Long-term unemployed feeling deepest pain of recession

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The worst pain of the economic downturn undoubtedly is being borne by the 6.1 million people who have been unemployed for more than six months. They make up nearly 40 percent of the 14.7 million people who were unemployed across the nation in December.

Locally the unemployment rate was significantly lower than the national rate of 10 percent for December. The unemployment rate in the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area was 7.9 percent for December, according to a report being released this morning by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

The rate for the seven counties is still higher than it has been at any time since September 1986, when unemployment was 8.2 percent and coming down from a high of 17.1 percent of January 1983.

While the state does not keep statistics on the length of time workers in Pennsylvania have been unemployed, other statistics reflecting the poverty that accompanies longtime joblessness are growing.

"Increasingly, the people who come to apply for food stamps are people who have never come in before," said Joni Rabinowitz, who recently retired from her position at Just Harvest, an agency that helps to fight hunger.

The Just Harvest staff helps people apply for food assistance, known nationally as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP. In the third quarter of 2007 when the recession began, 63 people came in to Just Harvest to apply for food assistance. In the third quarter of 2009, when economists said the economy was out of the recession, the number of people applying to SNAP was 511. In November 2007, 9.3 percent of the state population was on food stamps. That number grew to 12.1 percent, or nearly an eighth of the population of the state, by November 2009.

One of the people who received food assistance while he was unemployed was Cal Shuchman, 61, of Reserve. Mr. Shuchman worked in the mortgage industry as a telemarketer. After the housing bubble burst, people who were "upside down" in their mortgages -- meaning they owed more than the house was worth -- could not refinance, taking down the section of the industry in which Mr. Shuchman worked.

While unemployed, Mr. Shuchman received food assistance, help heating his home from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and unemployment compensation.

As if to add insult to the unemployed, the state's share of the unemployment compensation payment was cut 2.3 percent in January because the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund amount had fallen.

Currently, due to extensions by the federal government, a worker can receive up to 99 weeks of unemployment compensation, said David Smith, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industry. Some people have been caught between extensions, he said, so their payments were cut off for a period and then renewed.

Mr. Shuchman said he was never in that position during the seven months he was unemployed, but at times he was very nervous that he would exhaust his benefits. Now he is working for Working America, making telephone calls to verify information that canvassers collect. While he is happy to have a job, it is just a temporary position.

The Pittsburgh region's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 7.9 percent was unchanged in December from November and is a full percentage point below the 8.9 percent rate for Pennsylvania and just over two percentage points below the national rate of 10 percent.

Allegheny County had the lowest unemployment rate locally of 7.5 percent, up slightly from 7.4 percent in November when the rate was higher than the unemployment rate in Butler, which was 7.1 percent in November. However, during December Butler's rate rose to 7.6 percent.

Each of the counties in the Metropolitan Statistical Area saw an increase in unemployment figures, but the state reported the overall area held steady.

"It's slightly different seasonal-adjustment factors in the counties, which were done county by county, while the Metropolitan Statistical Area is adjusted as a whole," explained Lauren Nimal, an analyst for the Department of Labor and Industry.

The area also lost 5,200 nonfarm jobs, but those jobs, she said, "were pretty typical seasonal movements."

Colleges and universities, for instance, lost 900 jobs in December, but those are typical in December because of college breaks. Construction also lost 2,500 jobs in December, a time when construction falls off.

The highest unemployment rate in the seven-county region was held by Fayette County, which saw a slight rise in its rate to 10.2 percent. Armstrong County had the largest increase for December in the region, with unemployment there rising to 10.1 percent in December from 9.2 percent in November.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published February 2, 2010 5:00 AM


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