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Hope Fades for the Long-Term Unemployed: HBO’s ‘Hard Times’

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In the new HBO documentary, "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island," award-winning producer and director Marc Levin takes a deeper look at how many average middle class Americans are still struggling from the fallout of the Great Recession. The film puts a human face on the ongoing U.S. unemployment problem, which has stumped policymakers and economists alike.

Starting in 2008, workers lost their jobs by the hundreds of thousands each month. In just two years the unemployment rate went from 5 percent to nearly 10 percent by the end of 2009.

While the jobs picture has been improving, U.S. unemployment still sits at a staggeringly high rate of 8.2 percent. Millions of Americans are looking for a job but just cannot find work. Last month 5.4 million people, or 42 percent of those who are unemployed, had been unemployed for more than 27 weeks and the underemployment rate — which includes those who have a part-time job but seek a full-time position and those who have just given up looking for work — rose to 14.9 percent.

"There has been coverage of the most impoverished areas and the deindustrialized areas in the Midwest," notes Levin in the accompanying interview with The Daily Ticker's Aaron Task. "But we hadn't seen anything that really spoke to the kind of heart and soul of the suburban good life."

"Hard Times" profiles four families living in the iconic Levittown, Long Island community — home to modern-day suburbia — who had been living the epitome of the American dream before the good times came to an end.

The starkest message of the documentary is that anyone can lose his or her job at any time regardless of race, age or level of education. The film showcases well-educated, hard-working people, laying to rest that those who do not have a job are lazy or freeloaders.

"No one is safe and that is what really comes home in the film," says Levin, noting that the emotional toll of long-term unemployment is even greater on one's psyche than the financial burden of not having a job.

"This is kind of a slow-motion train wreck. It is hard to see. It just happens gradually," he says. "People, they kind of become isolated; they become paralyzed; they become impotent; they become mute. There is a tremendous amount of shame that even if it was no fault of their own...they blame themselves."

By the end of Hard Times, some of the people profiled were able to find full-time employment. But there are millions of unemployed workers still struggling to find work, to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads.

Most states provide unemployment aid up to 26 weeks and the federal government has provided supplemental insurance for workers to receive up to 99 weeks of unemployment insurance in the hardest hit cities and towns. However, the federal extension programs are starting to expire and will officially end on Dec. 31 if Congress does not act.

The HBO documentary film, "Hard Times: Lost on Long Island," is currently airing on HBO and HBO OnDemand until the end of July.