Charities ready, as 7,000 in W.Va. lose benefits
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Local charities are preparing to serve more people in need now that nearly 7,000 jobless West Virginians are without emergency unemployment benefits, which expired Saturday.
"Well, of course we will [see more people]," said Jean Simpson, executive director of Manna Meal, a soup kitchen in downtown Charleston. "I hope not, but of course we will. We are expecting them."
The emergency unemployment benefits were first instituted in 2008 by President George W. Bush, as the tanking economy led to a glut of jobless workers.
Since then, as the improving but still sputtering economy has left millions in the ranks of long-term unemployed, Congress has extended the benefits 11 times, at a total cost of about $225 billion. Nearly 98,000 West Virginians have received emergency unemployment benefits over that time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
But the budget compromise struck earlier this month did not include an extension of benefits, which meant that 6,933 West Virginians, including 1,332 in Charleston, lost their benefits on Saturday, according to Workforce West Virginia.
"We're prepared whichever way it goes," Simpson said. "This happens all the time. People come in and say, 'I've never had to ask for help before.' It's usually people with their head down."
Nationwide, about 1.3 million people lost unemployment benefits on Saturday. The Labor Department estimates that number will rise to 4.9 million people by the end of 2014, including 24,700 West Virginians, if benefits are not extended.
In 2013 there were about 54,000 unemployed West Virginians and 49 percent of them received unemployment benefits, according to a study by the National Employment Law Project, which supports extending emergency benefits. That percentage will soon fall.
If emergency benefits are not extended, only one in four unemployed Americans will collect unemployment benefits in January, according to the NELP study, the lowest ratio since 1950, when the Labor Department started recording this information.
The Labor Department also predicts that extending unemployment insurance will help save and create jobs, by putting money in the hands of people who would otherwise be unable spend. They estimate that extending benefits through 2014 would save about 1,200 jobs in West Virginia.
West Virginia will continue to offer 26 weeks of regular unemployment benefits, with an average weekly benefit of $276. The emergency benefits had most recently offered up to 54 weeks of benefits.
Manna Meal serves an average of 410 meals a day - breakfast and lunch - and is open every day of the year.
Simpson said that she sometimes has to ask for more donations when numbers swell, but that she never has to turn people away.
"I asked for cereal not too long ago, I sent out a mass email, and I got overloaded. I've got enough cereal to last about six months," she said.
She said that when people get desperate, soup kitchens are usually the first charity they turn to, and then Manna Meal tries to connect them to other, more comprehensive, services.
"When people go and ask for help, they're asking for just what's needed this second because they're overwhelmed," Simpson said. "The very first thing is, let's feed them so they can get some food in their stomach."
One of the places Manna Meal sends people to is Covenant House, which runs a food pantry and day shelter, among other programs.
Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, said they're expecting to serve about 10,000 people total in 2013, up from 7,000 in 2012, and 5 or 6,000 several years ago.
About six months ago they began allowing families to shop in their food pantry twice a month, instead of just once, to try to accommodate the increased demand.
Allen said they're seeing almost 200 people every day, a number she expects to increase as unemployment benefits lapse.
"I think it will bump up even more," Allen said. "It's not just the homeless, we're seeing more working poor, working two or three jobs and it's just not enough these days. Housing is eating 60 percent of people's income and it shouldn't be more than 30 percent."
Covenant House offers short-time financial help to stave off eviction for people who may have trouble making rent.
"If somebody's in an apartment, they get their benefits cut, they get an eviction notice, they need to come here," Allen said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said that unemployment benefits will be the first thing on the Senate's docket when it returns on Jan. 6. The Senate is likely to vote on a plan to extend the benefits for a year, at a cost of about $25 billion.
If it passes the Senate, that legislation's fate would be uncertain in the Republican-led House.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he would be open to extending benefits only if the White House proposes a plan to offset the costs.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall, both D-W.Va., each criticized December's budget agreement for failing to include an extension of unemployment benefits, although both voted for the agreement.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., also voted for the agreement but was noncommittal when asked if he would support an extension of benefits, saying he would need to see the specific legislation first.
Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both R-W.Va., did not respond when asked for their position on extending benefits. Capito voted for the budget agreement, while McKinley did not.
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.