Jo Anne Schneider

Jo Anne Schneider, a Catonsville anthropologist who is affiliated with George Mason University in Virginia (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston / October 20, 2011)

Jo Anne Schneider studies marginalized groups: refugees, the poor, people with disabilities — and, lately, Americans who have been unemployed for months and months, which includes a lot of people who never would have considered themselves on the fringe before.

"You've got this whole population of what was the stable middle class that is now out of work," said Schneider, a Catonsville anthropologist who is affiliated with George Washington University. in Washington, D.C. "The last time you saw that … was probably the '30s."

About 45 percent of Americans who are unemployed and looking for jobs have been on the hunt for more than six months, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That added up to more than 6 million people as of September.

Last month, the state said 58,000 Marylanders might be eligible for a federally funded extension of unemployment benefits because they had been out of work for more than a year and a half.

Schneider, 52, talked with The Baltimore Sun recently about the long-term unemployment problem, whether the highly educated are immune and why she thinks Maryland's efforts to help need retooling.

How long is long-term unemployment?

The government normally defines it as over six months unemployed. At this point, though, we've got people who have been unemployed over a year, over two years. At that point, it really gets very serious.

When you get beyond a year, people are pretty significantly dipping into whatever savings they had. They're probably getting discouraged. They're probably having a lot of trouble convincing people that their skills are current.

Is there a vicious cycle at work — the longer you're unemployed, the harder it is to get a job?

I think that's true. In fact, as I'm sure you know, there have been reports that employers are refusing to take applications from people who are unemployed.

Who are the long-term unemployed?

You've got a very large array of people. You've got anything from people with no education to people with Ph.D.s. … Increasingly, the population we need to pay attention to are those with either some college or college degrees. … The older middle-aged, people with college and above — anybody over 50, 55 — are having a real hard time.

Are older workers being hit harder than young workers just starting out?

Both of them are hit hard, but frankly, the older workers are hit hardest. What I've found is, if you look at the populations having trouble, it's anyone who is going to cost employers money. So older workers, who are more sensitive in terms of salary, … they presumably may use more health [insurance], their retirement may cost more. Younger workers are having a hard time getting in the door because they need training … and also they simply don't have the experience.

We always hear that education helps protect workers against unemployment. Is that no longer true?

It does and it doesn't. The thing I think is most important here is that all of the federal programs [to help the unemployed] are looking at either short-term training or associate's degrees. There's a lot of emphasis on associate's degrees. If you look at the population that's been consistently long-term unemployed through all of this, it's been those people with associate's degrees. So that's just not enough anymore.

For everybody else, it's really training for what — is your degree or is your training in the things that are actually hiring now?

There are so many people with significant education, experience, that are having trouble finding work. And proportionately, it's much higher than it was previously.

Is there a mismatch between the training workers have and available jobs?