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Out of work, and out of benefits

When Congress went home for the Memorial Day recess without approving another lifeline for the unemployed, most of the country didn't notice. But Dentral Holman Smith knew right away.

She got home from church, kicked off her shoes, and booted up her computer to fill out the form that allows her to collect $996 twice a month. A message flashed, "Account Inactive."

There went the money for rent and the phone, $50 for the church collection plate, $78 for her monthly bus and rail pass. She stared at the screen and did what 15 million other jobless Americans have learned to do in the worst recession in a lifetime: figure out how to hang on.

Her infected tooth would have to wait; she took a couple more Aleve. She counted the money in her wallet: $3.32. She already had what she needed from her church, a bag of free groceries and faith. She closed her eyes and asked God, what now?

It has been two years and seven months since Smith, 42, was laid off from her job as a social worker for a nonprofit agency that moved people from welfare to work. They would straggle into her downtown office, women in short shorts with tattoos; she taught them how to dress for an interview, the importance of punctuality. Her placement numbers were so high that when Smith's co-workers started getting pink slips, she figured she was bulletproof.

But when the ax finally fell, it seemed the one person she couldn't help find a job was herself. Wal-Mart pronounced her overqualified. UPS didn't believe she could lift 70 pounds. Target didn't call back. A hospital hired her as a community advocate, and as she danced with joy around her apartment, she received a call saying the job had been eliminated after all.

Now Smith, separated from her husband, with three grown children who still depend on her, has collected all Washington is willing to give, one of an estimated million or more people whose predicament has outlasted the government's goodwill.

When the economy crashed, Congress passed a series of extensions allowing people to collect jobless benefits beyond the traditional six months. In hard-hit states such as Pennsylvania and California, a cap was set at an unprecedented 99 weeks. There is no talk of raising it. Smith and others like her - known as "99-weekers" - have reached the end of the line. Oddly, she is relieved.

"I'm blessed it lasted as long as it did. The time I received my benefits is the time I was given to grow spiritually. And I'm coming up on my graduation," she says from the small room she rents in northwest Philly, a loaf of bread hanging from a doorknob out of reach of the mice.

The national unemployment rate is at a stubborn 9.5 percent. The country is 11 million jobs in the hole. But the deficit is soaring, and more extensions for the unemployed mean more debt. Washington's sympathies are running low. Legislation to expand jobless benefits for hundreds of thousands has deadlocked in the Senate, though lawmakers are expected to take up the issue again Tuesday.

Deficit hawks and die-hard liberals are up in arms. How will taxpayers shoulder the cost? How will the jobless survive with five out-of-work applicants for every opening?

For the majority of Americans, it's a philosophical argument. For Smith and the millions of jobless like her, it boils down to the same choice day to day, hour by hour: what to do without.