Longtime software developer Malinda Ward has a Drexel degree in computer science. But after 17 months without a job, the programs she looks at today have more to do with feeding her family than with managing a company's network capabilities.

She now knows, for example, that on Thursdays a homeless shelter in Coatesville distributes "extra vegetables, or they'll hand out some food that has expired that day." Free bread and cakes are available another day.

"Oh, I'm definitely scared," said Ward, 48, who lives in West Brandywine Township with her four children and her husband, William, who also doesn't have a job right now. Her unemployment benefits, $566 a week, ran out July 3.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate is expected to consider again whether to extend unemployment benefits for people like Ward, who were cut off after it declined to pass an extension earlier this year.

The vote comes at a time of unprecedented lingering long-term unemployment. Not since World War II have so many been without jobs for so long, the U.S. Department of Labor says:

Nearly 46 percent, or 6.8 million, of the nation's nearly 15 million unemployed have been out of work for more than 27 weeks - the official definition of long-term unemployment.

A Pew study says half of those, 3.4 million, have been unemployed for more than a year. And that's by a conservative measure, not counting those who are working part time because they can't find full-time jobs or are too discouraged to look.

The long-term unemployed have lost jobs in every sector, but hardest hit are those in information, manufacturing, transportation, and wholesale and retail trade. Even in health and education, this economy's strongest sectors, one in five who lost jobs is still out of work a year later.

Even in the worst prior recession, in the early 1980s, the rate of long-term unemployment did not rise above 26 percent.

"It affects the social fabric of society," said Rutgers University public-policy professor Cliff Zukin, coauthor of a recent study on the long-term unemployed.

Zukin worries that the slightly improved jobs numbers will draw attention away from the plight of the long-term unemployed.

"It's almost like the victims in Haiti and in New Orleans: They are forgotten," he said. "For those people who are long-term unemployed, I think they think the nation doesn't care any more."

Malinda Ward is among the 173,900 in Pennsylvania who, as of Friday, had their benefits cut off before receiving the full 99 weeks that had been available, according to a National Employment Law Project analysis of Labor Department statistics. In New Jersey, the number is 52,800; in Delaware, 7,700.

Since December 2007, Congress has passed a series of extensions, known as tiers, to stretch the typical 26-week unemployment benefit an additional 53 weeks, with the proviso that funding would begin to peter out at the end of May. Twenty more weeks had been added in many high-unemployment states, including Pennsylvania.

Those opposed to another extension say the country simply can't afford it. And some assert, as did Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, that the benefits encourage people to stay at home instead of looking for work.

Public-policy professor Carl Van Horn, Zukin's coauthor, disagrees.

"In a strong labor market, when unemployment is low, having an unemployment benefit does contribute slightly to the unemployment rate," said Van Horn, who directs the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers.

But that's absolutely not the case in this prolonged recession, he said, with nearly one in 10 workers out of a job and many more underemployed or discouraged.

Ward, who has been her family's main breadwinner for the last 14 years, said she had been looking hard for work. She estimates that she and her husband have just a few hundred dollars left in savings, barely enough to squeeze out August's mortgage payment.

If Congress had renewed the extensions before they expired in May, she'd be eligible for at least six more weeks, and perhaps up to 26 more, depending on how the legislation was crafted.

Meanwhile, getting by means being grateful that other parents in the Caln Little League donated used equipment so her children could play. It means relying on a neighbor's generosity to repair the alternator in their car. "It would have cost us several hundred dollars if we took it to a mechanic," Ward said.

It has meant food stamps, and milk and cheese through a federal program for mothers with young children. (Her youngest is 2.) When they visit her parents in Chinatown, they come home with a bag of food. And she's been lucky enough to land an $11-an-hour part-time stimulus-funded job in her field.

"But that will end in a few weeks," Ward said. Still, everything helps.

For the long-term unemployed, prospects are bleak, according to the Heldrich study, titled "No End in Sight: The Agony of Prolonged Unemployment."

Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 people who were out of work in August, and then caught up with most of them again in March. Just one in five had found any job. For every hundred who had been laid off, only 13 landed full-time work.

"Even for those people, it's a disaster," Zukin said. "They took jobs they didn't want to take, and they took them with salary and benefit cuts."

More than half took a pay cut, with 7 percent of the group willing to work for less than half of what they previously earned.

Most of the long-term unemployed in the study tapped savings or, like Ward and her husband, went without health insurance. Many used food stamps. More than half borrowed from family or friends. One in four missed a mortgage or rent payment, and 6 percent declared personal bankruptcy. Many experienced depression, lack of sleep, strain in family relations, anger, depression, and helplessness.

Sue Kaiden, a professional career counselor and longtime volunteer with Joseph's People, a support group for the unemployed, worries about their job prospects.

"Employers are saying, 'We don't want to hire you because you've been out of work so long,' " she said.

Her comments were buttressed by Peter Gioacchini, a senior director of talent acquisition at Cigna Corp., who said his company always looked for the best talent - and often those people are employed, not unemployed.

That's the kind of thing that bothers Paul Beckmann, 63, of East Rockhill Township, a designer and draftsman who has been out of work since April 2009.

According to the Rutgers study, and another one by the Pew Economic Policy Group, people in his age bracket tend to have the hardest time finding another job. Nearly 30 percent of those who lose their jobs are out of work for more than a year, Pew found.

"I think the supervisor stuff is hurting me more than anything," said Beckmann, who once earned $80,000 a year but now would accept much less.

Because his unemployment benefits have been cut off, he's taking his Social Security early, and he and his wife rely on her part-time job at the local library. Beckmann has cashed in some savings, too.

It's a small thing, but his grown son now picks up the tab for the family cell-phone plan.

"I've been a designer for over 40 years, and no one will even look at my resume," Beckmann said.

"You spend your time on the computer sending your resumes into Nowhere Land, where you never hear anything back," he said. "After a while, you wonder if you are alive. Do I really exist?"

Jobless Benefits

Most states provide 26 weeks of benefits.

The federal stimulus funded four extensions: Tier 1 (20 weeks), Tier 2 (14 weeks), Tier 3 (13 weeks), and Tier 4 (6 weeks). When funding ran out, benefit recipients were allowed to finish whatever tier they had started May 29, but could not move on to the next tier.

Some high-unemployment states added up to 20 weeks of extended benefits, jointly funded with the federal government. The stimulus act had been picking up the states' share, but no longer.

Pennsylvania: When extra federal funding stopped, extended benefits ended.

New Jersey: Extended benefits continue for 20 weeks.

Delaware: When federal funding stopped, extended benefits ended.

Proposed legislation would restore all the federal tiers, help states fund extended benefits, and allow claims to be paid retroactively, for a maximum of 99 weeks of help. - Jane Von BergenEndText

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.