For the Long-Term Unemployed, Dysfunctional Congress Is the Last Hope

If Congress doesn't act on unemployment insurance, seniors will be hurt.

A job loss as a divorce can be all it takes to go from middle class to working poor.

A job loss, a divorce, or a catastrophic illness can push you out of the middle class and into poverty.

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Eileen McGinnis is constantly counting how much money she has left. With each month, there is a new stack of bills, and now with the expiration of her federal unemployment insurance, there is only her IRA left to pay for them.

"The IRA is not going to last long," McGinnis says. "There is nothing coming in and there is $1,771.51 going out. I've been on interviews and people like me, but they like someone better. That is my story. I just cannot seem to get the job."

[READ: Long-Term Unemployment Still Dire]

At 63, McGinnis wasn't planning on spending her final working years pinching each penny and applying for discounted diabetes medication. She seldom leaves the house unless she needs groceries. The thought of filling her Jeep with gas pains her so much she has not been to the gas station in six weeks.

For 17 years, McGinnis worked at Command Security Corporation in New York as a payroll specialist. In February 2013, she was laid off when her company headquarters relocated to Virginia.

"I cannot cut any more bills because there is nothing left to cut. It is really scary. I don't want to get evicted because I don't really have anywhere to go," McGinnis says.

McGinnis is one of the 1.3 million Americans who lost their federal long-term unemployment benefits last month. Without any prospects on the horizon, she is part of a growing demographic of long-term unemployed workers over the age of 55 that seems unable to catch a break. While older workers are less likely than younger workers to be unemployed, when they lose their jobs, they have a significantly harder time finding work. Of the older workers out there, more than half of them have been looking for work for more than a year.

While some think of the country's unemployed as the most undereducated and impoverished among us, the recession has created a new norm as long-term unemployment plagues workers of any age, gender and race.

For the first time, nearly 1 million long-term unemployed Americans looking for work have a four-year college degree. And while the economy slowly improves, there are still 3.3 workers out there for every available job.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is working with Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., to extend long-term unemployment benefits for three months, says many of his constituents desperate for work are older workers who have been displaced in the final years of their careers.

"These are people who used to be accountants, then they got another job and got laid off. They are sending out five resumes a day. They have an elderly parent to care for and a house they are going to lose," Reed says. "It is taking something bad and making it horrible if we don't extend these benefits. Contrary to some people's viewpoints, these people want to work."

[ALSO: Harry Reid Gives Hope to Long-Term Unemployed]

As older workers search for jobs, economists say their unemployment could further strain the country's already vulnerable federal benefits programs. Older unemployed workers, for example, may be forced to spend retirement savings to keep themselves afloat and end up relying more heavily on federal benefits in their final years.

More liberal economists estimate that of all the federal benefits out there, unemployment insurance gives the U.S. government the biggest bang for its buck.

They argue that the roughly $300 in benefits doled out to individuals each week goes straight back into local economies.

"If you pull the plug on the benefits, it is going to have a big impact on those areas hardest hit by long-term unemployment," says Maurice Emsellem, the program director for the left-leaning National Employment Law Project, a group that helps the unemployed break back into the job market.

But not everyone believes extending long-term unemployment benefits is a good idea. Conservative economists and lawmakers argue that renewing the benefits gives workers less incentive to go out and find jobs.

"I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they are paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said in an interview with Fox News in December.