WASHINGTON -- Food banks across the country are watching for the end of federally-funded extended unemployment insurance.
"We are bracing for it," said Vicki Escarra, CEO of Feeding America, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief charity, in an interview with HuffPost. Escarra said that Feeding America's 200 member food banks across the country feed nearly six million people every week.
"I can assure you, if these unemployment insurance benefits are not reinstated we'll see these numbers go way up," Escarra said.
Two federal programs -- Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits, which together provide up to 73 weeks of jobless aid on top of 26 weeks of state aid -- are set to begin to expire this week because Congress has not reauthorized them. According to the Labor Department, two million long-term unemployed will be dropped from the programs by the end of December if Congress does not act.
Congress allowed benefits to lapse twice for a brief time earlier this year, and once for a long time, when 2.5 million had their benefits interrupted for nearly two months over the summer. The path forward for reauthorizing the benefits is unclear, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday that he wants the benefits preserved as part of a deal to reauthorize the also-expiring Bush-era tax cuts.
The Congressional Budget Office recently reported that extended unemployment benefits prevented record poverty in 2009 and were used mostly by middle-class Americans. Households with total income more than twice the poverty threshold received 70 percent of the $120 billion the federal government spent on unemployment benefits last year. Part of the reason is that the benefits themselves push families into higher-income groups.
A study released by Feeding America this year found that of the 37 million people served by its member food banks, 70 percent came from households with incomes below the poverty line. The study found that 5.7 million people received emergency food assistance in 2009, a 27 percent increase from 2006.
Anti-hunger advocates worry that the end of extended unemployment will result in more hungry people. The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported last week that social service experts in Florida "expect a spike in families needing food" if Congress drops the benefits. The Columbus Dispatch reported that Ohio pantry operators "expect demand to continue to rise as more jobless workers exhaust unemployment benefits." The Patriot-News reported similar concerns popping up in Pennsylvania.
Escarra said Feeding America did not have data showing whether or not demand surged at food pantries during the lapse in benefits this summer, but said there would be an informal study this winter.
"Middle-class families who have lost homes, who have lost jobs, who have any kind of illness... They don't today have any disposable income," Escarra said. "The only area they can really give is around food, which is why we're seeing such an increase in mothers and dads going without meals and making sure their children have food, because they've got to pay rent, they have to pay transportation. There's no giving on that. They'll cut back on food every time."
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