WASHINGTON - After a full year of fruitless job hunting, Natasha Baebler just gave up.
She'd already abandoned hope of getting work in her field, working with the disabled. But she couldn't land anything else, either - not even a job interview at a telephone call center.
Until she feels confident enough to send out résumés again, she'll get by on food stamps and disability checks from Social Security and live with her parents in St. Louis.
"I'm not proud of it," says Baebler, who is in her mid-30s and is blind. "The only way I'm able to sustain any semblance of self-preservation is to rely on government programs that I have no desire to be on."
Baebler's frustrating experience has become all too common nearly four years after the Great Recession ended: Many Americans are still so discouraged that they've given up on the job market.
Older Americans have retired early. Younger ones have enrolled in school. Others have suspended their job hunt until the employment landscape brightens. Some, like Baebler, are collecting disability checks.
It isn't supposed to be this way. After a recession, an improving economy is supposed to bring people back into the job market.
Instead, the number of Americans in the labor force - those who have a job or are looking for one - fell by nearly half a million people from February to March, the government said Friday. And the percentage of working-age adults in the labor force - what's called the participation rate - fell to 63.3 percent last month. It's the lowest such figure since May 1979.
The falling participation rate tarnished the only apparent good news in the jobs report the Labor Department released Friday: The unemployment rate dropped to a four-year low of 7.6 percent in March from 7.7 in February.
The participation rate peaked at 67.3 percent in 2000, reflecting an influx of women into the workforce. It's been falling steadily ever since. Part of the drop reflects the baby-boom generation's move into retirement. But such demographics aren't the whole answer.
Even Americans of prime working age - 25 to 54 years old - are dropping out of the workforce.
"It's the lack of job opportunities - the lack of demand for workers - that is keeping these workers from working or seeking work," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
Young people are leaving the job market, too. The participation rate for Americans ages 20 to 24 hit a 41-year low 69.6 percent last year before bouncing back a bit. Many young people have enrolled in community colleges and universities.
Older Americans are returning to school, too. Doug Damato, 40, who lives in Asheville, N.C., lost his job as an installer at a utility company in February 2012. He stopped looking for work last fall, when he began taking classes in mechanical engineering at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College.
"I don't want a handout," he says. "I'm trying to better myself."
Many older Americans who lost their jobs are finding refuge in Social Security's disability program. Nearly 8.9 million Americans are receiving disability checks, up 1.3 million from when the recession ended in June 2009.
Natasha Baebler's journey out of the labor force and onto the disability rolls began when she lost her job serving disabled students and staff members at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., in February 2012.
For six months, she sought jobs in her field, brandishing master's degrees in social education and counseling. No luck.
"I chose to stop and take a step back for a while. … After you've seen that amount of rejection," she says, "you start thinking, 'What's going to make this time any different?' "