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Reality for the 99ers

Annie Lowrey, our former colleague at the Washington Independent, is now writing for Slate — and is still doing the brilliant job she did for our network of telling the story of the 99ers, those who have been unemployed so long that they have exhausted their unemployment benefits.

The average length of a spell of unemployment now sits at 30 weeks, after hitting a high of 35 weeks in July. About 6.3 million people, 42 percent of all unemployed Americans, have been out of work for more than six months. And more than 1 million have exhausted their unemployment benefits. They’re called 99ers. (The term, coined this year, refers to the maximum weeks of benefits in the states with the highest unemployment rates.) There are about 1.6 million of them, according to the Department of Labor. And they raise the question: What happens when unemployment insurance ends? …

In some states, there are special programs to help keep the 99ers afloat. But for the most part, they are on their own. Government assistance becomes thinner, more brief, and more patchwork—food stamps, assistance with heating costs, welfare for parents with children, temporary aid. For many people receiving unemployment insurance, it is the only thing keeping them above the poverty line. The Economic Policy Institute calculates that unemployment insurance kept 3.3 million people out of poverty in 2009.

Lowrey also notes studies that show that long-term unemployment worsens a person’s health in many ways and reduces the chances that they will ultimately get the job. And for those who say that people should just take any job they can find, one personal story she tells answers that argument:

“Literally, from October of 2008 until the fall of 2009, I got no bites at all,” Sevier explains. “I started off applying for good jobs, but then just started applying for anything—part time, temporary. I applied for jobs in my field, jobs that were reaches, all the way down to jobs I never in my life thought I would have to work.”

At first, Sevier fell victim to her experience: She was overqualified for the jobs she was applying for. “I started applying for minimum-wage jobs, but they said they wouldn’t hire me, because when the economy gets better, I’d leave them.”

Sevier’s experience echoes that of untold numbers of others.

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