Opinion - Politics

Op-Ed: Long-term unemployment is skyrocketing — here’s how we stop it

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Key Points
  • It's past time we put in place practical solutions to eliminate long-term unemployment altogether, writes Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen.
People walk by a store going out of business along 125th street in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, August 7, 2020.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters

Our nation's employment has taken a nosedive since the pandemic. The number of long-term unemployed American workers increased more in October of this year than in any other month on record.

The number of Americans who reported they've been seeking work unsuccessfully for at least twenty-seven weeks has quadrupled from nearly 1 million in April to more than 3.9 million now. That's more than six times the population of Maryland's largest city, Baltimore.

The facts are clear. We must act now to provide emergency relief to American workers facing long-term unemployment. But we can't stop there. It's also past time we put in place practical solutions to eliminate long-term unemployment altogether. Ignoring this issue risks inflicting permanent damage on our workforce and our economy.                                                                                                                     

Our first priority must be to help these Americans make it through the pandemic. The CARES Act expanded eligibility for unemployment assistance, increased the weekly benefit by $600, and provided an extra thirteen weeks of support.

But the $600 increase expired at the end of July, and the other measures will run out at the end of December. The House-passed HEROES Act would extend all of these programs, but Senate Republicans have refused for months to allow even a vote on the measure. It's time for Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to come back to the negotiating table and vote on emergency relief: 3.9 million long-term unemployed workers are counting on us to act. 

But passing the HEROES Act is just the first step towards addressing the broader consequences of long-term unemployment. Those out of a job for six months or more often struggle to find work because employers are reluctant to hire applicants with large gaps in their résumé.

Gallup polling found that 19% of workers who were unemployed for over a year suffered from depression, compared to 5.6% of workers with full-time jobs. The longer someone is unemployed, the lower their wages are if they do find a job – a pay cut that can persist up to twenty years down the road. Long-term unemployment isn't simply a symptom of the pandemic – it's a chronic problem that keeps Americans out of work and stunts economic growth. 

We don't have to accept long-term unemployment. Last year, I introduced the Long-Term Unemployment Elimination Act with my colleague Senator Ron Wyden. This bill would tackle this issue head-on by creating good-paying, year-long jobs for long-term unemployed workers. Local workforce development boards and community-based organizations would implement the jobs program, using federal dollars to help employers generate new opportunities and get people back to work.

The legislation would also address barriers that keep people out of the workforce – like transportation, childcare, and substance abuse – and cultivate skills for permanent employment. The legislation also includes extra support for communities with persistent, high unemployment to jumpstart new enterprises and create jobs. 

This common-sense legislation would help men and women locked out of jobs for too long get on a path to fully re-enter the workforce. And we can fund it by revising the international tax changes in the 2017 Trump plan that gave windfalls to big corporations and created new incentives to ship jobs overseas.

Enacting a strong minimum tax on foreign profits would stop tax haven abuse and remove offshoring incentives, while the revenues would fully fund my plan to tackle long-term unemployment by creating jobs here at home

 As Congress reconvenes this must be a priority. The good news is that experts on both sides of the aisle agree on the basis of this approach. In 2017, President Trump's top economic advisor Kevin Hassett voiced his support for creating federal jobs for long-term unemployed workers. And, following the introduction of my legislation, I was proud to receive the endorsement of Jared Bernstein, who president-elect Joe Biden recently nominated to be a Member of the Council of Economic Advisors. Republicans and Democrats alike should be able to find consensus in the need for this proposal, and I'll be pushing my colleagues to take it up immediately.  

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized that, "No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance." Roosevelt's New Deal brought jobs and hope. Like FDR, we must now commit ourselves to helping struggling men and women get back on their feet and into the workforce.

The statistics are depressing, but even more so is the thought of not utilizing the human capital and full potential of American workers and their families. Together, we can build a dynamic economy where jobs are available to anyone who's ready to work rather than a dynastic economy where wealthy people are making money off of money while others are out of work. 

Chris Van Hollen is a U.S. senator from Maryland and a member of the Budget and Appropriations Committee.