Tough To Make Ends Meet Even With Unemployment Benefits

Congress returns to Washington this week, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged the first item on the agenda will be restoring long-term unemployment benefits. Those benefits expired last week, and an estimated 1.3 million people stopped receiving checks.

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For many Americans who are out of work, the road got even tougher at the end of December. Their long-term unemployment benefits expired. An estimated 1.3 million people stopped receiving checks. Congress is back in Washington this week, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says restoring these benefits is a top priority. But some lawmakers don't see this as the best solution. And the falling unemployment rate in the country has eased the pressure to keep these benefits in place.

Here's NPR's Yuki Noguchi.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Sandra Patterson has had steady work, mostly in retail store management, for most of her 45 years. Since last February, though, she's had no luck.

SANDRA PATTERSON: I've applied for customer service jobs. I've applied for reception jobs. I've applied to Hardees, McDonald's, Wendy's.

NOGUCHI: Her benefits ran out at the end of the year and she's willing to trade down to any job she can get. She's often told she's too experienced for the minimum-wage work.

PATTERSON: How can you be overqualified if you're willing to take that position?

NOGUCHI: So Patterson is now on financial lockdown. She can't make this month's rent. She mostly stays home to save on gas and spends a lot less on groceries.

PATTERSON: I used to spend about maybe 250 a month for myself. But now I'm maybe 50 to $75 a month.

NOGUCHI: Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He says Patterson is a good example of how not extending long-term jobless benefits affects the economy overall. If she had more money, she'd spend more on food.

JARED BERNSTEIN: The grocery then needs to restock the shelves, order more, so there's an inventory function there and a delivery function there. And you can kind of get a sense of how the economic activity creates ripples through the economy. Not just at the site of purchase there but with upstream industries as well.

NOGUCHI: The Congressional Budget Office says expiration of benefits could shave as much as four-tenths of a percent off annual economic growth. The White House also notes the percentage of the workforce that's out of work for at least six months is still twice what it normally is when Congress cancels emergency benefits.

But the national unemployment rate is down substantially from its peak and falling. So some states have cut back regular benefits. And some states no longer qualify for the most generous level of additional federal support, which at the height of the recession allowed for as much as 99 weeks of benefits. Many Republicans believe extended benefits keep some people from taking jobs they might otherwise accept.

Bernstein, who was Vice President Biden's chief economist, says people who settle for lesser jobs or have to start new careers face a long road back to normal.

BERNSTEIN: Lots of people who start out their career in a down economy or in a recession find that they don't progress as quickly over time. And it actually can take as much as 10 to 15 years to make up the kind of lost mobility that you get just by dint of kind of starting at the wrong time.

NOGUCHI: Jada Urquhart suspects this may be true for her.

JADA URQUHART: I'll never make as much money as I did teaching - I know that. Which is kind of sad, you know.

NOGUCHI: As a libertarian, Urquhart says she feels squeamish about the government spending on jobless benefits. But on the other hand, she hasn't been able to find teaching jobs since she lost hers at a high school in Cardington, Ohio last year. She's going to school to become a social worker which means she's now an intern at age 60.

URQUHART: I'll be the new kid on the block with the gray hair and wrinkles.

NOGUCHI: She says she's made various changes to cut her budget by at least a third.

URQUHART: I cut the cable. I had an alarm system but I turned that off. I can break my contract on my cell phone, so that will save a couple hundred dollars. I keep my heat a lot lower - I turn it down to like 58 at night. I didn't buy any Christmas presents. It was a kind of a skinny Christmas.

NOGUCHI: And it will likely be an even skinnier New Year when her benefits run out later this month.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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