The number of Americans unemployed for 99 weeks or longer has averaged just shy of 2 million for the past two years, but their ranks may have begun to dwindle.
In December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted just 1.5 million "99ers," the smallest number in any month since 2010. The fourth quarter of last year also saw the lowest average number of 99ers in two years. But it's not clear that more of the very long-term unemployed are finding jobs.
"That decline is likely not due to an improving labor market, because it just hasn't improved much over the last two years," Heidi Shierholz of the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute said in an interview. "A lot of the decline in the unemployment rate we've seen is just due to people dropping out of the labor market."
The people counted as unemployed for 99 weeks or more have been actively looking for work, or they wouldn't be considered part of the workforce at all. One thing that may have kept so many people searching for so long is federal unemployment insurance, which from late 2009 through 2011 combined with state benefits to provide as many as 99 weeks of compensation. People are required to search for work -- in other words, to remain attached to the workforce -- as a condition of receiving benefits.
But the duration of benefits is shorter than before. In February 2012, Congress set in motion a gradual reduction of the maximum duration to 79 weeks in June, then to 73 weeks by September. As of December, the jobless in only nine states qualified for the full complement of benefits.
Jesse Rothstein, an associate professor of public policy and economics at the University of California, Berkeley, found in a 2011 research paper that the recent regimen of extended benefits did indeed keep people from giving up their job search as quickly as they otherwise might have. Rothstein and Shierholz said the dwindling long-term benefits might help explain why there were fewer 99ers at the end of last year, though it's hard to be sure.
"I've been surprised at how little anybody's paying attention -- not just to the 99ers, but also the 79ers in the past year," Rothstein said. (The term "99ers" has most commonly been a nickname for people who used up 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, though the estimate of how many people out of work for 99 weeks is not based on the insurance rolls.)
"There are still a lot of people who haven't found work, and it's reasonable to guess it's not because they're shirking, but because the labor market is still pretty terrible," Rothstein said. "I wonder how they're getting along."
There seems to be less interest in 99ers than before. Major newspapers ran stories that included the terms "99ers" and "unemployment" 12 times last year, 35 times in 2011, and 68 times in 2010, according to a news database. Congress fought over unemployment insurance in 2010 more than in subsequent years, so that might explain the declining interest.
Nobody had more to say about 99ers than MSNBC host Ed Schultz, who often harped on Congress for ignoring the longest-term jobless. He highlighted long-shot efforts by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) to give the jobless additional weeks of compensation.
"I refuse to give up on my mission to help the 99ers," Schultz said on Sept. 21, 2010, after it became clear Stabenow's legislation wouldn't go anywhere.
Schultz kept it up until February 2011, when a pair of House Democrats staged a press conference to announce new legislation for extra weeks of benefits (that bill also went nowhere). After that, he moved on to other things, like Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to bust up Wisconsin's public sector unions.
Later in 2011, after the Occupy Wall Street movement got started, some commentators used "99ers" as shorthand for the 99 percent -- the Occupy movement's emblem of income inequality between the richest 1 percent of Americans and everyone else.
"Not too many people are out there looking out for us," said Alex Swingle, a New York City resident who's been out of work since losing his credit analyst job in October of 2010.
Swingle, 44, said his wife is still working, so his long-term joblessness hasn't been a full-blown crisis. But he said he's lowered his standards and is willing to work outside his industry, and for less money than he used to make. He still hasn't had any luck.
"I think that mentally and physically it's taking its toll on me," he said. "Problems with sleeping, insomnia -- it's kind of nerve wracking. You feel like you're being beaten up. Anxiety, depression -- you have no idea what your future is."
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