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Long-term unemployed finding few resources for help

For the millions of Americans who have been unemployed for many months or even years, help is not on the way.

Many economists, policy makers, and social services workers agree that long-term unemployment is perhaps the most intractable problem left by the last recession, yet there is little agreement on how to help this group — or whether government should at all.

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“It’s not on the political agenda at all,” said Heidi Shierlholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. “The one and only lever that could be pulled to solve this problem is getting the labor market back to health overall.”

The economy has been improving, the stock market rising, and overall unemployment declining, but the number of long-term unemployed remains near record levels. Nearly 4 million Americans have been out of work for a year or more, representing almost 30 percent of all unemployed — triple the 10 percent before the recession, according to government statistics.

The statistics are similar in Massachusetts, where nearly 65,000 people have been unemployed for a year or more, almost five times the number in 2006. That’s practically enough people to fill Fenway Park twice.

There are few programs targeted at the long-term unemployed, who face particular obstacles in getting back to work, including the view by many employers that they are damaged goods. Economists say that a hard truth of the labor market is the longer people are unemployed, the less likely it is they will find jobs again.

These casualties of the recession — many age 45 and older — often struggle in isolation to find jobs, exhausting their unemployment benefits. Many fear being outspoken about the issue because it could hurt their chances of getting hired. They battle age discrimination as well as perceptions that they are more expensive to hire or lack up-to-date skills.

“They just seem to be lost,” said Tom McFarland, spokesman for Operation ABLE, a Boston nonprofit that helps unemployed older people. “These people have no hope, no advocacy out there and they need it.”

Debate over policies to address long-term unemployment has been sidelined by political standoffs in Washington and repeated failures by Congress to resolve budget differences. One result of these standoffs is the massive automatic federal spending cuts known as “sequestration,” which will reduce emergency federal unemployment benefits for 2 million long-term unemployed by 11 percent, or an average of about $132 a month per person, according to the White House. They recently went into effect.

Shierholz called the never-ending debate a tragedy for the long-term unemployed, who are left with few resources. Unlike most states, which are constrained by constitutional requirements for balanced budgets, she said, the federal government has the means to help the long-term unemployed and accelerate the pace of the economic recovery.

The failure of political leaders to agree on budget issues has prevented this help from coming, she said. The economy is adding jobs, she said, but at a rate that is too slow to provide much relief from long-term unemployment.

Nigel Gault, chief US economist for IHS Global Insight, a Lexington forecasting firm, said the problem of long-term unemployment is a chronic one in the United States and Europe that has no easy solution. When unemployment benefits end, those who remain unemployed sometimes give up looking, some taking a forced early retirement, and others seek government disability benefits.

“For some people, it’s a way out,” Gault said of disability payments.

Suffolk University economist David Tuerck said he supports eliminating unemployment benefits and other social safety-net programs, such as food stamps, because they discourage workers from doing whatever it takes to get a job .

Proposals to raise the minimum wage should be scrapped too, he said, because it discourages employers from hiring.

“The banks have been saved, the Federal Reserve has steadily kept interest rates low, the stock market has done well. Why is it we can’t get more people employed?” Tuerck said. “Employers have weak incentives to hire, exacerbated by the minimum wage. And workers have a strong incentives to stay unemployed.”

Massachusetts businesses, which pay some of the highest unemployment insurance premiums in the nation, have sought to reduce state jobless benefits, among the most generous in the nation. Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state’s largest business group, has advocated for reducing the number of weeks unemployed workers can collect benefits from 30 to 26, saying it would bring Massachusetts in line with other states.

In the absence of any clear federal or state effort to help long-term unemployed, many people rely on career networking groups. Wednesday Is Networking Day, or WIND, is one of those groups, offering several meetings a week in church basements and other locations around Eastern Massachusetts.

More than 25 job hunters attended a meeting last week in Canton. Nearly all were workforce veterans 50 or older who wanted to find jobs, not storm Washington demanding more unemployment benefits.

“One of the biggest problems people face is the isolation,” said group leader Larry Elle. “And the fact that there are not enough jobs to go around.”

In Massachusetts, people who collect unemployment benefits for 26 weeks are required to meet with a state counselor for job-search coaching and an assessment in order to continue collecting benefits. Kevin Franck, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, said in some cases the state will pay for skills training. Other times counselors will refer people to social service programs.

There is also a state program that pays businesses $2,000 for each person hired who has been unemployed six months or more.

“There’s no shortage of long-term unemployed to fill the program,” Franck said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@ globe.com. Follow her on ­Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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