RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
President Obama today heads to Raleigh, North Carolina to talk about the economy. He is expected to call upon Congress to try again to extend federal unemployment benefits. In Washington yesterday, Republicans in the Senate blocked a bill that would have restored the benefits that ended last month for 1.3 million Americans. But in North Carolina, a state law has prevented people there from getting the benefits since last July. North Carolina Public Radio's Leoneda Inge examines the impact of shortened help.
LEONEDA INGE, BYLINE: When Tammie Morris lost her job more than a year ago at a Chick-Fil-A in Durham, she and her husband Ortez Morris hit hard times. But at least they had Tammie's unemployment check to help them get by. Then last July 1, a new North Carolina law cut the maximum state unemployment benefits by roughly a third. As a result, the state no longer met the minimum federal standards for unemployment insurance.
That meant North Carolina residents could not get the extended federal benefits available in every other state. It was a body blow for many jobless people.
ORTEZ MORRIS: Very traumatic.
INGE: That's how Ortez Morris described the abrupt cut off. The 2013 law slashed state jobless benefits from 26 weeks to just 20 weeks - the shortest length of help in the nation. And the Morris's got none of the federal benefits that might have added months more of coverage. During the worst of the recession, some Americans were getting as much as 99 weeks of help from their combined state and federal benefits.
MORRIS: As soon as we needed unemployment, it got cut off. So that didn't feel proper, fair.
INGE: That made life a lot tougher for the Morris's. By August, they were staying with an aunt. Before long, the aunt wanted them to move along.
TAMMIE MORRIS: She left a note on the bed and told us we needed to find a place.
INGE: Now the couple lives at a homeless shelter where dinnertime allows them to join a line for beef or vegetarian casserole, salad, fruit and carrot cake for desert. They are grateful for the charity, but wish the state legislature would undo the new law.
Governor Pat McCrory says that won't happen.
GOVERNOR PAT MCCRORY: We had to take some - make some very, very difficult decisions.
INGE: He says the state's economic future is brighter now because the legislature has reduced its spending. And it's speeding up repayment of the $2.8 billion it owes the federal government, for borrowing unemployment dollars for laid off workers, during the worst of the recession. Governor McCrory explained his position recently to business leaders at an economic forum in Durham.
MCCRORY: We felt like our unemployment benefits were putting North Carolina in continued debt. And we needed to tear up the credit card and pay off that debt as quick as possible, so you in business could free up money and start hiring people again.
INGE: He can point to progress, at least in terms of the unemployment rate. In the past year, it has dropped from 9.4 percent to 7.4 percent. But critics are not impressed. They say when 70,000 people abruptly lost jobless benefits many simply fell out of the workforce.
JOHN QUINTERNO: Which means that our unemployment rate has come down sharply, but not necessarily for the right reason.
INGE: That's John Quinterno, an economic analyst in Chapel Hill. He says the state is worse off now because its labor force is shrinking.
QUINTERNO: And that's very - to me, very alarming.
INGE: Back in Washington, Democrats want to restore extended benefits and include a special provision that could allow North Carolina to start getting federal money again. But many Republicans oppose new spending without off-setting budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Ortez Morris is in a city-run worker training program. Tammie is looking for work. They both hope they won't be calling the shelter home come spring.
For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge in Durham, North Carolina.
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