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For the unemployed, a big cut in benefits

Dozens of unemployed people and their families dug into a fine holiday meal Monday - ham, mashed potatoes, baked beans, dessert by the tray load.

Dozens of unemployed people and their families dug into a fine holiday meal Monday - ham, mashed potatoes, baked beans, dessert by the tray load.

The holiday party for the unemployed, who have no office festivities or pizza at the plant, has become an annual tradition at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Downingtown, where a mission for the unemployed, now in its third decade, tends to the practical and psychological aftermaths of joblessness.

"We do this party because these people don't have the capacity to do a Christmas party," said Cheryl Spaulding, one of the cofounders of St. Joseph's People, a network comprised of a dozen churches in the Philadelphia suburbs.

On Saturday, 1.3 million unemployed people nationwide, including 180,900 in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, will lose extra emergency unemployment benefits - benefits enacted in 2008 as the nation was plummeting into the recession.

For the last couple of years, a December tradition as predictable as the St. Joseph's party was the annual last-minute drama over whether the emergency jobless benefits would be renewed before Congress adjourned for the holidays.

This year, Congress left without including the measure on its legislative agenda. Senate leaders promise it will come up for discussion when lawmakers return to Washington in January.

Local advocates for the poor, including the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, are making plans to fill a bus for a trip to Washington to lobby politicians to continue the benefits.

One of them will likely be Regina Meads, 40, of Germantown, who lost her job as a teacher's aide in September 2012.

"I didn't raise my hand to be on unemployment," said Meads, who lives with her son, a high school student. She has been managing on partial benefits and part-time work since then. "I have a long-term work history," she said.

People who qualify for unemployment compensation after losing their jobs receive the first 26 weeks of benefits in programs funded by their states through unemployment insurance payments collected from employers.

Since 2008, the federal government has funded extra weeks of benefits, with the number of weeks dependent on the employment condition in each state. Laid off people receiving benefits in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware have been receiving an extra 37 weeks of federal benefits, for a total of 63 weeks.

The 37 weeks of benefits are ending as of Dec. 28.

The 1.3 million losing benefits include 86,900 in Pennsylvania, 90,300 in New Jersey and 3,700 in Delaware. These are people who have already received their 26 weeks of state benefits and are in the middle of receiving the 37 extra weeks.

Also affected will be those who are newly laid off or about to be laid off - an additional 262,500 in Pennsylvania, 260,100 in New Jersey and 13,800 in Delaware would be impacted in 2014, according to an analysis of U.S. Labor Department statistics by Pew Charitable Trust's news service.

For example, the 800 to 1,000 people who will lose their jobs when Lockheed Martin shuts its plant in Newtown next year will receive 26 weeks of benefits, not 63.

The same situation awaits 244 people who serviced mortgages and were employed by Ocwen Financial Corp. in Fort Washington. They received pink slips Dec. 3. Also affected will be 500 at Merck & Co. in West Point, where layoffs began Monday and will continue until Jan. 5.

"I don't know what these people are supposed to do," Spaulding said. "Our people don't want any of this. They don't want social programs. They don't want to be on Medicaid. They don't even want the benefits.

"What they want is a job that pays real money - enough money to support a family."

Spaulding said that the majority of the 1,700 people in the St. Joseph's People network have been out of work for more than a year.

In November, nearly 4.1 million people, or 37 percent of the 10.9 million unemployed, were out of work for more than 27 weeks. The average length of unemployment, according to the U.S. Labor Department, is 37 weeks.

Proponents of extending the benefits say that besides helping the recipients, the benefits help the overall economy.

In 2013, for example, nearly $3.7 billion in federal unemployment benefits were paid to the jobless in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. According to conventional economic wisdom, they immediately plow the money back into the economy, buying food and other necessities.

That amount of economic activity stimulates 15,200 jobs in Pennsylvania and 19,660 jobs in New Jersey, according to a U.S. Labor Department analysis.

Opponents say that the aid cannot go on forever and that unemployment has declined - to 7 percent nationally in November from 7.8 percent a year earlier.