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The long-term unemployed who do find jobs again will likely do so at lower pay. A study by the Congressional Budget Office found that the long-term unemployed earn, on average, 20 percent less when they finally find work.
Still, it's hard to predict the economic outcome because no one has seen such levels of long-term unemployment before, said Steven Davis, an economist at the University of Chicago.
"We're in uncharted territory," he said. "Those people are going to have inferior outcomes in earnings and employment well beyond the current weakness in the labor market."
During the recession, the proportion of the unemployed out of work for more than a year rose, as it typically does during a downturn. Yet even as the economy has modestly recovered, the figure has worsened.
Several factors help explain why. With the economy still struggling just to grow, unemployment has stayed chronically high. The rate has been 9 percent or higher in every month but two since the recession ended in June 2009. That's the longest such stretch since World War II.
Another factor is the aging of the workforce. The huge generation of 78 million baby boomers is nearing retirement. Though older workers are less likely to lose their jobs, when they do, they typically struggle more to find work again.
That's because older workers frequently have skills specific to their former jobs, which they typically had held for decades.
"When they get laid off, those skills are not worth as much to a new employer," said David Wyss, former chief economist at Standard & Poor's and a visiting fellow at Brown University.
President Barack Obama last month proposed steps to try to aid the long-term unemployed. His proposals include a tax break for companies that hire them and a ban on discriminating against them in hiring. But some economists think more drastic action is needed.
Brian Bethune, an economist at Amherst College, favors permanently reducing the Social Security tax, a portion of which employers must pay for each of their workers. Bethune would replace it with a sales tax.
"If you want to attack (the problem), you have to do something dramatic," he said. "It cries out for some fairly significant change."
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