Beaufort County charities expect influx as unemployment benefits end

dburley@islandpacket.comDecember 28, 2013 

Groups that help the poor and unemployed in the Lowcountry are bracing for the impact of Saturday's end to emergency unemployment benefits -- a move that could affect hundreds in Beaufort and Jasper counties.

State agencies did not have specific numbers of how many long-term unemployed were stripped of the benefits in those counties, but more than 750 people were receiving unemployment assistance as of Dec. 21, according to the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce. Across South Carolina, 12,900 people saw those benefits end.

Representatives from Bluffton Self Help, HELP of Beaufort and The Deep Well Project on Hilton Head Island say they'll not only see the effects now, but in the coming months when people start receiving utility cutoff notices and eviction warnings.

"So many people are coming in looking for financial assistance anyway, and a lot of them are on extended unemployment," HELP director Steve Curless said. "I've got a deep feeling we'll see an upsurge, especially after New Year's."

"When food stamps were cut back, we saw more people come in," Bluffton Self Help vice president John Orth said, referring to the reduction of the federally funded nutrition program during October's government shutdown. "But we'll feed them. The generosity in this area is amazing."

The groups said they already serve unemployed residents, though they could not say exactly how many because they don't keep such statistics.

"We see these people now," Orth said. "They'll just need more food."

The average unemployment recipient in the state took home about $255 a week from the program, and they cannot exceed $326 in benefits, according to Molly Brantley, public relations director for the state's employment department.

With those checks cut off, the typical low-income family, like those that visit Deep Well, will need even more help.

"We already have people call for assistance because they can't make a go of it on their unemployment checks," Betsy Doughtie, executive director of the service, said.

The benefits ended just three days after Christmas, the result of Congress opting not to extend the recession-era program when it passed a bipartisan budget deal this month.

Without the federal aid, someone filing for unemployment -- normally allowed 49 weeks of benefits -- will receive checks for only 20 weeks from the state.

The U.S. Labor Department estimates about 20,000 more South Carolinians will lose the benefits within the first six months of 2014.

Business organizations and conservative lawmakers say the benefits operated as a disincentive for the jobless to find work and -- with the economy improving -- are no longer needed.

In an emailed statement Friday, U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, did not address the debate surrounding the benefits, but said "what will ultimately hurt the overall economy the most is Congress spending without paying for it."

But advocates for the working poor warn that the loss of federal unemployment benefits will hurt thousands of families and could damage the state's economy. The left-leaning National Employment Law Project estimated that extending the benefits would save more than 1,500 jobs in the state because more money would be pumped into the market.

"Of course, the money they get, they don't sit on it," Brett Bursey, director of the S.C. Progressive Network, said. "People spend it at local stores to keep the economy going; they pay rent."

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Related content:

White House: Expiration of jobless benefits a blow, Dec. 27, 2013

1.3 million losing unemployment benefits Saturday, Dec. 27, 2013

Shutdown forcing Beaufort County food banks to prepare for loss of WIC benefits, Oct. 11, 2013

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