The magnitude of the problem will come in stark relief Friday when the Labor Department is expected to report that the unemployment situation changed little in November. With long-term unemployment continuing to weigh down the economy, experts say that insurance benefits can be a significant boost because recipients quickly spend the money on day-to-day needs.
Members of Congress are working on a measure to extend the program, and advocates are hopeful that a deal will be reached.
But, they added, given the sharply differing views among members of Congress, nothing is guaranteed.
“The mystery to me is why this isn’t a no-brainer,” said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute. “It is sort of stunning that this has to be deliberated at this level at a time when we have this high level of unemployment that is projected to last so much longer.”
But with the national unemployment rate hovering near or above 9 percent for the past two and a half years, the extended level of high joblessness is taking an unprecedented toll on both state and federal budgets, lending urgency to calls by some policymakers to trim them.
Congressional leaders are discussing whether to substantially shorten the amount of time people receive unemployment benefits. Currently, jobless workers in 33 states and the District can receive as many as 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, a ceiling that some in Congress would like to see lowered to 79 weeks, according to senior legislative aides.
The federal government pays unemployment benefits for people whose state benefits are exhausted, which is typically after six months. Currently, 42 percent of the nation’s unemployed — nearly 6 million people — fall in that category, though not all of them collect the benefits.
The long-term unemployed have accounted for 40 percent or more of the total jobless for nearly two years. That is the nation’s longest stretch of long-term joblessness since the Labor Department began gathering the statistic in 1948, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The Labor Department says there are four unemployed people for every job opening in the country, signaling that unemployment will remain high for many months to come.
When layoffs began to spike in 2008, Congress extended unemployment benefits by as many as 53 weeks. The following year, lawmakers added an additional 20 weeks, making the overall benefit limit 99 weeks.