In some U.S. states, nearly half of the job seekers who have stopped looking for work have done so because they simply don’t believe they’ll find anything. Indeed, the number of discouraged workers nationwide has more than doubled in the past year. This trend won’t be reflected in the widely publicized unemployment rate, as discouraged workers aren’t included among the unemployed. Still, in states as diverse as Mississippi, South Dakota, and New York, the span of this often invisible slice of workers signals a population losing its hope.
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Most jobless people who have stopped looking for work are otherwise engaged–they’re back in school, taking on family responsibilities, or too sick to search. They, along with workers who have stopped because they’re discouraged, make up a group that the Labor Department calls the “marginally attached.” They’re included in some of the broader measures of unemployment, but they’re officially not part of the workforce. While discouraged workers make up about a third of the marginally attached nationwide, their numbers have been increasing.
Between the third quarter of last year and the second quarter of this year, Mississippi averaged the highest percentage of discouraged job seekers among its marginally attached–nearly 50 percent, compared with 32.6 percent nationwide. South Dakota ranked second after Mississippi, with 48.5 percent of marginally attached workers classified as discouraged. Florida, Michigan, Connecticut, West Virginia, and New York followed in ranking for the highest rates of discouragement.
Discouraged workers are characterized by their perceptions. They don’t think work is available for them, or they believe they lack the necessary training to be hired. They may be convinced that employers think they’re too young or too old, or they believe that they face some other kind of discrimination that prevents them from finding work. And while there are discouraged workers in healthy economies, in a prolonged recession such as this one, worker pessimism tends to skyrocket.
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The heights of discouragement in Mississippi are significant. “It says something about the situation in that state when half of the people with a relatively recent commitment to searching for a job have stopped because they believe nothing is available for them,” says Thomas Krolik, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between the third quarter of last year and the second quarter of this year, Mississippi’s average unemployment rate was 7.9 percent. Add in all the discouraged workers, and the rate shoots up to 8.8 percent, a 0.9 percentage-point jump. Nationwide, the average difference between the unemployment rate and the rate of unemployed plus discouraged workers was about 0.4 percentage point. Michigan and New York also ranked high by that measure.
Charles Campbell, a professor of economics at Mississippi State University, says the state struggles with regions of particularly high unemployment, “where there really are no jobs.” Many of the residents of those regions lack the skills and means to find work in outside areas, Campbell says, so they remain unemployed.
U.S. News and World Report