Unemployment Benefits Were First Extended in 2009:
Federal unemployment benefits were initially extended 33 weeks as part of the March 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. President Obama extended benefits to help the 13.1 million people suffering from the (at that time) 8.5% unemployment rate. Until then, the unemployed could only receive 26 weeks of benefits.
Unemployment Benefits Were Extended Again in November:
In November 2009, as the unemployment rate climbed to 10%, unemployment benefits were extended for another 14 weeks with the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2009. By that time, the economy had had 19 months of job losses. There were 15.2 million people unemployed, down just 400,000 from the all-time high of 15.6 million the previous month. Unemployment benefits were extended for an additional six weeks for those in states with unemployment rates at 8.5% or higher.
2010 Unemployment Benefits Extension:
In July 2010, unemployment rates were stuck at 9.5%, and 14.6 million people were unemployed. Congress reluctantly passed the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act. It allocated $34 billion in funds to extend benefits for up to 99 weeks.
How the 99 Weeks Unemployment Benefits Extension Works:
Extensions of unemployment benefits are arranged according to four tiers. The first tier gives 20 weeks of benefits, while Tier 2 allows another 14 weeks. Tier 3 applies to states where the unemployment rate is 6% or higher. The unemployed there get another 13 weeks. States where the unemployment rate is 8.5% or higher get Tier 4 benefits of 6 additional weeks. (If you need to apply for extended unemployment benefits, review these instructions from the About.com Guide to Job Searching, Alison Doyle.)
2011 Benefits Extended Again:
In 2011, President Obama submitted America's Jobs Act to Congress, following an August Employment Report that showed exactly zero jobs were created. It seemed the economy was at a standstill, with the unemployment rate stuck at 9.1%. There were 13.97 million people unemployed. The Jobs Act allocated $64 billion to keep 99 week benefit extension, which was due to expire at the end of 2011.
Opposition to Extended Unemployment Benefits:
Despite the severity of the unemployment situation, there were legislators who opposed extending the benefits in July 2010. They were concerned about adding $34 billion to the (at that time) $13 trillion national debt. Representative Paul Ryan (R. WI) was particularly vocal, stating that "The American people are fed up with Washington's push to spend money we don't have, add to our crushing burden of debt, and evade accountability for the dismal results." Fortunately for the long-term unemployed, the benefits were extended. In September 2011, members of Congress were also opposed to continuing the extension of unemployment benefits for the same reason.
Can Benefits Harm the Economy?:
The downside of unemployment benefits is that it can, like any other government spending, increase budget deficits, and add to the government debt. How can this hurt the economy? As debt approaches 100% of total output for the year, investors become worried that the government can't pay back its debt. Demand falls for U.S. Treasury bonds, which are used to finance government spending. This makes interest rates rise, increasing the cost of borrowing for everyone. That's because most loans peg their interest rates to the yield on Treasuries.
Unemployment Benefits Basics:
Unemployment benefits were created by the Social Security Act of 1935 to allow the millions who had lost jobs due to the Great Depression of 1929 to buy food, clothing and shelter. Today, anyone who was laid off (as opposed to fired or resigned) is eligible to receive unemployment benefits. The programs are administered by the state, and are funded through unemployment taxes. The solution for unemployment is, obviously, to create new jobs. Unemployment benefits pay, on average, $292 a week.