So many families are just dying.”
Coincidentally, people unemployed for 99 weeks or more have been a Labor Department measure for decades, thanks to a quirk of data entry. Researchers count spells of unemployment in weeks based on a monthly survey of households, and for many years, the forms they used had space for only two digits.
“Prior to 1994 our survey was done with a paper questionnaire, and at the time they allotted two columns and you could respond in weeks up to 99,” Karen Kosanovich, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, told HuffPost.
The data show that from 1967 until the Great Recession, people unemployed for at least 99 weeks never exceeded 5.6 percent of the total number of unemployed Americans. The 5.6 percent high was set in 1985. But currently, these 99ers represent 8.1 percent of the jobless, down from 14.5 percent in 2012.
We’re not being talked about at all. It’s almost like the past couple of years we’ve been swept under the rug. Diane Zapasnik
Some argue that the U.S. is basically at “full employment” now, which economists consider the lowest rate of joblessness that doesn’t cause price inflation ― although they don’t agree what the rate should be. So what accounts for the persistence of very-long-term unemployment when the official jobless rate has been hanging around a comparatively healthy 5 percent for a whole year? Maybe it’s a clue that full employment is more elusive than it seems.
“We’re still probably a year away” from full employment, said Elise Gould, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute. She said more months of steady job growth will eventually lead to jobs for those who’ve been looking the longest, a group that can face discrimination in hiring.
“As jobs continue to increase and the labor market tightens, those workers are going to be pulled in along with everyone else,” Gould said.
After they lost their home in 2011, Zapasnik and her husband moved to a campground in Roebuck, South Carolina. He found work in a school cafeteria and as a custodian. She said that work pays much less than he used to earn.
Although Zapasnik thinks of herself as having been unemployed since 2008, she doesn’t count as a 99er anymore by the government’s standards. In South Carolina, she’s had some part-time work as an office temp thanks to an AARP program for people older than 55. She has also received a few offers for home health care positions, though she doesn’t want to go back to that type of work.
She said she’s currently unemployed, applying for jobs online but only occasionally receiving a response, usually a form letter saying her name will be kept on file. She said she doesn’t believe the official statistics reflecting a better economy.
“I don’t care what the government says,” Zapasnik said. “They’re lying.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump loves to cast doubt on the government’s unemployment statistics. Zapasnik isn’t much of a Trump supporter but wouldn’t rule out voting for him. She said she hasn’t voted since casting a ballot for Ross Perot in 1992.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t really have anybody to choose from,” she said.