It's cold in Donna Oxford's house, despite a sheet of plastic taped over the front door to block the wind howling up the hill toward her modest rancher outside Coatesville.

Vincent Tricome's home is chilly, too - maybe it would be better, he thinks, sick at heart, if he moved back with his parents and rented out his townhouse tucked into a cul-de-sac in Chester Springs.

When Soo Hwan Lee's wife is away on business, he turns the heat way down in his South Philadelphia rowhouse.

Wear a sweater when you visit Khaleel Adger's Victorian in Germantown, or a winter jacket at Ashton Jones' rowhouse rehab on the edge of West Philadelphia's newly gentrified sections.

That's what it is to be among the long-term unemployed: The cold is a given, along with diminished expectations, trampled spirits, and fading prospects.

It has been three years since the Great Recession began in December 2007. Even though the recession is technically over, the U.S. economy remains caught in its jaws, unable to break clear when so many have been out of work for so long.

The average length of unemployment topped 34 weeks in 2010. That was the longest average since the Labor Department started keeping records in 1948.

Long-term unemployment beat another distressing record last year: The percentage of the unemployed who were out of work for more than six months rose to a staggering 45.6 percent.

And in one 2010 study, more than a third of the people who were unemployed had been out of work for more than two years.

It has gotten so bad that the Labor Department, starting this year, will begin to capture these data as part of its monthly reporting series.

The department reported Friday that December's unemployment rate had fallen to 9.4 percent from 9.8 percent, with 103,000 jobs created in the month.

That was the good news. The bad news was further down in the report - lengthening, intractable unemployment; more discouraged workers; and more people dropping out of the workforce.

Sometimes Tricome, 48, wonders if anyone will ever want him again, a man with a master's degree, two decades of civil-engineering experience, and a love of seeing things built.

"It can't go on forever, but I can't see any end to it," said Tricome, out of engineering work since July 2008.

This jobless crisis is particularly frightening to Carl Van Horn, a public-policy professor at Rutgers University and coauthor of a December study titled "The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope, and Faith in Their Futures."

"One of the problems that will occur in this political environment is that people are desperate for good news," Van Horn said. "There's no good news if you are unemployed for two years, and a lot of people are going to remain in there."

If the recession has proved anything, it is that few are immune from joblessness. Three out of four people, Van Horn said, have been unemployed or have a family member or close friend who lost a job.

"This a broad societal experience," he said.

The unemployed are young, old, and all races, genders, and professions. Although unemployment is higher in the city, the wealthiest suburbs have not been spared, nor have the college-educated and the professional class.

"Forget about compassion," Van Horn said. "Even if you are not compassionate, you still need to be worried because all those unemployed people are still there. This is a big, heavy weight on the national economy."

Senior economist Robert Dye at PNC Financial Services explained:

From the time the recession began in December 2007 until it bottomed out in December 2009, nearly 8.4 million jobs were lost.

"If we had those 8.4 million people in the labor force, consumer spending would be robust and stronger than it is now," Dye said. "That is such a big part of the economy, accounting for a third of gross domestic product.

"Right there, that would be significant. With a fully functioning labor market, the housing market would recover, and we'd feel the positive health effect of that.

"Getting these people back in the market would have multiple positive effects on the economy."

In 2010, a million of those 8.4 million jobs were recovered, but the job deficit is far greater. Each year, the nation's payrolls need to add 1.8 million jobs simply to employ the nation's growing population.

It would take 500,000 jobs a month, every month, for three years to restore the nation's job market and accommodate growth.

"This is the lingering problem, and the longer it lingers, it turns into a political problem," Dye said. "A problem of this magnitude requires a political response."

Cheryl Spaulding of Downingtown has her ideas about what the response should be.

Since 1995, when she cofounded Joseph's People, a network of church-based suburban support groups for the unemployed, she has been trying to figure out how to restore the productivity and dignity of her group's 1,100 members - most of them college-educated, middle-class baby boomers.

It takes older workers longer to get jobs, and the longer they are out of work, the tougher it is for them to find work.

"Candidly, [some companies] will automatically eliminate someone who has been long-term unemployed," said Harry Griendling, chief executive of DoubleStar Inc., a recruitment-consulting firm in West Goshen.

"They will scrutinize them much more carefully than someone who is currently employed," he said.

Often, the jobs pay less, and the older workers have less time to recoup their losses.

But if these people don't get hired, 10 and 20 years from now, "you are going to see huge pressures on Social Security and Medicaid," Spaulding predicted, because they will have burned off retirement savings to make ends meet and keep their college-age children in school.

"They are not going to be able to pass money on to their children or grandchildren," she said. "That's the money that helps young people get their first houses, or buy a car, or start a small business. That's not even in the cards.

"Long term, there are many more fallouts from this than people have even begun to realize."

So what's the solution?

Spaulding imagines a system of wage vouchers somewhat similar to those provided to low-income families for Section 8 federally subsidized housing.

The long-term unemployed would receive a government-backed voucher for a third or half of their former wages, or for a percentage of the prevailing wage in their field - payable to the employer for a year.

Spaulding said those dollars might not make much of a difference to a big company, but a smaller company on the cusp of hiring another employee might be willing to take a risk on someone who has been out of work, if the cost is less.

"It gives them [the unemployed] something they can go out and sell," Spaulding said. "It would help them get interviews and compete with the people who already have jobs. They'd be bringing cold, hard cash."

Many of the people who have been interviewed for this series see economic forces that are beyond their control.

The fall of the housing market means that construction of housing developments, such as the one Tricome lives in, are on hold. So Tricome's knowledge of drainage and erosion isn't needed on the residential side. The stimulus money that funded highway construction projects went to jobs that were shovel-ready; the engineering had been completed.

Hiring in Lee's field of data recovery is slow because there hasn't been a major national disaster like Hurricane Katrina to motivate people to protect their data. "Yes, it was a tragedy, but from a business standpoint, it was great for business," Lee said.

Some share the experience of Deborah Gallagher of Mount Laurel, a longtime human-resources generalist who grew into her responsibilities, promoted up through the clerical ranks.

She may have what it takes to handle a job, but an impersonal computer scanner looking for key words such as college and degree will simply spit out her resume, tossing it aside in favor of one from someone with established credentials.

"The most troubling thing about this is you don't feel productive," said Gallagher.

Oxford agreed. "When you are at work and you are the go-to person, you have a feeling of self-worth. Then you are home, with the loneliness."

She doesn't understand what is holding companies back from hiring. "They have the money now," she said. "It's hard to stay hopeful and positive. Just hire one person. Just hire me."