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Commentary: Lengthy unemployment tough to shake

It’s not that the unemployment rate released Friday won’t matter. It will. But the unemployment rate won’t give us a complete sense of joblessness in America.

The labor market has shown signs of improvement recently. Fewer Americans have been requesting unemployment checks, and the number of new jobs has been on the upswing. More than two dozen states reported more jobs in November than a month earlier.

Although these data are encouraging, the number of out-of-work Americans who have not held a job for six months or more remains stubbornly high. More than four out of every 10 people without jobs have been on the employment sidelines for at least 27 weeks. And it’s been this way for two years.

During the recessions in the early 1990s and early 1980s, only 25 percent of unemployed workers went more than six months between jobs. This Great Recession has almost doubled that proportion. This is what worries economists and politicians when they talk about structural unemployment. Finding the right policies and incentives to chisel away at long-term unemployment has been elusive.

We know the longer someone goes without work, the harder it is for them to get back into the workforce. Companies creating jobs have a natural bias toward someone already working, with up-to-date skills and know-how. And it’s easier to find work for those still in the game.

A December unemployment rate below 9 percent will be good news. But it belies the reality of joblessness bordering on hopelessness for many Americans.

Tom Hudson, anchor and managing editor of “Nightly Business Report,” can be followed on Twitter HudsonNBR.