If Congress lets unemployment benefits expire this week for the long-term unemployed, they won't be the only ones to feel the pain. The overall economy would suffer, too.

If Congress lets unemployment benefits expire this week for the long-term unemployed, they won't be the only ones to feel the pain. The overall economy would suffer, too.


Unemployment benefits help drive the economy because the jobless tend to spend every dollar they get, pumping cash into businesses. A cut-off of aid for millions of people unemployed for more than six months could squeeze a fragile economy, analysts say. Among the consequences they envision over the next year:


- Annual economic growth could fall by one half to nearly 1 percentage point.


- Up to 1 million more people could lose their jobs.


- Hundreds of thousands would fall into poverty.


"Look for homelessness to rise and food lines to get longer as we approach Christmas if the situation can't be resolved," says Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.


The issue is expected to be taken up in the lame-duck session of Congress that resumed Monday. Among other unfinished business, lawmakers are likely to vote on whether to extend 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that are set to expire at year's end.


The average weekly payment for the roughly 8.5 million people receiving unemployment benefits is $302.90. But it ranges widely: from an average of $118.82 in Puerto Rico to an average of $419.53 in Hawaii. Each state sets the amount through a formula meant to replace a portion of an unemployed person's old income.


That money ripples through the economy, into supermarkets, gasoline stations, utilities, convenience stores. That allows those businesses to hire more people, who, in turn, spend more money.


The Congressional Budget Office says every $1 spent on unemployment benefits generates up to $1.90 in economic growth. The program is the most effective government policy for generating growth among 11 options the CBO has analyzed.