About 45,000 Massachusetts residents, or one-fifth of those who are out of work, will lose their unemployment benefits on Dec. 29 unless Congress renews a program designed to help people who have struggled to find jobs, officials said.
The state mailed letters on Monday alerting thousands of job seekers that their benefits would disappear just after Christmas. Those most affected by the cuts are record numbers of long-term unemployed, or those who are unemployed 27 weeks or more.
Although Congress has voted to reauthorize federal spending on such benefits 10 times since they were first offered in 2008, funding for the program is now mired in a fierce political debate over organizing the nation’s budget priorities while reviving the economy. That makes further reauthorization more uncertain.
About 230,000 people are unemployed in Massachusetts. Nationwide, more than 12 million are unemployed, and more than 2 million of them face being cut off if the benefits are allowed to expire.
Sandy Pochapin of Southborough is worried she will be one of them. The 55-year-old lost her job in marketing a year and a half ago and has done occasional freelance work since then to make ends meet. She said losing her $475 a week unemployment check would be a painful blow to her and her family because full-time employment with health care benefits remains scarce.
“My savings is exhausted, and I’m into my 401(k),’’ Pochapin said. “It’s very frustrating.’’
The benefits program was intended to supplement unemployment insurance at a time when increasing numbers of Americans were out of work and the economy was heading into a tailspin. Last year, Congress extended the benefits after much debate, but scaled them down.
In Massachusetts, an unemployed worker who once would have received 90 weeks of unemployment insurance currently qualifies for up to 54 weeks of benefits. If Congress cuts the program entirely, residents would qualify for only up to 30 weeks of benefits, state officials said.
Unemployment benefits typically pay half of a person’s last income, with a maximum benefit of $674 a week.
It remains unclear when Congress will consider the issue.
Democratic Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry characterized the debate as a “test of whether the partisan, ideological excess of the last four years is actually over.’’
“I don’t think anyone voted in November to deal with the debt on the backs of middle-class families and people holding on by their fingernails,’’ he said in a statement. “There’s a bipartisan consensus waiting here if reasonableness takes hold, and I’ve talked to a lot of Republicans who want to see that happen.’’
Last year, Republican Senator Scott Brown cosponsored a bill to extend the benefits another year, as long as much of the cost is offset by budget reductions. The proposal never took off. Spokeswoman Marcie Kinzel said in a statement Monday that Brown will continue “working in a bipartisan way to find a compromise on extending unemployment benefits and the many other critical issues that must be resolved.’’
Congressman Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the benefits critical for job seekers and the state’s economy:
“We know that unemployment benefits also help spur the economy, with billions of dollars in economic growth attributable to extension of benefits. I will continue to fight to ensure we extend this lifeline to the millions of hard-working Americans who need a helping hand as they look for a new job.’’
George Wentworth, a senior attorney at the National Employment Law Project, one of several national groups that have been advocating for extending the program, said the emergency benefits were designed to be phased out as the economy improved, but recovery has been slow. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 7.9 percent in October, up from 5.7 percent when the emergency unemployment benefit program was put in place.
“Every time there’s been a recession for the last 50 years, Congress has stepped in and enacted some sort of federal benefits program,’’ Wentworth said. “That’s eight times in the last 50 years. And it’s never cut the program off when unemployment was this high.’’
Michelle Amante, acting director of the state Department of Unemployment Assistance, echoed concerns that cutting benefits could hurt the economy because people won’t have as much as to spend. Massachusetts weathered the recession better than many other states, but unemployment has ticked higher to 6.6 percent due to employers’ concerns about Europe’s economy and uncertainty about what Congress will do.
“This is also a terrible time to lose benefits,’’ Amante said. “There’s a strong incentive to make sure people here continue to receive them.’’
Dorchester resident Dianna Webb, a day-care instructor for nearly 30 years, has been looking for work since June. She is the primary caretaker of her 3-year-old great-grandson, and her $218 check every week has been a lifeline, helping her pay for their rent and food.
If the benefits stop, she may have to ask one of her daughters to move in to help pay the bills. “I’m hoping I don’t have to go to a shelter,’’ the 60-year-old said.