The U.S. unemployment rate continues to hover around 9%, with nearly 14 million Americans out of work. Worse still, many of them are remaining unemployed for extended periods: According to April's numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5.8 million Americans have been out of work for more than 27 weeks. The Fed has estimated that the jobless rate may not drop below 9% on an extended basis this year, and could still be as high 8% by the end of 2012.
The dual problems of unemployment and chronic, long-term joblessness raise the question of how long the federal and state governments will continue to provide extended jobless benefits. Congress voted late in 2010 to extend federal unemployment payments so that the nearly two million Americans who were about to lose financial support would not.
However, such Congressional reprieves, as well as any similar moves made at the state level, will only last as long as politicians are willing to risk voter ire over deficit spending. The age of government austerity has begun, and unemployed Americans will probably be among its most significant victims.
In fact, many state governments have already begun to cut unemployment benefits. Illinois and Arkansas have reduced the number of weeks their residents are eligible for unemployment checks. Utah and Missouri refused federal dollars which were earmarked to extend benefits. And those state measures directly affect the federal benefits which kick in after state benefits run out: The shorter the period a resident can collect state unemployment benefits, the shorter the period that the resident can collect federal unemployment benefits.
Because much of the burden of supporting the unemployed falls to the states, 24/7 Wall St. examined jobless benefits state by state. The National Employment Law Project provided data, including average weekly benefits paid, percent of weekly wages covered by benefits, and percent of unemployed receiving benefits. We ranked the best and worst states for jobless benefits based on the percentage of weekly wages their benefits cover, because that statistic is among the best single indicators that accounts for cost of living differences.
The 10 Best States for Unemployment Benefits
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 42.3%
Average Weekly Wage Paid: $384
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 33% (25th highest)
Unemployment: 9.2% (16th highest)
The cost of living in Washington is relatively high, but the state pays unemployment benefits which cover 42.3% of the average worker's wages. Although unemployment there is falling (more than 33,000 jobs have been added in the state since March 2010), it's still above the national average of 9%. According to the state's Employment Security Department, more than 34,000 residents were unemployed and looking for work as of March 2011. Unemployment benefits run out for approximately 3,000 people each month in Washington.
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 42.5%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $272
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 48% (5th Highest)
Unemployment: 7.4% (14th Lowest)
Not only does Montana provide some of the most generous benefits, it also has one of the highest percentages of unemployed workers receiving them. But its unemployment rate is far below average: The state's oil and gas industries have buffered it against much of the pain from the recent recession, so it should be able to continue to provide its substantial unemployment benefits.
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 43.1%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $316
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 27% (15th Lowest)
Unemployment: 7.6% (17th Lowest)
Although Utah residents who collect unemployment insurance receive a relatively generous benefit, those whose current assistance is about to end will be out of luck. In April 2011, Utah lawmakers refused an offer of $100 million in federal money for an additional 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits. The decision will withhold extended benefits from 23,432 Utah residents, according to the National Employment Law Project. Unemployment in the state is decreasing, however, down 0.4% from its 8% level in March of last year.
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 43.3%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $337
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 34% (22nd Highest)
Unemployment: 6.2% (Eighth Lowest)
Wyoming manages to cover a large portion of its unemployed workers' weekly wages through benefits, while limiting the total amount spent. The state has a relatively low unemployment rate and pays the fourth lowest amount of benefits among all the states, about $128 million. Although the state had the fifth fewest initial unemployment insurance claims as of the end of 2010, it also had the fourth greatest decrease in unemployment benefit claims in April 2011. Of course, all
of those low numbers have to measured against the fact that Wyoming is the least populous U.S. state. Wyoming also has a top-level AAA credit rating from S&P based on its strong institutional budget procedures and performance.
6. New Mexico
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 43.7%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $316
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 32% (28th Highest)
Unemployment: 8.1% (23rd Highest)
While the number of first-time benefit claims has decreased in many states, the number in New Mexico is on the rise. For the week ending April 23, 680 residents of New Mexico filed for benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Unemployment is decreasing overall in the state, however. From February to March 2011, New Mexico's unemployment rate fell from 8.7% to 8.1%, the steepest decline in the country.
5. North Dakota
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 44.6%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $310
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 36% (24th Highest)
Unemployment: 3.6% (Lowest)
North Dakota's high unemployment insurance benefit is viable thanks to the state's exceptionally low unemployment. The state currently has an unemployment rate of 3.6%, the best in the country. Due to the state's healthy job market, the average North Dakota resident receiving benefits only does so for 13.7 weeks, also the lowest in the country.
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 44.7%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $326
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 35% (20th Highest)
Unemployment: 6.8% (12th Lowest)
During the recession, Kansas borrowed $171 million from the federal government in order to extend unemployment benefits. These extended benefits have since expired, and now the state must pay back its debt. At the end of September, Kansas must pay $8 million in interest to the federal government, and it's currently illegal to pay back interest on the loans using money taxed from employers. The principal of the loan may be repaid out of business taxes, however, although the amount the Kansas Department of Labor currently collects from employers to cover unemployment insurance will have to be increased greatly to cover the loan as well as current unemployment claims.
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 44.9%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $321
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 40% (16th Highest)
Unemployment: 6.1% (Sixth Lowest)
Iowa is managing its unemployed problems well. The state extended benefits at the beginning of 2010, protecting nearly 30,000 people from losing assistance. Its unemployment rate is now the sixth-lowest in the country, and is continuing to decrease. Iowa also had the second greatest decrease in first-time jobless claims for the first week of April 2011, behind only Minnesota.
2. Rhode Island
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 45.9%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $380
Percentage of Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 27% (Eighth Lowest)
Unemployment: 11% (Fourth Highest)
Rhode Island's unemployment rate of 11% is significantly higher than the national average, but recipients of Rhode Island's unemployment benefits receive an average of $380 a week, the fourth highest in the country. That well-paying unemployment insurance program is causing fiscal problems for the state, and its government has yet to begin dealing with the root causes of its shortfalls. At the end of April, the Rhode Island Department of Labor requested $78 million from the federal government for its unemployment insurance fund. Over the past two years, the state has already borrowed $264.8 million from the federal government to fund unemployment benefits.
Percentage of Weekly Wages Covered By Benefits: 54.3%
Average Weekly Benefit Amount: $416
Unemployed Receiving Benefits: 43% (Seventh Highest)
> Unemployment: 6.3% (Ninth Highest)
Hawaii is the only state to provide the unemployed with an average of more than 50% of weekly wages, and its average weekly benefit is also the nation's highest. The state's jobless rate has remained steady at 6.3% for four months, down from 6.8% one year ago. In Hawaii, the unemployment insurance program is entirely funded by employers.
The 10 Worst States for Unemployment Benefits
While unemployment insurance benefits in Mississippi average the tenth worst as a percentage of wages, it ranks dead last in the actual amount paid out. Workers receiving benefits only draw an average of $190, compared to a national average of $294. The state's maximum weekly benefit is also the lowest in the country, at just $235. Joblessness in the state soared at the beginning of the recession and has remained high ever since. Further exacerbating Mississippi's woes, the state has also begun accepting disaster-related unemployment insurance claims from the victims of the recent tornadoes.