Applying Psychological Science, Benefiting Society

Thank You, President Obama, for Addressing Stigma Against the Long-term Unemployed

Depressed job applicants

By Roberta Downing, PhD (Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer, APA Public Interest Directorate – Government Relations Office)

There are millions of unemployed workers who cannot get hired in the current job market. Of the 10.4 million Americans who are currently unemployed, 3.9 million have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks.[i] These workers face the ever-daunting prospect of getting hired in a job market that overwhelmingly discriminates against them.

President Obama understands the stigma associated with long-term unemployment. Since the State of the Union, he has been taking steps to help the long-term unemployed overcome stigma in the hiring process. On Friday, he issued a memorandum to the heads of all federal agencies that reinforces the need for fairness in assessing job applications and ensures that the unemployed are not treated unfavorably in the federal hiring process. This was no small step given that the federal government is the largest employer in the country. He also brought the leaders of some of the biggest companies to the White House to discuss stigma against the long-term unemployed in hiring and secured commitments from over 300 companies to examine their hiring processes and ensure that unemployed job applicants are not being discriminated against.

What research tells us about stigma toward the unemployed

Recent research documents the existence of a bias by prospective employers against the unemployed.[ii],[iii] In these studies, fictitious resumes were sent out in response to job openings. These studies found that employers rarely call the long-term unemployed for an interview. One of the researchers suggests that an “unemployment cliff” exists, whereby those unemployed for six months or longer experience a severe drop off in the number of interviews they receive. News reports have documented that some employers go so far as to indicate in a job posting that “the unemployed need not apply.” Some discrimination occurs because software programs, not humans, screen out the long-term unemployed.

Psychology contributes to our understanding of this type of stigma. Social psychologists have long-studied stigma and more recently have focused their attention on stigma based on social class.[iv], [v] Discrimination against the long-term unemployed fits this category, as one’s employment status is a crucial aspect of socioeconomic status. In a 2009 journal article, Wendy R. Williams, PhD, described how stigma is conceptualized as “achieved” (i.e., under a person’s control) versus “ascribed” (i.e., inherited and therefore not controlled by the individual). Americans’ perception of social class as achieved through individual effort contributes to a perception that poverty results from the moral failing of the individual.

Such a conception can be used to describe the stigma experienced by the long-term unemployed. Rather than recognizing the structural factors involved in creating long-term unemployment (i.e., because our country recently experienced the most severe recession since the Great Depression, and that unemployment remains high in America), employers instead seem to make individualistic attributions (i.e., “there must be something wrong with them if they have not been hired after so many months”) in passing over these applicants.

President Obama sees that employers need to understand the biases working against the long-term unemployed and wants companies to ensure that those out of work for six months or longer get a fair chance at a job. Let’s hope that in doing so more people who are struggling in the current job market finally catch a break.

What can you do?

Contact your members of Congress and urge them to support the Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2014 (H.R. 3972/S. 1972), introduced by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), which would prevent employers discriminating against job seekers because of unemployment. The millions of unemployed workers in the U.S. need your help, and policymakers need to hear your voice. Tell your elected officials to stop employers from discriminating against people based on their employment status.


[i]  Stone, C. (2014). Statement by Chad Stone, Chief Economist, on the December Employment Report. Retrieved from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities website: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=4076

[ii] Collette, M. (2013, December). A new theory on long-term unemployment. News@Northeastern. Retrieved from http://www.northeastern.edu/news/2012/12/long-term-unemployment/

[iii] Kroft, K., Lange, F., & Notowidigdo, M.J., (2013). Duration Dependence and Labor Market Conditions: Evidence from a Field Experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 128, 1123-1167. doi: 10.1093/qje/qjt015

[iv] Crocker, J., Major, B., & Steele, C. (1998). Social stigma. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 504-553). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

[v] Williams, W. (2009). Struggling with Poverty: Implications for Theory and Policy of Increasing Research on Social Class-Based Stigma. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2009, pp. 37—56.

You may also be interested in:

Not So Happy Holidays for the Unemployed

Health Shouldn’t Require Wealth: How ACA Increases Coverage of the Uninsured

50 Years After the “War on Poverty”: Looking Beyond Success or Failure

You May Not Be Feeling the Effects of the Sequester But Guess Who Is

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Categorised in: Human Rights and Social Justice, Poverty and Socioeconomic Status, Public Policy, Work, Stress and Health

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