Most of us know Gaylene Adams only as a number.

We read about her again on Friday, when the federal government churned out another monthly employment report that served to highlight the anemic state of the U.S. economy.

For Adams, Labor Day will mark 671 days of trying to find work.

That makes her one of 14 million Americans unemployed but still looking for a job; one of 6 million people who have been looking for at least six months, and one of 4.5 million who have been job hunting for a year or more -- a figure unprecedented since World War II.

But all those numbers tell only part of Adams' story. They can't calculate the shock of losing a job for the first time in your life. They can't measure the panic, fear and despair of watching the erosion of a hard-won standard of living.

Adams, who turns 42 this month, lives in east Bloomington with her husband, who is a company driver for a transportation service, and their two elementary-school-age children. They bought their house in 2006.

Adams has a bachelor's degree in social work. She has worked at nonprofit social service agencies for most of her life. Her last job, as a program manager for a Minneapolis nonprofit that provides mentoring services for troubled youth, ended on Nov. 3, 2009. Her salary, about $37,000 a year, represented nearly half of her family's income.

"There was no question about me not working," Adams said. "And the economy was getting better at the time so I really didn't think it would be hard to find something else."

What Adams couldn't have known -- but what she quickly discovered -- was that America's job creation engine was sputtering. The unemployment rate was falling, but only because some people had given up looking for work. Another indicator, the share of the population that is working, suggested longer-term, more troubling dynamics in the U.S. labor market.

In Minnesota, this employment-to-population ratio fell from 70.1 percent at the beginning of 2006 to 66.1 percent by the time Adams lost her job. Even though the state's unemployment rate is now at 7.2 percent, down from a peak of 8.5 percent, the employment-to-population rate has hardly budged. Last month it stood at just 66.8 percent, the lowest level since 1984. Nationally, it is 58.2 percent.

Adams had interviews early on, but none panned out. "That had never happened to me before," she said.

As the months dragged on, the interviews became scarcer, and the sense of rejection and failure grew. "You never realize how much of your self-worth is wrapped up in your job, of being able to provide for your family," Adams said.

The $371 in weekly unemployment benefits helped ease the financial sting, and Adams and her husband dramatically reduced their household spending. They pulled their kids from child care and cut back or eliminated summer activities. Adams became an even more zealous clipper of coupons.

Last month, at a summer block party, Adams overheard a neighbor remark that the long-term unemployed were more interested in collecting benefits than getting a job.

Economists have analyzed whether extending unemployment benefits makes people feel less urgency about finding a job. Some studies say no, but even the ones that say yes occurred in the wake of earlier, relatively mild recessions.

Adams, whose unemployment benefits have ended, scoffs at the notion. She wants a job, not a handout.

Adams recently had her first interview in months, and was one of four finalists for a 20-hour-per-week job. She didn't get it, and now fears that her family may have to leave their home.

Meanwhile, the ranks of the long-term unemployed continue to swell. According to unofficial estimates by state labor officials, as of July 36.5 percent of the state's unemployed had been out of work 27 weeks or longer.

When President Obama gives his big jobs speech to both houses of Congress this week, keep those numbers in mind. But don't forget the people behind them. • 612-673-1736