'Safety net' shrinks for nation's jobless Families paying the price for benefits cuts.

Not long ago, Cynthia and Dewaune Allen seemed to have it made: a house in New Carrollton, Md., with three bedrooms for their four children, a BMW in the driveway and a stable, middle-class future ahead of them.

But when the store where Cynthia worked went bankrupt, the Allens quickly discovered that without two incomes, their middle-class status might not long survive. As she struggled through the bureaucratic hassles of obtaining unemployment compensation, Allen anticipated a few weeks, perhaps a month or two, between jobs. Last week, six months later and still out of work, she received her final unemployment check.


Although Dewaune still has his job, without Cynthia's income the family teeters on the edge of economic calamity. Unable to pay the rent, they will soon have to give up their house, they say. The children have already been told not to expect presents this Christmas. With bills continuing to mount, the Allens are looking into their eligibility for food stamps.

As President Bush and congressional Democrats continue their months-old quarrel over whether and how to extend unemployment benefits, the plight of the Allen family -- and those of millions of others who face even worse situations -- reflect the reality behind the impersonal statistics of a nation in recession. And the current slump marks the first time that the erosion of unemployment coverage has hit home with members of the middle class.


That, in turn, has brought thousands of Americans face to face with an often-overlooked fact about the present condition of the government "safety net" that most had assumed would protect them from disaster: The nation's unemployment insurance system, once a prime bulwark standing between the middle class and poverty, has been severely weakened by a succession of cutbacks and changes in government policies.

During the recession of the mid-1970s, nearly 60 percent of all unemployed people were receiving unemployment checks. This time around, only 38 percent are.

Since March, some 2 million people have run out of unemployment benefits. Roughly 60 percent of those are believed to be still without work.

Overall, as of last month, 2.5 million Americans had been unemployed for 15 weeks or more and 1.1 million had been unemployed for more than 26 weeks. The numbers have almost doubled from the levels that prevailed in 1989, before the recession began.

As all this has happened, Bush and the Congress have been deadlocked.

Now, the White House has begun to bend -- apparently in response to a rising tide of voter anger.