Jobless Barely Survive on Unemployment Insurance

Regina Rainwater left her home. She cut back on groceries and skimped on medications.

But it hasn't been enough.

"$1,300 a month sounds like a good chunk of money, but once you start deducting the $10 here, the $20 there, it doesn't go very far," said Rainwater, who now lives in Tennessee with a relative.

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Rainwater, who was laid off from an educational publishing company early last year, is among the rapidly growing number of Americans who've relied on unemployment pay to help make ends meet. Today, the government reported that employers shed 598,000 jobs in January -- the largest monthly job loss since 1974 -- while the national unemployment rate jumped to 7.6 percent, its highest level since 1992. Click here for a breakdown of unemployment rates by sex and race.

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Unemployment Nation: 598,000 Jobs Lost in January

Last week, the number of Americans filing for first-time unemployment claims jumped to 626,000, a 26-year high, bringing the total number of Americans receiving unemployment insurance to nearly 4.8 million.

Legislators are working through the government's proposed stimulus package to expand unemployment benefits, including an additional $25 a week in unemployment pay, 20- to 33-week extensions in unemployment compensation, suspending some taxes for unemployed workers and health care subsidies for those receiving COBRA, insurance provided by former employers.

States overwhelmed by demands for unemployment insurance are set to receive $7 billion in additional funding to cover more unemployment claims and $500 million for administrative costs. Seven states have already depleted their unemployment insurance funds and 11 more may follow, according to a report today in the Wall Street Journal. (Levels and length for unemployment compensation vary from state to state. For more information on benefits in your state, find your state's unemployment Web site here.)

Advocates for the unemployed, while applauding the proposed measures, worry that even more help will be necessary.

"The safety net is being tested in ways that it has not been in more than a generation and there may have to be even more done to shore up [the] U.S. safety net going forward," said Andrew Stettner, the deputy director of the National Employment Law Project.

In the meantime, those receiving benefits are grappling with some difficult budgeting.

Unemployment pay can help laid off workers avoid poverty, Stettner said, but with the average weekly benefit hovering around $300, many are still just "treading water."

Government Help: Not Enough to Get By

Established during the Great Depression, unemployment insurance "wasn't supposed to replace your entire salary," said career expert Alison Doyle, the author of the About.com Guide to Job Searching.

"It was more of a stop-gap measure to help you out while you were out of work, in between jobs, looking for a position," she said. "It's something that helps but not enough for most people to get by on."

But with this recession projected to last longer than most, workers find themselves relying more heavily on government help.

"People need longer periods of assistance than they needed in the past," Stettner said.

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