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Column: Just try getting by on an unemployment check

Nobody really expects to be able to actually live on an unemployment check.

And that's a good thing.

Because the amount of temporary cash relief jobless workers get — $32 minimum and $275 maximum per week — hasn't changed since January. Of 1998.

During that decade, unemployment rates have risen and fallen and they're rising again. In February, the jobless rate in the Tampa Bay area hit 4.8 percent, the highest since October 2003.

Some things haven't changed in that time. We're still at war in Iraq. The Israelis and the Palestinians are still unable to settle their differences. And the trade deficit is still hitting record highs — just higher levels.

But what a dollar buys has changed a lot. Consider trying to pick up some groceries with your unemployment check today compared with what it would buy the last time unemployment was this high.

The dozen eggs that cost you more than $2 today were about $1.30 back then.

A gallon of milk is nearly $4, while it was less than $3 in October 2003.

A loaf of bread has jumped to $1.30, compared with less than $1.

If you're jobless, you might be able to find a good deal on rents, which have stabilized after skyrocketing in 2004 and 2005. Some desperate landlords are even offering a free month's rent and picking up moving costs. Then again, they're unlikely to rent to someone without a job.

In October 2003, when gasoline was about $1.50 a gallon in the Tampa Bay area, one newspaper ran this horrifying headline: "$3 a gallon gas may become normal."

How about $3.35 a gallon and rising?

Christopher Hoekzema of St. Petersburg just lost his job in computer operations at the end of March. He hopes a new position comes along soon because he has no illusions about being able to survive on $275 a week.

"That takes care of the mortgage, but I still have to buy food, gas and pay the bills," said Hoekzema, who is 49 and single. "I'd have to max out my credit cards to survive."

Unemployment benefits, which can be tapped for a maximum of 26 weeks a year, are based on employers' contributions and set by state law. Neither bosses nor lawmakers seem eager to raise the benefits.

Then again, they have jobs.

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2996.

Column: Just try getting by on an unemployment check 04/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:05am]
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