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Since 2010, five million Americans have exhausted their unemployment benefits, leaving them with no form of income and uncertainty regarding their family's future. A local Philadelphia nonprofit, Benefits Data Trust, has developed an innovative model, working with the Department of Public Welfare and the Department of Labor and Industry to identify these people, outreach to them, and help them get back on their feet.

“In the past three weeks, I’ve gone through three failed job interviews and I felt like a failure. None of us understand how we got into this predicament. Thank goodness you’re doing this.... This benefit amount is equivalent to my monthly mortgage payment…. I’m so glad you didn’t let me drop through the cracks.”- Ms. A, 58

For the more than six million Americans who have lost their jobs since 2008, the new reality of unemployment is a staggering one (Bureau of Labor Statistics n.d.). Uncertainty becomes a daily theme, even as the first unemployment benefit check arrives. Known in Pennsylvania as unemployment compensation (UC), this temporary aid has proven to be an invaluable safeguard in the wake of a devastating recession. It has cushioned families from the impact of lost income and played a crucial role in keeping hundreds of thousands from falling into poverty (Boushey 2011).

The prolonged nature of the recent economic downturn, however, has stretched out this particular safety net in ways that many economists and industry leaders could not have predicted. After another disappointing jobs report was released in June 2012, Chad Stone, Chief Economist for the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, observed that unemployment has now “been higher for longer than in any previous recession since the 1930s” (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2012).

The listless recovery has not provided the light at the end of the tunnel that many Americans were hoping for as they approached the termination of their unemployment benefits. The national unemployment rate continues to hover around 8 percent, with Pennsylvania coming in just under at 7.4 percent. In April of this year, the long-term unemployed were dealt another blow with the expiration of the federal extension of unemployment insurance, which had passed under the 2009 stimulus bill. Since 2010, approximately five million people have reached the 99-week limit on their unemployment insurance and are no longer eligible to receive unemployment compensation. Families often reach this deadline after depleting much of their savings, prematurely tapping into retirement accounts, and significantly reducing their living standards.

The problem of the so-called “99ers” – the millions of people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits – presents a unique challenge to America’s leaders and the communities that they serve. While unemployment compensation has ended for many, mortgage statements, utility bills and college tuition payments continue to stack up. What can government do to support these people and their families as they continue to search for new jobs? And how can we reach these people and help them access needed benefits in an innovative and cost-efficient way?