CLEVELAND -- As Congress and the President discuss financial priorities, there's an urgent debate about whether to keep extending unemployment benefits.
134,000 Ohioans are now collecting unemployment. More than a third of them, about 55,000, are at-risk to stop getting them on Dec. 29 if Congress does not act.
Two and a half million people could lose benefits nationwide.
In the depth of the recession, Congress kept extending unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless beyond the standard six months of payments.
Eventually, extensions made some workers eligible for 99 weeks of help.
But as unemployment levels come down and talks focus on less spending, the question is whether or not extended payments should continue.
Mentor's Joe Teachout has lost two jobs during the recession.
Unemployment checks are essential to his getting by.
"It's not half what I need. It just pays my health insurance and my house payment. Everything else comes out of my savings," he said.
Teachout and Bedford jobseeker Tawnee Groce were among those attending a Tuesday Job Fair in Independence at the Doubletree Hotel, sponsored by National Career Fairs.
Groce was able to get through eight months of unemployment through her extended benefits.
She said, "It was what I had to survive...If it wasn't for extensions, I would be in a really bad place..I'd have been out on the street."
If extensions are eliminated, it will be a setback for unemployed workers and the economy because unemployment checks are spent on essentials.
"We have a huge population that's been unemployed for a very long period of time..Some people will feel serious pain," Dean Ned Hill, of Cleveland State's Levin College of Urban Affairs, said.
He says fiscal cliff worries are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Concerned companies are not hiring or creating jobs.
Hill believes a gradual reduction of extensions makes more sense than an instant cut back to 26 weeks.
"It makes perfect sense to start rolling back extended benefits. Cutting overnight is just foolish...This is fiscal policy with a meat axe," he said.
Teachout and Groce hope the extensions are extended into next year.
"That'll make me survive a little longer," he said.
She said, "Everyone could be a whole lot worse off. I've been there. I know."
Those who favor benefit reductions says spending money on job training for long-tern unemployed lacking skills would be a better investment.