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By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — Almost 2 million Americans who have been out of work for longer than six months have missed out on extended unemployment benefits since Congress allowed the program to expire in December, according to a new analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data.

In seven states, at least 100,000 unemployed workers have missed out on unemployment benefits they would have otherwise received, according to the analysis from the National Employment Law Project, a group that advocates for workers and has lobbied for an extension of the benefits.

Extended unemployment benefits began during the George W. Bush administration in 2008 as a response to a spike in long-term unemployment during the Great Recession. The extended benefits allowed unemployed workers to collect aid for up to 99 weeks, instead of the normal 26 weeks.

The White House and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are interested in reinstating the benefits. Four Republicans joined Senate Democrats last month to almost pass an extension, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he’s open to an extension, provided the cost is offset with other budget cuts. But so far, disputes over how to pay for continuing the measure and how long to extend the benefits have derailed any deals.

The most populous states have the most people who have been affected by the expiration of the benefits. But states such as New Jersey and Florida have been hit disproportionately hard because they have high levels of long-term unemployment.

States largely are responsible for regular unemployment benefits, but the federal government covered the cost of the extended benefits. From 2008 through the first half of 2013, Washington spent $252 billion on extended benefits for at least 24 million unemployed Americans.

If the program is not reinstated before April, states and their unemployed workers will have missed out on more than $5 billion in federal money, according to the analysis. Previous government and private-sector analyses have estimated that the cuts could cost as many as 240,000 jobs if they continue through the end of 2014.

The total number of those missing benefits includes those who were receiving extended benefits when the program expired in December, as well as those who have exhausted state jobless benefits in the months since and would have been eligible for extended benefits.

In the wake of the Great Recession, a historically high percentage of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer. Long-term joblessness as a share of the total unemployed reached a pre-Great Recession high of 26 percent in mid-1983. As of January this year, 41 states and the District of Columbia had long-term unemployment rates above that level.

Even before the expiration of the extended benefits, some states had scaled back their unemployment programs, leaving workers with even fewer weeks of jobless benefits. Florida, for example, now offers 19 weeks of benefits to the unemployed, while Georgia offers 18. South Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas and Michigan have also reduced the number of weeks the unemployed can receive aid. North Carolina is a special case because the state not only cut its standard benefits program to 19 weeks, but also earlier this year opted out of the extended benefits program entirely — the first and only state to do so.

Photo: Wisaflcio via Flickr

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