Reference: Punishing the Jobless by Paul Krugman, New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, Published on July 4, 2010. Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/05/opinion/05krugman.html?_r=1
I share compassion with the unemployed across our country. My thoughts and actions were with them especially during this past holiday, and of course during their trying times ahead. I have walked in their shoes and I know the anxiety that each family feels at this time. I have been laid off twice in my working life: the first time was on my birthday in 1981. Which upper-management person decided that, hey, my birthday would be a most auspicious day for a pink slip? My supervisor was tearful as he told me that I was part of the first wave of employees that he had to give the bad news to and that in a couple of months he too would be jobless. The company was closing its doors and relocating its equipment to the northern mid-west.
I had been hired to replace a man that retired after 45 years and was the youngest and only female in the drafting department. The drawings that I was making changes to had been drawn with quill pen on onionskin “paper”. I had been offered 100% health insurance, in fact the company provided an in-house doctor to treat whatever ailments we brought to work. I had been welcomed on my first day by happy workers (if you added up their years of work it amounted to more years then our state was a Commonwealth) that were family before they became my family. It was the first time that I felt instantly valued as a member of something bigger than my own family nucleus – and I couldn’t believe my luck in being hired considering the competitive nature of the position. I held this job for three months and had no idea it would end so suddenly. I was in shock as I drove home to tell my husband and daughter that “Mommy doesn’t have to go to work on Monday.”
Before I departed I was given advice by my co-workers (and soon to be unemployed, too) to avoid certain “bad” companies in the area that tended to have poor working conditions but I couldn’t afford to follow their warnings and within the week was snapped up by a company that was first on their list. While I was waiting in the reception area the general manager poked his head around the corner and without an interview said I was hired simply because I had worked as a draftsman for the “country club” company that had laid me off. However, after working for 9 years in the defense industry (with several promotions up to the engineering level) I was amongst the next to last group of 250 workers laid off before the company shut down its operations and moved from the area. It was peace time, our contracts were not extended, and the Pentagon no longer required our howitzer shells and NATO anti-tank rounds.
I became a dislocated worker with a severance package that included a little pension, a 401K that had to be rolled into an IRA (I had to learn about finances pretty fast), COBRA health insurance, and unemployment benefits that were specially fine-tuned to my dislocated worker status. My lay-off damaged my marriage beyond repair (somehow my lay-off was MY fault, I was a loser, I had personal deficiencies, my earning power was in doubt, in short, WE had irremediable differences) and 3 short years later I was struggling to stay afloat as a single mom. Besides losing a job and the obvious financial security, a person loses part of their identity: to go from a hard won position as an engineer to a dislocated worker standing in an unemployment line waiting to speak to a job counselor every Tuesday morning stabbed my self-esteem to the bone.
Americans are what they do, we have a worker mentality and we collectively dislike the slacker. Many companies have to force their workers to vacation and retire, our workers spend most of their day and lives at their jobs. To suddenly go from a 9 to 10 hour day to searching for jobs, writing cover letters, sending out resumes, while reuniting with your children and the endless pile of dishes and dirty clothes, is, well, dispiriting to say the least. The unemployment lines were so long they wrapped around the building – we lined up outdoors and took whatever weather was thrown at us! The one benefit of an unemployment line was that it was a great equalizer: my engineering manager’s check was the same amount as mine; all of us on the line became classless and probably more real to one another than when we worked together or crossed each others paths. Problems shared brought several enlightened answers, carpooling groups formed, food coupons swapped, writers shared their cover letter talents, people cheered on job applicants. We all believed that we would survive, at least while we were on the line because at home cheerleaders were few and the mirror failed to be very supportive.
As dislocated workers we were offered a retraining package. Many of my peers chose truck driving and security guard schools, but I decided to dust off my lifetime K-12 art education certificate and use the grant to complete my masters in special education. This allowed me to compete for the hundreds of special needs jobs offered throughout the area in both private and public school settings. I was hired to work in a residential school that offered at-risk children 24/7 therapeutic and behavioral intervention management. It took me 14 months of active looking to find my job and I have been a productive tax paying worker ever since I accepted that first teaching position in 1991. I did not work under the table while I collected my unemployment compensation checks, I mailed out hundreds of resumes, interviewed for positions I didn’t have a chance in Hell of getting, and I substituted throughout the school year (which barely lowered the amount of my unemployment checks). I wasn’t a slacker and I wasn’t using or selling drugs. I was biting my nails and just getting by (I aced all of my courses and graduated with a ME.D. in 1993).
If my unemployment compensation had not been extended several times beyond the initial 26 weeks I do not know where I would be right now. I am horrified when I read comments from self-righteous, far-right ignorant people kicking the already hurting unemployed to the curb: demanding drug tests, means testing, and strict living and food selection rules for the unemployed while they are receiving “taxpayer free handouts”. The name-calling by Christian fundamentalist ministers and their flocks, state governors, senators, wanna-be politicians and ditto-heads, has reached such a crescendo that their horrid chants have put many of the struggling (mentally, financially, physically) into suicide mode in an attempt to end their public humiliation. And to that end the shouters, haters and righteous will feel justified with their demands that people get off the government dole!
I wring my hands at this, and in turn feel justified in bringing out the Christian-card, the WWJD card, the in-your-face-repent card, and ask these blow-hards to walk a mile, to offer real jobs instead of insinuating that jobs exist, to offer reduced living opportunities to down-and-out families (look at all of those empty bank-owned houses all around the country!!!), and reduced food (our supermarkets are obscene, does gluttony ring a bell?), and job retaining opportunities. Even while unemployed these people are taxpayers, consumers, and most importantly, voters. They will remember their pain for a long time (I still do – as if it were yesterday) and vote in accordance to the treatment they receive.
The unemployed need fellow citizens to care about them, they are US, they are our communities, our cities and towns, our states – if we divide them from us then we are the losers. We can’t afford to have a “let them eat cake” attitude while going to anti-government rallies, instead we have to support these unemployment extensions for “the least of our brothers” among us, use our American inventive-can-do spirit and create and finance green industry that will put the United States back in the forefront of world corporate leaders with hearts and consciences. We can’t ignore our unemployed brothers and sisters any further, we have to act according to our creeds and moralities, it is time to stand with the unemployed and support them in their humanity. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. [Matthew 7:12]. Do the right thing, contact your representatives, your senators and tell them to extend unemployment benefits (and while they are at it they should also put an end to “not hiring the unemployed” practices) until every last worker finds a job. We can’t afford to fail.