Nanine Hartzenbusch / for msnbc.com
Jennifer Moss stands in the kitchen of her Boiling Springs, S.C. home on Thursday May 10, 2012. Her unemployment benefits recently expired.
The improving employment situation in South Carolina should be good news for Jennifer Moss, offering hope she can find finally land a job after a year and a half without work.
But in a way, it’s been another blow. The single mother of three kids is one of hundreds of thousands of long-term unemployed Americans who still haven’t found work - and now also find themselves without an unemployment benefit check.
That is because the falling jobless rate in many states has reduced the number of weeks jobseekers can collect unemployment benefits.
So-called extended benefits were eliminated Saturday in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas. The same thing already had happened in April in states including South Carolina, Oregon, Washington and Tennessee.
That leaves a minority of states where workers are eligible for that last round of benefits.
The extended benefits provide an additional 13 to 20 weeks of unemployment payouts on top of other extra payments that were made available as part of federal legislation passed in the aftermath of the worst recession in decades. The full package gave some jobseekers up to 99 weeks of unemployment payments.
The precise benefits depend partly on the unemployment rate by states, and in many states the rate has been moving down.
For example, California has one of the nation's highest jobless rates at 11 percent, but that is down from 11.9 percent in August. South Carolina's rate of 8.9 percent has fallen from 10 percent last October.
Nanine Hartzenbusch / for msnbc.com
Moss stands outside her home with her three children, from left, Jami Moss, 5, Josh Moss, 6, and Jenna Moss, 9. A single mother, she's worked hard to hold onto her home during her long stint of unemployment.
Moss, who lives in Boiling Springs, S.C., lost her job doing clerical work and flight scheduling for a small corporate flight department in October of 2010, the same week her divorce was finalized. She had worked in hospitality and other fields, and she’d never had trouble finding a job before.
The weak economy made everything different. Since losing her job, Moss said she’s applied for countless jobs and had maybe 10 job interviews, but nothing has worked out.
“There are many sleepless nights where at 2 or 3 in the morning I might be on a website … applying for jobs,” said Moss, who is 40.
To support herself and her three kids under age 10, Moss has relied on unemployment benefits and SNAP, also known as food stamps. She’s also enrolled in a government program that is helping her cover her mortgage payments.
But Moss received her last unemployment benefit May 1, after South Carolina became one of the states to lose extended benefits because of a dip in the unemployment rate. Her mortgage benefit also is set to expire this summer.
“I’m hopeful that the job will be forthcoming very soon, with everything that I’ve got out there,” she said. “But I’m not above doing what’s necessary, meaning a yard sale or selling jewelry or things of that nature.”
Beyond South Carolina, other states, including Alaska, Indiana and Oklahoma, have recently cut back unemployment benefits even further because those states’ unemployment rates have improved. In Indiana and Alaska, jobseekers are eligible for a maximum of 47 weeks of unemployment assistance, while in Oklahoma the maximum amount is now 34 weeks. The Oklahoma jobless rate is 5.4 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but Indiana's rate is 8.2 percent, about the same as the 8.1 percent national average, and Alaska's is still elevated at 7 percent as the economy recovers slowly.
Nationwide about 12 million people are out of work and actively seeking a job. About 5.1 million of those are considered “long-term unemployed,” meaning they have been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer.
What’s more, one big reason the unemployment rate has been falling is because many people are giving up on finding a job or not entering the labor force to begin with. People not actively seeking a job are not counted as unemployed by the BLS.
“We’re adding jobs, but just enough to keep up with growth in the normal working-age population, not enough to start really putting the backlog of unemployed workers back to work,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, which focuses its research on low- and middle-income workers.
The labor force participation rate, or the percentage of Americans over age 16 who are either working or looking for work, fell to 63.6 percent on April. That’s the lowest level in more than three decades.
Moss, in South Carolina, has relied on her religious faith and church for emotional support, and said that both her and her ex-husband’s family have helped out with some expenses, such as birthday parties for the kids.
With money so tight, Moss said she and her kids joke about how they’ll get the Polly Pocket toys and other things they want when the family wins the lottery.
Of course, Moss isn’t even buying any lottery tickets these days.
“No, Lord no,” she said. “There’s not even enough pennies to roll together to get a lottery ticket.”
Many are in the same boat. At least 200,000 people will lose their last set of unemployment benefits because of the most recent wave of expirations in May, on top of about 130,000 who lost benefits in April, the National Employment Law Project estimates.
Claire McKenna, a policy analyst with NELP, which advocates for the unemployed, said some who lose eligibility for extended benefits may still qualify for 10 more weeks of payouts if they meet certain criteria.
But many people will find themselves without a job or unemployment check.
Dan Maloney, 41, has a law degree, an MBA and years of experience in the insurance industry, and yet he’s been without a job since June of 2010.
Maloney, who lives in Dover, N.J., said that in his specialized field, he’s found fierce competition for the few available jobs.
He thinks employers may see his degrees and experience and think he’s overqualified.
Some days he regrets getting his advanced education. Other days Maloney admits he just feels worn down. His unemployment benefits will expire at the end of the month.
“You definitely hit a point where it becomes – you feel defeated,” he said. “There are days you want to give up.”
Mary Rojas, 43, also has an advanced education and speaks several languages. She said she lost her job doing customer service for Spanish-speaking customers at a law firm in Fort Lauderdale in late 2010 and hasn’t been able to find a job since.
Her unemployment benefits are set to expire this month.
Rojas, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., found out she was pregnant soon after losing her job, and she said that made it hard to land a job.
Her baby is now eight months old, and she still has had no luck finding something that pays enough to cover the cost of child care for her baby and her six-year-old. She estimates she has applied for 200 or 300 jobs.
In April, her family received another blow when her husband, a chef, lost his job.
One day last week, the couple was shopping for groceries and fretting about how they would get enough money together to pay the rent.
“I’m in tears, honestly, just wondering how we’ll get that amount,” she said.
But Rojas said she was still holding out hope that her degrees and work experience will eventually land her a job.
“I don’t want to give up,” she said.