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The expiration of unemployment compensation this week is having an impact on the bottom line and the outlook of many people who have been out of work for months.
Washington is now focused on deficit reduction, and that means there's a lot less political support in Congress for spending money to keep extending benefits for Americans who remain out of work.
But the problem of long-term joblessness is still with us. On Tuesday night, the deadline passed for extending unemployment benefits. As a result, nearly 2 million jobless Americans will lose benefits by the end of the month.
Some people who are about to lose their benefits say the experience has changed how they think about themselves — and about government aid.
Coping With No More Benefits
December marks the 17th and final month that Patty Moreno will be receiving $392 a week in jobless benefits. She runs out as she's expecting her first child.
Pregnancy has not stalled Moreno's efforts to find work. She checks in with her temp agency every week. "I do get interviews, but once I get into the interview, they kind of just realize that I'm expecting and it's not going to really work for them, I guess," she says.
Moreno had been working for her father, who started a company in San Antonio that built custom furniture for private jets — a job that entailed working for Thai princes. With the bust, that business crashed.
She exhausted her 26 weeks of state benefits. In mid-December, she will lose extended federal benefits as well.
"I honestly never thought I would be in this position ever," Moreno says. "Now, I'm in this position where I'm calling in and they're saying, 'You know, maybe you should try welfare.' And I'm kind of thinking, 'Wow, I never thought I'd be at the point where I might have to call welfare.' "
A Shift In Outlook
Linda Higgins of Norfolk, Va., used to be critical of people receiving government aid.
"I used to be one of those people that [used to think], 'You're not working, but you're collecting unemployment? Well, you need to get up off your butt and go get a job.' "
Then in January of this year, Higgins lost her job as a paralegal. She sends out 15 to 20 resumes a week, but lands few interviews. She hasn't had the funds to renew the tags on her car, so she takes the bus to meet with prospective employers.
Higgins says her ongoing ordeal has forced her to rethink her own position. "Wow, it's a rude awakening because it's not that easy right now," she says.
Higgins' benefits will expire next month. Though benefits have kept the family afloat, she says her husband remains critical of government aid. "Whether they do another emergency extension or not, the bottom line for me is I don't want to be on unemployment," she says. "I want a job."
If there are people like Higgins who say they try and cannot find work, there are also those like Jamie Copeland who feel some people don't try hard enough. "There [are] jobs out there," he says. "And they're not glorious jobs, they might not be your dream job, but there's stuff that people can do."
Trading Down To Survive
Copeland has had to trade down to stay employed.
He lost a job in custom painting work and was on benefits until this spring. He moved from Colorado to his native Tennessee. And the week his benefits ran out, he took the night shift cooking at a chain restaurant — working for $11 an hour in the type of job he'd done years earlier.
"When I first started collecting unemployment benefits, I thought: 'This is good. It helps people get back on their feet.' "
But Copeland admits that — although he never turned down a job while receiving benefits — he also didn't look as hard as he could have. Also, most of the jobs he was applying for paid roughly the same as what he was collecting in weekly benefits.
Copeland says if he'd been able to collect payments for the maximum 99 weeks, it would have been a disincentive. "When people run out of unemployment, they go to work," he says. "And I don't think extending unemployment benefits helps people go back to work."
Copeland says although his after-tax income is the same as what he was collecting on unemployment, the main benefit is that he feels he is finally taking care of himself.