Down And Out Of Work: The High Cost Of Long-Term Unemployment

06/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2016

Since David Markham was laid off from his management job at a sailboat manufacturer in Marion, South Carolina, he has been unemployed for over a year. Markham, 50, and his wife Cheryl have since lost their house, their car and their health insurance. But what hurt them the most, Markham says, was having to put all their belongings in storage, trek 900 miles across the country and move in with their adult son and daughter in East Lansing, Michigan.

"My kids are supposed to move in with me and depend on me -- it's not supposed to be the other way around," said Markham. "I feel like I have let my family down."

Markham is one of 3.4 million people in America who have been unemployed for longer than a year -- the highest level of long-term joblessness since World War II, according to a report released last week by the Pew Economic Policy Group. The outlook is especially grim for people over the age of 55, whom the report says are more likely to remain unemployed for longer periods of time than their younger competitors.

"I am not just another statistic -- I am a real human being with skills and years of experience," Markham said. "One day, I'm the manager of 30 people that depend on me and look at me as a mentor figure, and the next day I'm sitting in my living room with nowhere to go. When you send out a quadzillion resumés and you don't get one single response, you just get to the point where you say, 'I'm going to quit looking, cause I just don't know why I'm doing this.' I know other people who are feeling the same way. We just feel hopeless. It feels hopeless right now."

Markham says he was making $75,000 a year as a senior manager for the sailboat company, but when the recession hit, the company's sales dropped by 90 percent. He was laid off in February 2009, and his $351-a-week unemployment checks could barely cover his bills.

"Health insurance was more than I could afford to pay," Markham said. "It's terrible -- we were both on maintenance-type drugs for high blood pressure, cholesterol and things like that, but we're living without them. It's not that you can't afford the drug -- you could get it for four dollars at Walmart. The problem is, you can't get a doctor to see you and give you a prescription without health insurance. We had to go off everything."

Soon after Markham lost his job, his wife closed her wedding planning business, and the couple's cars were repossessed. They had
to move out of the house they were renting and move in with their son, an executive chef with a steady paycheck, in another state.

"If we weren't here, I don't know where we would be. A homeless shelter or something," Markham said. "My son works his butt off and we reap the benefits. He understood for a while, but it's starting to wear on him, and I understand, I do. We feel trapped until we can find jobs."

For Markham and others out of work, finding a job may only be half the battle. According to the Pew Report, a year or more of unemployment can have a dramatic effect on future income.

"Whet these researchers describe as 'unemployment scarring' is a result of a few different factors," said Scott Greenberger, primary author of the report. "First, the skills you developed in your previous job may no longer apply. Secondly, there's a perception that if you're applying for a job and you have a gap, people begin to wonder, 'Gee what's wrong with this person? Is there a reason they're having a difficult time?' And there is quite a bit of research that shows that the longer you're out of work, the more difficult it is to make the wage you were making before."

Greenberger also said that while overall unemployment numbers have gotten a little better, there hasn't been any improvement in long-term unemployment numbers.

"The good news is that by some measures, the economy seems to be improving and the unemployment rate is stabilizing," he said. "But our report found several reasons to think that long-term unemployment will persist at a high level for some time.

Markham says he is just trying to stay positive in the face of a very uncertain future.

"Is 50 too old to learn something new? What would that be? Would I be starting at the bottom again? Could I handle that?" he said. "Too many questions, not enough answers."

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect that the Markhams rented, rather than owned, their house.

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