Safety net slips away for jobless

In just one week and in just one state _ last week in Missouri _ more than 8,300 people fell through the unemployment insurance safety net.

Actually, their nets were removed, like thousands of people across the country.

The result: Those who have lost jobless benefits already are turning in greater numbers to food pantries and other emergency aid programs, both government and nonprofit.

"We're hearing from more people needing assistance," said Ron Howard, spokesman for the United Way of Greater Kansas City. "Our 2-1-1 call center is seeing an increase in calls, especially from first-time callers.

"Without a doubt, the loss of that unemployment check is a contributing factor."

Loss of jobs and jobless benefits also is contributing to a rise in applications for Social Security disability payments from unsuccessful job hunters.

That search for subsistence funds revved up last month after the U.S. Senate rejected a bill that would have included more than $35 billion to fund another extension of emergency unemployment assistance.

Since 2008, after the nation slipped into its worst recession in 70 years, the government has authorized four "tiers" of emergency federal help for the jobless. Some workers may be eligible for as many as 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.

But recent policy decisions are tilting in favor of federal deficit control. The House of Representatives early last week rejected an extension of the benefits. And for the third time in as many weeks, Senate Republicans on Wednesday successfully filibustered a bill to extend them. As a result, about 200,000 people a week around the country are likely to lose their jobless benefits.

On Thursday, the House voted to extend the benefits, but the Senate's action rendered it a futile gesture ahead of Congress' departure for the July 4th recess.

Without federal funds to keep the emergency programs going, recipients in many states are barred from making new claims after they run out of their current benefits round.

Nationally, if recipients don't find work before their existing eligibility ends, an estimated 8.2 million will run out of unemployment benefits this year.

Eddie Gleason, who lost his job as a transportation coordinator at Ceva Logistics in December 2007, is frank about having exhausted his jobless benefits: "The indignities are many."

Since Gleason's unemployment benefits eligibility ended in February, the 55-year-old Kansas Citian said he's gone to food pantries, has sold "everything of value that I possessed," and counts on his adult children's help.

He said it cut him deeply to hear on the news that a congressman referred to the long-term unemployed as "hobos," citing the belief that jobless benefits encourage idleness.

Many congressional Republicans _ even those who voted for previous emergency benefits _ as well as conservative economists believe that successive rounds of extended benefits encourage people to stay out of work longer.

Gleason disagrees.

"I can honestly say I never foresaw myself in this situation," said Gleason who, despite suffering a stroke and having heart surgery still has tried to land work. "I'm not bitter. Business is business. I understand why corporations would shy away from me."

He and about 6.8 million of the nation's 15 million unemployed have been out of work for six months or more (the official definition of long-term unemployment), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is the highest proportion of long-term unemployment on record, according to the data series that dates to 1948.

"What are they going to do now?" asked Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, which estimates that more than 1.25 million of the nation's jobless already have exhausted the benefits tier due them.

Job market reality is that employers now provide about 7.8 million fewer jobs than when the recession began in December 2007.

Anemic job growth since then means that the United States is about 10.7 million jobs short of what it needs to employ those who want to work, and there are about five job hunters for every posted opening.

School teacher Susan Waldron, out of work for more than a year, has found a temporary $10-an-hour job as a canvasser for a candidate in a Missouri political race, but she said it's the kindness of friends and a local church that helps her survive.

She's getting electric and gas bill help through a federal agency, and she got toilet paper, dish soap and toothpaste _ items that food stamps don't cover _ plus some food from a church.

Her 80-year-old parents are helping her pay her $525-a-month rent, and friends have filled her car with gas, paid her phone bill and bought Target and convenience store gift cards for her.

"I have made $65 so far selling my belongings and furniture," Waldron said, adding that "will go towards Time Warner to keep my computer running." She wants to keep the computer particularly for job applications so she doesn't have to drive to use computers in a public library.

She also got a poverty discount card to be treated for her osteoporosis at Truman Medical Center, Kansas City's publicly funded hospital.

Therein lies one effect of ending unemployment insurance programs: Sooner or later, many of the unemployed end up relying on public assistance in some way, whether it's for subsidized health care, food or, in limited cases, welfare aid to families with dependent children.

Advocates for continuing unemployment benefits note that the Congressional Budget Office has ranked unemployment insurance as the most effective form of economic stimulus.

"It gets money into the hands of the people who are most likely to spend it," Shierholz said. "It goes straight into their local economies when they use it to pay for their food and housing."

One study indicates that $10 billion of unemployment insurance spending creates or saves 100,000 jobs.

"Do the math," Shierholz said. "Failure to approve the $35.5 billion unemployment program translates into 350,000 jobs that aren't happening. Whatever your feelings about unemployment insurance, you can't ignore that there's a drain on public assistance in other ways."

The prevailing political wind this time, though, blew in favor of federal debt controls.

"The American people know it isn't right to simply add the cost of this spending to our already-overdrawn national credit card," said Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, after the House's original rejection of the spending.

(c) 2010, The Kansas City Star.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.