Editorial: Economy Rebounds, but Jobs Lag

The U.S. economy shows signs of gathering steam, with gross domestic product rising at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter. Combined with 4.1 percent growth in the third quarter, the last half of 2013 was the strongest since the boom times of 2003.

Meanwhile, thousands of Americans who were shipwrecked by the Great Recession and its aftermath remain castaways, marooned in long-term unemployment. A recent article by staff writer David Corriveau profiled a couple of Upper Valley job seekers struggling to find work after months of being unemployed. One of them zeroed in on the reason for the seeming paradox between a growing economy and continuing long-term unemployment: The longer one is out of work, the harder it is to find a job. He ended with this poignant plea: “If I’m a qualified candidate and measure up equally with someone who’s currently employed, I hope they’ll think, ‘Help the person who doesn’t have a job.’ ”

The plight of these job seekers — nearly 4 million Americans are classified as long-term unemployed — has been exacerbated by the failure of Congress so far to extend long-term unemployment benefits, which expired at the end of last year. No one should hold his breath waiting for that to happen, despite the obvious case for doing so on the grounds that it is both humane and economically sensible.

President Obama last week announced a modest but welcome initiative of his own to address the problem. He has persuaded some of America’s biggest companies to revise their hiring practices so the long-term unemployed are not unfairly screened out on the basis that they haven’t worked in a while. At a White House event Friday, the president noted, “It’s a cruel Catch-22 — the longer you’re unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem. Now this is an illusion, but it’s one that, unfortunately, we know statistically is happening out there.”

Officials said that about 300 businesses, including 21 of the nation’s 50 largest, had agreed to the new hiring policies. These include Walmart, Apple, General Motors and Ford, according to The New York Times. We urge Upper Valley employers to make a similar commitment so that experienced and qualified job candidates can compete on a level playing field.

Of course, the long-term unemployed are only a subset of the jobless. The national unemployment rate has fallen to 6.7 percent, but some economists believe the actual rate may be closer to 9 percent when those who have stopped looking for work are factored in. Call them the frustrated, discouraged and largely invisible unemployed. Minorities and young people in particular are still suffering disproportionately from what in many respects is a continuing employment crisis.

It may be that current favorable trends — rising exports, strong consumer spending and increased business investment — will continue and accelerate, and economic growth will eventually take up the slack in employment. But no one should forget that it will take years for many of those devastated by the economic meltdown to recover, if they ever do. In this light, the failure of the president and the Congress to apply sufficient fiscal stimulus to the economy back when it needed it most was a damaging miscalculation. Even now, a robust government job-creation program would be a big help, especially one targeted at employing young people and members of minority groups. That this cannot even be discussed in the current political climate is perhaps a telling commentary on just how divided against itself America has become.