WASHINGTON -- Nearly half a million Americans left the labor force in March, the U.S. Labor Department announced Friday, causing the unemployment rate to decline from 7.7 to 7.6 percent.
Part of the reason fewer people are participating in the labor force is that the baby boomers are hitting retirement, but another part is that the economy is lousy. Employers added only 88,000 jobs in March, the fewest in any month since June.
"This should be a wake-up call," Mike Evangelist, a policy analyst for worker advocacy group the National Employment Law Project, said in an interview. "We had had pretty consistent job growth the last couple months, and it just so happens the month they enacted all these austerity measures we had terrible growth."
Job creation slowed in the same month federal policymakers pursued significant budget cuts known as sequestration, the latest and greatest in a series of reductions to government spending. The cuts have already resulted in layoffs and furlough notices for some federal workers. New unemployment claims rose sharply last week.
The number of long-term jobless declined slightly from 4.8 million to 4.6 million in March, though the decline probably has as much to do with hiring as people giving up on their search for jobs. Workers are considered long-term unemployed if they've been looking for work for at least six months. A person who hasn't tried to find a job within four weeks of the government's survey doesn't count as unemployed at all.
Since the end of 2009, roughly 40 percent of the jobless population has been long-term unemployed, a phenomenon unseen in the past half-century. (Some economists think the problem will eventually go away.)
Raquel Lynne McLaughlin of Clarksville, Md., worked as a project coordinator for an IT company until her layoff seven months ago. A single mother of two, McLaughlin, 44, is not a fan of long-term joblessness.
"I think it sucks," she said. "I don't like it."
But McLaughlin keeps a positive attitude and remains determined to find a new job. She said she has had job interviews but no callbacks yet. She won't quit looking.
"I have got pride," she said. "One of my sisters was like, 'It's been a long time, you obviously need health insurance, why don't you go to social services?' I don't want to do that."
McLaughlin doesn't want to throw herself into the safety net even though she said she's got cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the immune system and can cause pain and blotchy skin. The need for health insurance makes it more disappointing when she doesn't get called back after an interview, and she worries the disappointment itself makes her condition worse.
"I haven't been in treatment since I got laid off in August," she said. "I know I need to handle rejection better so I don't get sick."
For some people, keeping busy is a way of keeping positive. McLaughlin contacted HuffPost in response to a March story that featured an Atlanta woman also confronting long-term joblessness. That woman coped with unemployment by writing poetry and a memoir. "She was stressing, [but] she found another way of releasing, of dealing what she was going through," said McLaughlin, who has been creating style guides for a fashion website. "I don't get paid for that and I don't really care because it's a creative outlet," she said.
An analysis released this week by the National Employment Law Project found that long-term joblessness affects all demographic groups, cutting across gender, education, race and age. Research has shown long-term joblessness inflicts permanent damage on a worker's long-term finances and well-being.
Though it's been a persistent problem for several years, policymakers in Washington have focused more on reducing the federal budget deficit than decreasing joblessness. "It is astonishing that federal lawmakers so blithely disregard the urgent need for policy responses" addressing long-term unemployment, the report said. "It is a testimony to the success of social safety net programs like unemployment insurance and supplemental nutritional assistance that this massive group remains largely invisible to the general public."