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One thing I've learned since I started blogging is how much people want to see information that puts our current economic situation in perspective. One way to do that, a natural one to me since my specialty is international relations, is to use multi-country comparisons to see where the U.S. stands. Usually this means comparisons with other industrialized countries, although my post on employment protection had data for Brazil, Russia, India, and China as well because the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development provided it. Moreover, it was striking that the United States would have even worse standards than some developing countries.

Besides that kind of "cross-sectional" comparison of multiple countries at a single point in time, another way to gain perspective is through "longitudinal" comparison of data on one issue through time. Today's post takes that approach. I decided to learn how to use the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank data you often see in other blogs--although it turns out "learn" is too strong a word because the "FRED" website ( is so simple to use. That set me up for a shock to find out how bad long-term unemployment (usually defined as 26 weeks or more) is today. This is a critical issue because the longer you are out of work, the less likely you are to ever find a job again. Unemployment is also critical for health care, as most Americans still get their health insurance through their employers.

As everyone knows, long-term unemployment has been a big problem in the current crisis. But "knowing" isn't the same as having perspective. For that, we need a comparison. It turns out that the average duration of unemployment over the last few months is almost exactly twice as high as the previous peak in 1983 in the aftermath of the Reagan recession. The current average of over 40 weeks is completely unprecedented since World War II [xhistoricallyx] (as is the median length of unemployment, which was also twice that of prior postwar peaks at about 22 weeks when Politifact reported on it in May 2011). But you have to see it to really understand it: Unemployment duration has increased steadily even since the end of the official recession, and may finally have topped out at 40.9 weeks in November 2011. Let's hope we're finally seeing a reduction.

Click here for image.

Update: corrected to clarify that this is a postwar peak, and not longer than in the Great Depression.

Originally posted to Kenneth Thomas on Sun Feb 19, 2012 at 08:58 PM PST.

Also republished by Unemployment Chronicles.

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