We asked hundreds of unemployed Americans what's keeping them out of work - it's not unemployment benefits

We asked hundreds of unemployed Americans what's keeping them out of work - it's not unemployment benefits

People walk by a "Help Wanted" sign in New York City on June 04, 2021 in New York City.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

While unemployment benefits have been blamed by some for keeping workers home, our data paints a more complex picture.

There are two distinct groups of unemployed workers: the chronically unemployed and those unemployed due to the pandemic.

Nothing is more important to workers looking for a job than the ability to balance work and family life.

Daniel Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.

Brent Orrell is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he works on workforce development, the nature and future of work, and criminal justice reform.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

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For millions of Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Unemployment spiked from a near-record low of 3.5% to a whopping 14.8% virtually overnight, and the prospect of finding work remained dim for over a year. As highly effective vaccines and declining infection rates have taken hold this summer, once-shuttered businesses are reopening and adding staff as quickly as they can to meet demand. Yet, despite the 9.2 million job openings as of the end of May, workers have been slow to return. Even unprecedented signing bonuses have failed to attract workers, frustrating employment growth.In an effort to understand these somewhat unexpected and perplexing conditions, we at the Survey Center on American Life surveyed 2,422 American adults, including an oversample of 406 currently unemployed people. Our findings show that rather than a single set of unemployed workers, there are two distinct groups facing different circumstances, incentives, and expressing distinct preferences about work.

Chronically unemployed vs. pandemic unemployed

The unemployed cohort can be divided between those who were unemployed before the pandemic and those who lost jobs during COVID-19. Nearly half of those currently not working have been unemployed for 2 or more years, suggesting their lack of current employment is unrelated to COVID-19. Given their circumstance of chronic unemployment, these workers are also not rushing to find employment. More than two thirds (68%) are not looking for work, nor do they plan to start anytime soon.
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