Cover Story: 99 weeks of benefits - time's up?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Cut off - just before Christmas.  Today's the day the checks stop coming for millions of unemployed Americans.  Many of them are out of money, out of options and out of hope.

A dismal holiday season is all but guaranteed for at least two million Americans.  Unless Congress changes its mind, jobless benefits that had been extended up to 99 weeks end this month.

They call them the 99ers.  And they'll be cut off by Christmas.

What hope is left for these people?  It's not looking good.

One 99er says she feels like a pawn in a chess game every time it comes up for debate in Congress whether to extend unemployment benefits again.

They've already been extended out the longest in history.  Now after 99 weeks it may be coming to an end.

He never thought he'd be walking in these shoes.  36 year old Abu Whitaker moved to Charlotte last year to be closer to his son.

He got a good job here, but lost it last month.  He was let go in a downsizing.  His qualification for benefits sheet says he was "working too hard and too much."

"How tough is it out there? It's very tough. The job market is very very slow.. especially during this time of the year," he said.

There is no good time of year to be out of work.

But for the long-term unemployed - those who lost their jobs when the recession went into overdrive two years ago - losing jobless benefits right before Christmas after a 99 week-run could not be a worse time.

"People really need extensions of this unemployment. So they can of course function and hopefully find sufficient work," said Whitaker.

99 weeks (one month shy of two years) may seem like a long time to look for work.  But even as the economy is growing it's not growing fast enough to replace all the jobs that vanished in the Great Recession.

The private sector added about 159.000 jobs in October, half the number needed to reduce the country's unemployment rate of 9.6 percent.

"I had predicted that we were going to hit max this summer. This is throwing up for a new additional challenge," said Carol Hardison, CEO of Crisis Assistance Ministry.

At her agency, the need is increasing faster than the economy is recovering.  And with jobless benefits not being extended it will create even more strain.

Hardison showed us the numbers they helped just today.  111 in dire crisis.  It's about that number every day they're open.

"There's people talking to me regularly now who are going through their 401(k), have used all their savings.. have taken loans from credit cards to family members that never imagined they would need," said Hardison.  "And they're facing a new reality."

The reality for Congress is the deficit is exploding and Republicans don't want to add to the debt without offsetting savings in other programs.  The political parties appear deadlocked.

Some experts say if Congress lets unemployment benefits expire the overall economy will also suffer.

The unemployed help drive the economy because the jobless tend to spend every dollar they get.

There is a chance Congress could come to an agreement and extend benefits again.

Over the summer, lawmakers let long-term benefits lapse for nearly two months.  Some think a similar interruption could happen this time.

In Charlotte, over the last two winters donors have come forth with a Critical Need Response Fund.

The fund has already received its first big pledge:  $1 million from Leon and Sandra Levine to jump start it.  It's another challenge grant to encourage others to come forward.

The United Way is going to manage the fund this year.

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