This week Congress will consider legislation to reauthorize extended unemployment benefits for the rest of the year. It's going to be an epic fight: Republicans in the Senate will likely do everything they can to stand in the way of a bill projected to add $123 billion to the deficit, forcing Dem leadership to round up a supermajority for a last-minute Friday vote before Congress adjourns for its Memorial Day recess.
Too bad the jobs crisis, in a big way, has already left this bill in the dust. Hundreds of thousands of people have exhausted their extended unemployment benefits. In some states, laid-off workers can receive checks for 99 weeks -- and that's all they're going to get. This bill isn't for the "99ers" and there's no proposal on deck to give them additional weeks of benefits.
"What's frustrating is that our government doesn't seem to think this is an important issue," said Christy Blake, a 35-year-old mother of two in Fruitland, Md. "We didn't put ourselves here. It wasn't our choice. I have been diligently looking for work."
Blake told HuffPost she received her last biweekly $618 unemployment check in February. She said she lost her job as an accounting associate with the city of Fruitland in September 2008 (jobless Marylanders can get 73 weeks of benefits). She said she's three months behind on rent and has no idea how she'll pay the $205.63 electric bill that came with a May 28 cutoff warning. She said she's applied for jobs at Walmart, Target and McDonald's without any luck. She has no idea what to do.
Meanwhile, members of Congress are losing their appetite even for renewing existing benefits. Several members of the House and Senate have flirted with the idea that unemployment checks make people too lazy to look for work. Most recently, Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) told the Washington Post that businesses in her district wanted to start hiring but were getting few applicants because Congress had given the unemployed so many weeks of benefits.
"Now, whether that's true or not, I'm still trying to decipher," said Dahlkemper. "But I think it's something we really need to look at."
Blake is concerned about the situation: "I think it really stinks," she said. "It's beyond stinking."
More than a million people will probably be in Blake's boat by the end of the year. She's one of 19,000 in Maryland to have exhausted all available benefits, according to the state's labor department. As of last week, 65,400 people had exhausted benefits in New York -- up from 57,000 at the end of April. In Michigan, it's 34,900. In Illinois, 22,000. In Pennsylvania, 35,200. In California, 110,609. In Florida, the number had climbed to 130,000 before May and currently stands at 193,000.
People who've been out of work for longer than six months constitute 45.9 percent of the total unemployed. Those out of work at least a year make up 23 percent.
Only two-thirds of the country's 15.3 million unemployed receive benefits when they lose their jobs in the first place. Dean Baker, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, said that while he supported extending benefits in principle, "It's a bit hard to push an argument that the benefits should be extended when so many people are getting nothing."
Some families ineligible for unemployment benefits can get on welfare, formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The total number of TANF caseloads has risen to 4.6 million as of December after a steady monthly increase from 4.1 million the previous year. Policy experts say the program serves far fewer families than it should.
Pamela Robinette of Philadelphia told HuffPost she lost her job as an administrative assistant in April 2008 and received her final unemployment check in March. She can't turn to TANF -- her children are grown. "If I'm kicked out of my apartment, I can always live in my car," she said.
Robinette said she thought she could move in with her mother in Texas -- but her sister and daughter are already there. "I'm 53 years old -- to move back in with mommy after all this time, it's degrading," she said. "I think the American government is screwing its citizens."
After a Tuesday vote, the House will send the measure to the Senate, where Democrats will need to file a time-consuming cloture motion to proceed to a final vote at the end of the week. Aside from unemployment benefits, the bill includes tax breaks for individuals and businesses and $2.5 billion to extend a jobs subsidy program through 2010 that will have funded 185,000 jobs through September (Republicans are targeting the program; Democrats didn't stand up for it when they had a chance to extend its funding in March).
An enterprising layoff victim in California garnered more than 20,000 signatures for a petition demanding Congress give the long-term jobless additional weeks of benefits, but few members of the House or Senate have indicated that they support the idea.
UPDATE 6:50 PM: A Dem aide advises that the House vote will now happen on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.
Laura Bassett contributed to this article.