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Checking in with America’s Long-Term Unemployed

Although the Great Recession seems to be waning, long-term unemployment remains a persistent problem.  To understand this phenomenon and track the Recession’s other lingering effects, the John J. Heldrich Center partnered with GfK. Starting in 2009, the Center began following the unemployed, checking back with a group of people every six to eight months—giving Heldrich researchers a strong grasp on how people have, or have not, made it through the Recession. Thanks to KnowledgePanel®, GfK’s probability-based online panel, the Heldrich Center has been able to investigate issues that would otherwise not have been feasible for them.

Through the Heldrich Center’s nationwide Work Trends survey series, staggering statistics are being brought to light. Around 38% of America’s unemployed say to have lost an extreme amount of their savings, with an additional 20% claiming to have lost at least a little. With alarmingly high statistics like these, survey series are a necessity, to bring these issues to the public eye. Although the US general public does not blame those who are unemployed for being in their current situation, a large portion of jobless people have lost their sense of self-worth, 25% have felt the need to seek out professional help to cope with extreme stress and depression. From the group of Americans surveyed, 60% feel that their current unemployed state is permanent, rendering it impossible for them to get back on track.

Recently, GfK’s Erica Demme spoke to Cliff Zukin, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science, about the Heldrich Center’s ground breaking work:

I saw a billboard this morning: “New Jersey:  A State of Resilience.” While the campaign obviously refers to Hurricane Sandy, I’m wondering if it applies to today’s employment scene. What is the public’s general outlook on job prospects for the unemployed?

The prospect is not good, and the public is unhappy.  I would not characterize the American public right now as resilient.  One of the things that we did with GfK is to track the American public – the employed, unemployed, and the general public through the recession.  The last piece released in December has an air of resignation and loss rather than a sense of optimism and resilience.  Around 38% say they’ve lost an extreme amount of their savings, and another 20% or so say they’ve lost a little.  When you look at what’s happened during the recession, the American workforce has clearly been downsized, and it looks like it might last a long time.

A February 7, 2013 New York Times article cites your work and references a similar survey in 2010. How long have you been conducting unemployment related surveys?

We started in 2009 at the Heldrich Center, in the middle of this great recession when millions of jobs were being lost.  I had the idea of trying to survey unemployed people, because we’ve never seen this before.  At that time, recruiting such a sample with Random Digit Dial would have been prohibitively expensive.  People at the poverty level or who are unemployed or in low incidence groups are very hard to find.  KnowledgePanel enabled us to do this for a reasonable budget.

We had the idea of seeing how Americans who are unemployed are coping, and in September 2009, we turned it into a panel survey and followed the unemployed over three years.  We’ve done four waves of that survey, checking back with these people every six to eight months.  So we have a strong handle on how people have made it through the recession – or not made it through.

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