The end to federal jobless benefits for nearly 2 million people has sparked a bitter debate in Congress about whether Washington is abandoning desperate households or simply protecting strained government coffers.
It is also providing real-time answers to a question economists have long pondered: How do people survive when they suddenly have no money coming in?
Studies show that about a third of the people cut off from long-term unemployment benefits will find help from Social Security or other government programs. Others will cobble together dwindling savings or support from family. But most baffling to economists are the people who appear to come up with more-idiosyncratic solutions, which are tough to identify and almost impossible to track.
Take Wessita McKinley of Capitol Heights. The Maryland woman had to think outside the box after her contract with a local school board ended last summer. An Air Force veteran, she earned a six-figure salary as a private contractor before the recession. But she took a series of increasingly low-paying jobs as the economy soured.
Now that her unemployment benefits are gone, McKinley relies on what she calls “legal hustling” to pay her bills and keep her daughter in college: helping friends’ children fill out financial aid forms, driving friends on errands, entering data for small businesses — all for a fee.
“There’s no shame in my game,” McKinley said. “If you’re not creative in this economy, you’re going to be squashed.”
Never in more than 65 years have so many workers been without a job and without a government lifeline. Congress cut off 1 million people en masse in December when it permitted a special emergency program for the long-term unemployed to lapse. Since then, their ranks have been growing by about 72,000 a week, according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which lobbies on behalf of the jobless.
On Tuesday, in testimony before Congress, Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen highlighted long-term unemployment as one of the central challenges of the U.S. economic recovery. Not only is it a sign that the labor market is still weak, she said, but it also shows that economic growth is falling far short of its potential.
The problem has also consumed White House officials, who worry not only about how to get these people back to work but also about how they get by. Former White House chief economist Alan Krueger said he once visited an off-track betting site in the middle of the day in hopes of finding cutoff workers and interviewing them about how they were supporting themselves.
“I still couldn’t figure it out,” said Krueger, who returned last year to his job teaching economics at Princeton University. He dubbed the phenomenon “the Kramer effect,” after Cosmo Kramer, the eccentric “Seinfeld” character who had no clear means of support.
Someone who loses a job typically receives unemployment benefits from the state for 26 weeks. During the recession, however, the number of people who remained out of work swelled, and Congress voted in 2008 to provide additional aid that made checks available for as long as 99 weeks in the hardest-hit states.
Last year, lawmakers cut the maximum benefit to 73 weeks. Then, at the end of December, Congress let federal aid lapse altogether.
Mitchell Hirsch of NELP said people were “thrust essentially overnight from a situation where they were struggling to make ends meet with their benefits into one where they’re now struggling just to survive.” Six weeks later, he said, “what we’re hearing . . . is increasingly desperate.”
According to a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, Social Security is the government program people turn to most often after exhausting unemployment benefits. But the share who do so is relatively small, just 18 percent. An additional 6 percent apply for disability insurance, and just 3 percent use government aid designed for families and children.
Regardless of whether they qualify for government help, the vast majority also rely on private sources of income — a mishmash of personal savings, odd jobs, credit card debt and loans from friends and family, the report found. About half also live in two-person households without children, which means they are more likely to have another income to rely on.
Still, those varied sources of cash typically are not substantial, the GAO said: Four in 10 people who had exhausted unemployment benefits in 2012 earned less than twice the federal poverty level — or less than $22,340 a year.
“It’s not like they’re trying to maintain their lifestyle,” said Rutgers University professor Carl Van Horn, who is researching long-term unemployment. “They’re trying to survive at a lower standard of living.”
Lillian Humphrey of Baltimore has resorted to selling baby toys that her 1-year-old great-grandson has outgrown, asking $10 or $15 on Craigslist. It is the only money she has coming in these days. But there is still plenty of money going out the door — for her mortgage, gas and electric bills and for her osteoporosis medication.
Humphrey was laid off from a photography company a year ago. That job paid less than she had made for the previous 40 years working at an insurance company and at a warehousing business. Now, she is hoping to find a position that pays at least $10 an hour. But she has had no luck.
So on Jan. 2 — the first business day after her jobless benefits ran out — Humphrey applied for Social Security benefits. At 62, she is eligible. But the decision means she will receive smaller retirement checks than if she had waited to enroll at age 65, potentially reducing her standard of living for the rest of her life.
“I want a job,” Humphrey said. “I still to this day want a job.”
President Obama is continuing to press lawmakers to revive federal benefits, though a plan to extend them for three more months failed last week to clear the Senate. The proposal would not have a major impact on overall economic growth; analysts estimate it would increase the nation’s gross domestic product by less than half a percentage point.
But advocates for the jobless say even a brief extension would make a huge difference in people’s lives.
“Some members of Congress are just in complete denial about the severity of the economic downturn,” said the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, which has seen demand for food and other forms of aid jump since federal benefits lapsed.
“Some people are interpreting the fact that we’re seeing signs of economic recovery as saying, ‘Okay, folks are all right,’ ” Snyder said. “That’s just not true.”