Jobless Barely Survive on Unemployment Insurance

598K jobs lost in January, as many discover unemployment insurance isn't enough.

ByABC News
February 5, 2009, 6:12 PM

Feb. 6, 2009— -- 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.

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."