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Sorry, If You’ve Been Unemployed for 99 Weeks You Are Still Getting Cut-Off

Wednesday, 8 Dec 2010 | 10:43 AM ET

Americans who have been on unemployment benefits for a very long time might have felt a twinge of relief when they learned that the tax deal cut in Washington, DC this week would extend unemployment benefits for another 13-months.

But if those who have been on unemployment for close to the maximum time permitted in their state thought the new “extension” would keep them from getting cut off, they’ve made a mistake.

The “extension” does not extend the number of weeks on which anyone can collect unemployment. That number still stands exactly where it did before the extension.

In five states with the least joblessness, the unemployed can collect for sixty weeks. In 23 other states, workers can collect for between 73 and 93 weeks. In the 25 worst hit states, unemployment compensation is available for 99 weeks.

But if the number of weeks hasn’t been extended, what has? What has been extended is the “emergency unemployment compensation” program which created a multi-tier system for unemployment beyond the usual twenty-six week cap.

To put it differently, the worst off long-term unemployed—those whose benefits have already been cut off or who are approaching the cut off date—are no better off under the extension than they were prior to the extension.

It’s easy to see where the confusion came from. The political rhetoric about extending unemployment benefits definitely created the impression that the number of weeks of benefits was being extended.

“Now, under this agreement, unemployment insurance will also be extended for another 13 months, which will be welcome relief for 2 million Americans who are facing the prospect of having this lifeline yanked away from them right in the middle of the holiday season,” President Barack Obama said when announcing the extension of the program yesterday.

“Now, I read this as meaning that if I were collecting [unemployment insurance], and my benefits were set to expire, that this program would give me benefits for 13 more months,” the blogger Kid Dynamite explains.

It wasn’t just the politicians who were creating misleading impressions. Here’s how the New York Times describes the extension.

In addition, the agreement provides for a 13-month extension of jobless aid for the long-term unemployed. Benefits have already started to run out for some people, and as many as seven million people would potentially lose assistance within the next year, officials said.

Fortunately, the blogosphere has come to the rescue to provide clarity on this issue. Yesterday, just a few hours after the formal announcement of the extension, the blog Calculated Risk explained the reality in detail.

“Just to be clear, the ‘extension of the unemployment benefits’ is an extension of the qualifying dates for the various tiers of benefits, and not additional weeks of benefits. There is no additional help for the so-called 99ers,’” Calculated Risk explained. “To repeat: this extension doesn't add additional weeks of benefits; it keeps the above structure in place for an additional 13 months.”

It’s very clear to me that this fact of the extension of unemployment benefits is widely misunderstood—and would have remained widely misunderstood if not for the meticulous and clarifying genius of Calculated Risk. In fact, I’m certain that many of the politicians on Capitol Hill are misunderstanding the unemployment package in precisely the way Kid Dynamite and I did before we read Calculated Risk.

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