Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

Long-Term Unemployment: A Matter of Bad Timing?

Tomorrow will mark eight months since I was laid off.  This means that I have been among the ranks of the “long-term unemployed” for two months now.

I suppose that a recent pair of articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times should make me feel better about my unsuccessful job hunt.  Paul Krugman and Matt O’Brien assure me that it’s not my fault.  As it turns out, I’m just unlucky.

O’Brien ran a regression analysis that shows that becoming long-term employed is largely a product of being laid off at the wrong time.  Apparently, if you lose your job when the economy is bad, you may be out of work for a very long time.  If you lose your job when the economy is good, another company is likely to pick you up in short order.

This seems like common sense to me.  When the economy is bad, your employer is suffering and you’re more likely to lose your job.  But all the other employers are suffering too, so you’re not likely to find another one.  Lose your job when the economy is good and, big deal, the company next door and the one down the street are both hiring.

Despite the appeal of this logic, this theory hasn’t panned out for me personally.  O’Brien states that you were really out of luck if you lost your job in 2009, when unemployment peaked at 10% nationally.  If you were laid off in that year, he says, you had a 30% chance of becoming long-term unemployed.

Well, it just happens that I lost my job in 2009.  It took me eight months to find another, so technically I had slipped into the ranks of the long-term unemployed, proving out O’Brien’s theory.  What did I do to find that job?  For one thing, I filed 133 job applications in a total of 26 states.

After working at that job for three years and three months, I was laid off in the fall of 2013.  While the economy was not what one would consider wonderful at that time, it was a lot better than it was in 2009.  As I have been making just as concerted an effort to find another job as I did last time around, under O’Brien’s theory I would have expected to find work by now.  But it hasn’t turned out that way for me, or apparently, for anyone else.

“There’s never been this much long-term unemployment before, at least not since they started keeping records in 1948,” states O’Brien.  “Right now, 35 percent of all unemployed people have been out of work for at least six months.”  This figure reflects the fact that many who lost their jobs in 2009 are still unemployed in 2014.  By comparison, I was lucky.

So what of all my fellow “2009ers” whose job search efforts have been in vain and who have remained out of work until this day?  They have now been unemployed for five years, which is forever in the job market.  Their skills are no longer current, and their prospects of securing employment have dwindled right along with their self-esteem.  Not to mention the fact that prospective employers discriminate against them for that incriminating gap in their résumés.  Because they drew the short straw by becoming unemployed at the wrong time, they are likely to remain unemployed forever.  These people are forced into retirement, making a national economic recovery more difficult with the permanent loss of their skills.

“It’s the economy, stupid!” writes Krugman in his Times opinion piece.  Running the numbers gives the lie to “the alternate story, which is that the long-term unemployed are workers with a problem.”  This, of course, is code for lazy, stupid, can’t follow basic rules, don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, aren’t trying hard enough, would rather live off a government check, etc.  These are the kinds of qualities that conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives attribute to the long-term unemployed and use an excuse for denying unemployment benefit extensions.  The fact that none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter.  It is a little too convenient for them to ignore the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around and that, ultimately, the economy is the cause of so much long-term unemployment.

But Congress would prefer that we stop confusing them with the facts.

Unemployment Extension Fails Again

Despite my recent raving and ranting about the misfeasance of the U.S. Senate in failing to pass federal unemployment extension benefits, I must admit that I’m beginning to find some logic in the reticence of our elected representatives.

Last month, a cloture vote (a decision to close debate and proceed to a vote on a bill) failed in the Senate on two different bills that would have provided unemployment checks to out-of-work Americans who had already run through their 26 weeks of state jobless benefits.  Both bills failed by just a handful of votes.

Which brings us to yesterday’s vote.  Now, remember that extending unemployment benefits is very popular among Americans, the people our senators are supposed to represent.  In that spirit, five Republicans were willing to break ranks with their caucus and vote “yea.”  Still not enough.  The bill failed by one vote.  One.  Vote.

It’s almost as if Republican senators are saying “the answer was no before, the answer is still no, the answer will always be no, stop asking!”

“Because of one person’s inaction today, there’s a family, thousands of families who are going to miss mortgage payments and send their lives into economic chaos,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was quoted as saying.  What a lovely sentiment, Senator, but let’s face it, the lives of the long-term unemployed are already steeped in turmoil and throwing us a bone for three months is unlikely to significantly alter that picture.

There are those who say there is still hope.  After all, with a vote that close, trying again is just too tempting for Senate Democrats to pass up.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is calling for at least one more Republican senator to “step up and do the right thing.”  As much as I appreciate the gesture, let’s not forget that Reid is an old man who is as out of touch with his constituency as are Senate Republicans.  (If you don’t believe me, take a listen to the sound bite in which, earlier this week, he claims to be unfamiliar with the term “couch surfing.”  Well, he’s a rich guy — why would he be?)

Senate Republicans claim that they’re standing their ground against fiscal irresponsibility in an age of huge federal deficits.  It would be more realistic to say that they’re trying to make a big, splashy point that they’re not about to allow the Democratic majority to run roughshod over them.  The bottom line, of course, is that they’re telling unemployed Americans to go to hell.  Cue The Silhouettes singing “Get a Job.”

So what are we talking about in terms of numbers?  Over a million of us lost our only source of income when extended federal unemployment benefits expired right after Christmas.  The bill that failed in the Senate this week would have cost $6.4 billion.  Had it passed, it would have provided another three months of unemployment benefits to 1.7 million Americans.

These are not the numbers of chief importance to Republicans in Congress, however.  They cite recent statistics such as the unemployment rate falling by one-tenth of a percentage point to 6.6% in January and the economy gaining 75,000 jobs in December.  The bigger picture is that these numbers are much worse than last year’s and fall far short of economists’ expectations.

Still, as I stated at the start of this post, I am starting to see Senate Republicans’ point of view.  Because none of the acrimony and bickering across the aisle really matters.  It’s all a big game of smoke and mirrors, and here’s why:

Number One:  Even if one more Republican Senator were to have pity on the unemployed and vote in favor of overcoming a filibuster, the chances of the bill actually passing a vote of the full Senate are not that great.  And even if the bill were to pass in the Senate, it doesn’t stand a prayer in John Boehner’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  No matter how you look at it, the unemployment extension is toast.

Number Two:  It’s just a Band-Aid, a very temporary measure that is not likely to have much long-term impact.  The latest Senate bill would have provided a maximum of three months of benefit checks to the long-term unemployed, most of whom are not going to be able to secure a job within that brief window.  Sure, every little bit helps, but ultimately it’s no different than when I give a burger and fries to the homeless guy with the sign.  Yes, it’s better than nothing, but tonight he’s just going to be hungry again.  In a nation as wealthy as the United States, surely we can do better than this.

If you read the comments posted on the news stories online, you will catch a lot of tomato-throwing by the “get off your lazy ass and get a job” contingent and the “I’m 60 years old and no one will hire me” technologic obsolescence crew.  The former decries the welfare state while the latter sheds tears in its beer about the slim likelihood of ever working again.  Then there is the increasing talk of job creation via direct government hiring, à la FDR’s New Deal.

Let’s be honest about this:  Most of us are going to sit at home sending out résumés and hoping to attract employer attention, whether we’re receiving an unemployment check or not.  That is, of course, until we give up and fall permanently out of the labor market.  At that point, we truly become invisible, as those who are neither receiving unemployment compensation nor are actively looking for a job don’t exist, at least as far as government statistics are concerned.

Either way, we unemployed people will find a way to get by.  We will lose our homes, we will sell everything we own, we will stuff three families into one dwelling, we will barter, we will adopt freegan habits of pulling discarded food from dumpsters, we will suffer, our children will suffer.

Until, that is, the bottom drops out and our worst nightmares come true.  Then we will be the ones holding the sign and hoping for a hamburger.  At that point, we shall, like Blanche DuBois, be forced to depend on the kindness of strangers.

And not the ones in Congress, either.

 

References

Delaney, Arthur, “Unemployment Insurance Extension Fails Again in Senate,”  Huffington Post (Updated Feb. 7, 2014). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/06/unemployment-extension-senate_n_4739526.html

Kane, Paul, “Senate Hits Another Dead End on Unemployment Benefits,” Washington Post (Post Politics, Feb. 6, 2014).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/02/06/senate-hits-another-dead-end-on-unemployment-benefits/

Peters, Jeremy W., “Senate Fails to Pass Three-Month Extension of Jobless Aid,” New York Times (Politics, Feb. 6, 2014).  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/07/us/politics/senate-fails-to-advance-unemployment-extension.html

Schwartz, Nelson D., “Jobs Report May Raise Questions on Pullback of Stimulus,” New York Times (Business Day, Feb. 7, 2014).  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/business/us-economy-adds-113000-jobs-unemployment-rate-at-6-6.html?hp&_r=0

 

Congress: No Unemployment for You!

So.  Looks like that’s it.

Not one, but two bills to extend federal unemployment benefits failed in the Senate on Tuesday.

Sorry that it’s been more than six months since you were laid off and you still can’t find a job.  The government ain’t gonna help you, fellas.  You lose!

Congress is proving to be no better than an unruly bunch of fractious children.  I am reminded of siblings who are instructed to decide among themselves whether the day’s outing will be to the swimming pool or to the park.  The brothers and sisters squabble among themselves and are unable to come to an agreement, so the parent announces that the matter is now closed because everyone will be staying home.

There was the bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for eleven months.  That went down in flames because many Republican senators believe that such a “gimme” would reward indolence.  Why look for a job when you can sit in front of the TV and have a paycheck dropped in your mailbox every other week, as if by magic?

Then there was the other, much stingier bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for three months only.  The idea was to help out-of-work Americans put food on the table for another twelve weeks or so while our elected representatives hash out a long-term solution regarding unemployment benefits.  But, hey, the Senate couldn’t manage to pass this one either!

Technically, there was no vote to accept or reject either bill.  Both measures became stuck in the muck that is the Senate’s procedural rules.  Senators voted to open debate on the bills early last week, so the next step is to close debate in preparation for a vote.  The 11-month bill failed 48-52; the 3-month bill failed 45-55.

So yes, both bills remain open for debate and there is always a possibility, albeit a slight one, that warring factions among the two parties might come to some agreement after they return from their eleven-day break.

One could say that it what it came down to was hurt feelings.  In recent days, Republican senators have been throwing the yellow hanky, insisting that the bad ol’ Democratic majority is trying to railroad them.  And they’re not going to put up with that, by golly!  The Republicans may have a handful fewer members than their Democrat brethren across the aisle, but they will not be underdogs!  They will show their muscle!

So, what was giving the Republicans such an ouchy tummy ache?  Amendments, that’s what.

At first, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his posse wouldn’t allow any amendments to the bill.  I mean, what the heck?  You can’t expect Republican senators to help tide over unemployed Americans unless they get a little pork tacked on to the end of it.  Right?

Then the Democrats conceded by agreeing, okay, each party can have five amendments added to the bill.  But each amendment could be passed only with the yea votes of at least 60 senators.  Republicans cried foul, citing Democratic demands that the Senate agree to pass the final bill by a simple majority (51 votes), waiving the traditional 60-vote requirement.  Republicans felt disenfranchised, alleging that this finagling would enable Senate Democrats to defeat all Republican-sponsored amendments while pushing through the bill to passage on the Democrat’s terms.

Do I blame the Republicans for crying big elephant tears?  Not really.  Do I blame the Democrats for being stubborn donkeys?  Not at all.  I mean, what do you want?  Everyone must get theirs, right?

Except for the long-term unemployed, apparently.  They get exactly zero.

Congratulations, Congress.  You blew it again.

Oh, and enjoy your eleven-day vacation!

 

References

Kane, Paul, “Senate Deadlocks on Extending Jobless Benefits,” Washington Post (Post Politics, January 14, 2014).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/01/14/senate-deadlocks-on-extending-jobless-benefits/

Mascaro, Lisa, “Spending Bill is On Track but Jobless Benefits Stall in Congress, Los Angeles Times (Nation, January 14, 2014).  http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-congress-budget-20140115,0,3426233.story#axzz2qRghMq6u

Parker, Ashley, “Unemployment Extension is Stalled, with Two Proposals Defeated in the Senate,” New York Times (January 14, 2014).  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/us/politics/unemployment-benefits-extension-fails-in-senate.html?_r=0

 

Unemployed? Employers are Discriminating Against You

While the epic battle over the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act rages in the U.S. Senate, our elected representatives ought to consider that the “long-term unemployed” are a product of discrimination on the part of employers.

Discrimination?  Say what?

You heard right.

Let’s assume that just as soon as you get over the shock of being laid off, you begin looking for another job in earnest.  Does your chance of getting hired increase or decrease once you are out of work?

Looking at this question from the point of view of the employer, there are at least two schools of thought on whether or not it is a good idea to hire the unemployed.

  • Hire the unemployed! 
    • The unemployed face all kinds of financial pressure and are eager to work to avoid losing their families and ending up out on the street.
    • The unemployed aren’t in a position to be picky and are willing to perform difficult, onerous, repetitive or dirty jobs at which others would turn up their noses.
    • The unemployed are willing to work on the cheap.  After all, something is better than nothing, particularly when you can no longer put food on the table.
    • The unemployed are available immediately — no two week notice and all that!
  • Heavens no, don’t hire the unemployed! (Also known as “to get a job, you gotta have a job.”)
    • Don’t even bother.  The unemployed are so desperate, they apply for jobs for which they are overqualified or underqualified.  What a waste of time!
    • The unemployed are just looking for a stopgap job.  They’ll just leave as soon as they find something better.  Instead, hire someone who already has a job.  If an applicant is willing to leave his or her job to come work for us, you know this person is serious!
    • The unemployed are “scarred.”  These broken, dispirited people have been beaten down to the point where they have lost the will to succeed at any job.  During their time out of work, their skills have atrophied, they’ve missed out on technical updates and the only thing they’re good at anymore is sitting on their asses in front of the TV.
    • The unemployed tend to have health and family problems that will only end up costing the company money.

So, who’s right?

Word is that some employers have an informal policy of turning down the applications of anyone who is out of work.  And there are some employers who make no bones about it:  They have the guts to include a caveat in their employment ads that the unemployed need not apply.

If this sounds a lot like discrimination, that’s because it is.  And it’s perfectly legal.

This is what I call the “purple” type of discrimination.  If an employer loathes the color purple, he or she violates no law by kicking out any applicant who walks in wearing purple.  In other words, unemployment (like wearing purple garments) is not a “protected class” (like race, gender and disability, for example) under federal law, giving employers the right to discriminate to their heart’s content without legal consequence.

In 2012, the legislature in my home state of California voted in favor of a bill that would make discrimination against the unemployed illegal.  However, the measure failed to become law when Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

The bottom line is that the unemployed tend to be looked at with suspicion by potential employers.

Not too long ago, when I found myself in a company’s lovely conference room to be interviewed by a panel of managers, I decided to relax and “just be myself.”  After all, I knew that I had excellent qualifications for the job.  So I explained to the panel how I became laid off when my previous employer had to resort to a reduction in force due to severe financial difficulties.  There were three rounds of layoffs, during which I lost most of the employees who I managed before losing my own job in the last of the rounds.

I wasn’t hired.

After all, who knows why an applicant really became unemployed?  Sure, they’ll tell you a good story, but who knows whether they’re telling you the truth?  Could be that the employee engaged in unethical practices, robbed the company blind, committed sexual harassment or was caught sleeping on the job.  You can reference check from here to Timbuktu, but no former employer will ever admit to any of these things for fear of being sued.

With this attitude on the part of employers, the unemployed, who already ended up on the losing end of the stick once, are guaranteed to be the losers again and again.

And our senators wonder why millions of Americans can’t find a job during their initial 26-week period of state benefits?

We must at least consider that employers may be the ones responsible for causing laid off workers to become the “long termers” that Senate Republicans find so repugnant.

References

Cohen, Adam, “Jobless Discrimination?  When Firms Won’t Even Consider Hiring Anyone Unemployed,” Time (May 23, 2011).  http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2073520,00.html

Gordon, Clare, “Employer Explains Why He Won’t Hire the Unemployed,” AOL Jobs (Oct. 12, 2012).  http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/10/12/employer-explains-why-he-wont-hire-the-unemployed/

Lemieux, Scott, “We Don’t Hire the Unemployed,” Lawyers, Guns & Money Blog (Nov. 18, 2012). http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/11/we-don%E2%80%99t-hire-the-unemployed

Lucas, Suzanne, “Unemployed?  5 Reasons Companies Won’t Hire You,” CBS Money (July 27, 2011). http://www.cbsnews.com/news/unemployed-5-reasons-companies-wont-hire-you/

Rampell, Catherine, “The Help-Wanted Sign Comes with a Frustrating Asterisk,” New York Times (Business Day, July 25, 2011).  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/business/help-wanted-ads-exclude-the-long-term-jobless.html?_r=0

Smooke, David, “10 Reasons to Hire the Unemployed,” Smart Recruiters Blog. http://www.smartrecruiters.com/blog/10-reasons-to-hire-the-unemployed/

 

Unemployment Wrangle and Mangle in the Senate

Last Sunday, USA Today published an editorial urging Congress to restore federal unemployment benefit extensions immediately.  About 1.3 million people who had already exhausted their 26 weeks of state unemployment compensation were cut off from federal extension benefits on December 28 when Congress failed to renew the enabling legislation and then went off on a weeklong New Year’s vacation.

Many major newspapers have expressed similar sentiments, as has President Obama.  And things were looking possible there for a while.

No vote occurred on Monday due to the weather keeping seventeen senators away.  On Tuesday, the Senate voted to open debate on the issue.  Promising, particularly since it took six votes from the Republican side of the aisle to accomplish this.

On Wednesday, and even into Thursday, there was talk of a bipartisan deal being reached, perhaps one that would go so far as to provide back benefits to those who were cut off two weeks ago.  Better than that, the plan was to provide federal unemployment benefits for up to 31 weeks (at a cost of 17 to 18 billion dollars) rather than for just three months (at a cost of over $6 billion).  The exact number of weeks of unemployment benefits to which a particular claimant would be entitled would depend on the unemployment rate in the person’s state of residence.

It was thought that a way had been found to satisfy the demand of Senate (and House) Republicans that any benefit extension be paid for by cuts elsewhere.  While there may not be other spending that can reasonably be cut right now, the plan was for the corresponding cuts to be made ten years from now, in 2024 (most of the cuts would have been to Medicare providers).  In other words, buy now and pay later — kind of like a credit card.

But alas, Senate Democrats and Republicans were unable to overcome their differences and things quickly began to fall apart.  At least three of the Republican senators who had voted Tuesday to open debate on the unemployment extension bill indicated that they would not approve the current version were it to come to the floor for a vote.  One complaint among Republican senators was that they had been excluded from the process of hammering out the compromise measure, specifically that they had been denied the opportunity to offer amendments.  Another was that Senate Republicans are not interested in providing long-term unemployment compensation and would only consider a short-term restoration of federal benefits, such as the original three-month plan.

Some senators expressed hope that there may still be a chance for the bill to get back on track on Monday.  Meanwhile, most families who had been receiving federal unemployment benefits through the end of 2013 have now begun to suffer the effects of a missing check.  Many of these families have no other source of support.

The USA Today editorial listed a few interesting tidbits regarding our current unemployment situation:

  • Nationally, the current unemployment rate is approximately 7%.  The last time the rate was this high was 20 years ago.
  • Long-term unemployment is at its highest level since World War II.  Over 4 million Americans have now been out of work for 27 weeks or more.
  • There are currently about three job seekers for every job opening.

Oh, and also, another 100,000 or so American families have now fallen off the federal unemployment rolls in addition to the 1.3 million who were out of luck on 12/28.

And yet, there are Republican senators, who we have elected to be our representatives, who continue to insist that the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act is misnamed because there is no “emergency.”

For real?

 

References

Espo, David, “Jobless Bill Stalls in Senate,” Miami Herald (Business Breaking News, January 9, 2014).  http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/01/09/3860878/reid-expresses-optimism-about.html

Hunt, Kasie, “Unemployment Aid Deal Stalls Again,” NBC News (First Read, January 9, 2014).  http://firstread.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/09/22244801-unemployment-aid-deal-stalls-again?lite

Sargent, Greg, “Senators Close in on Way to Pay for Unemployment Benefits,” Washington Post (The Plum Line, January 9, 2014).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2014/01/09/dems-close-in-on-way-to-pay-for-unemployment-benefits/

Stein, Sam, Arthur Delaney and Michael McAuliff, “The Senate’s New Unemployment Deal is Already Falling Apart,” Huffington Post (HuffPost Politics, January 9, 2014).  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/09/senate-unemployment-insurance_n_4571118.html?utm_hp_ref=unemployment-extension

 

Senate Prepares to Debate Unemployment Extension Bill

dem rep

When the one hundred members of the U.S. Senate returned to Washington from their weeklong New Year’s vacation on Monday, they put off voting whether to open debate on a measure that would extend federal unemployment benefits.  The reason?  Seventeen senators were “not present in the chamber” due to the polar vortex wreaking havoc with air travel.

With the frozen 17 back in the saddle on Tuesday, the vote proceeded as scheduled.  Many believed that the vote would fall along party lines, leaving the Senate five votes short of the sixty needed to clear the filibuster hurdle.  Surprisingly, six Republicans voted in favor of debating the measure.  This should provide weeks or even months of spectacle as senators from opposite sides of the aisle duke it out while the potential beneficiaries of the measure continue to enjoy their Christmas present of having their unemployment benefits cut off.

Even if by some miracle the bill were to pass in both houses of Congress, unemployed Americans would not regain the three or four tiers of federal extension benefits they had received through the third week of December.  Quite the contrary.  The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act (S. 1845) would restore only three months of federal unemployment benefits.

The general idea seems to be that passing the bill is a temporary measure that would give Congress another three months to come up with a more permanent answer to the question “just how long should federal unemployment benefits last?”  From a Republican point of view, it would also provide Congress with another three months to try to find something else to cut in the federal budget to pay for the measure.

In an editorial published on Tuesday, The New York Times offered its opinion that Congress is putting on a grand show but is not serious about restoring unemployment benefits to those who have been out of work for a long time.

Perhaps the six Republican votes to open debate on the unemployment extension were designed to make the GOP look open-minded on the issue, rather than appearing to be insufferable curmudgeons.  After all, the Republican Party has everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Agreeing to debate the measure doesn’t mean that those six Republican senators will approve S. 1845 when it finally comes up for a vote.  Far from it.

For one thing, midterm congressional elections will be held later this year. Commentator Thomas B. Edsall noted this week that “in close contests, the long-term unemployed, along with their families and their friends, have the power to determine the outcome of those 2014 elections in which a percentage point gained or lost can be decisive.”

Even with Christmas over, Republicans would like to avoid playing the role of Scrooge for as long as they can get away with it.  Even House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he would consider extending benefits for the unemployed if a way can be found to pay for them.

But three months of unemployment benefits will cost somewhere around $6.5 billion. And that’s a lot of cash to find just lying around.  It may be next to impossible to get Congress to agree to cut other programs in order to fund unemployment benefits.  “The [Republican] demand for a ‘pay for’ is just another way of saying that they aren’t serious about helping those in need,” states the Times editorial.

The losers, of course, are those who have been out of work for more than six months and, despite their best efforts, still can’t find a job.

President Obama continues to urge the two parties in Congress to find sufficient common ground to pass the unemployment extension.  In his weekly radio address on Saturday, he cited out-of-work mothers and fathers who are unable to provide their children with even basic necessities thanks to Congress allowing the law to expire last month.  “Denying families that security is just plain cruel,” stated the president.  “We’re a better country than that.  We don’t abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough — we keep the faith with them until they start that new job.”

As to Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate, President Obama’s plea is likely to fall on deaf ears.  Should Republicans stand firm in their miserliness, it is imperative that their own plea for our votes likewise fall on deaf ears come November.

 

Free Newspapers for the Unemployed? Nah!

times

We’re not even a week into the new month and already I’m done.

When I’m not writing about my family or waxing sentimental about my college and grad school days, most of my posts require some degree of online research.  Even when I feel that I am fairly knowledgeable about my subject, I’m not inclined to hit the Publish button until I’ve done some basic level of fact checking, if only to avoid embarrassing myself by discovering that the whole world changed while I had my head in the clouds and that I’m the only one who didn’t get the memo.

The websites of federal and state agencies are often helpful, as are CNN and Fox News online, along with the tried and true Google search.  But my mainstays, the bedrock upon which I rely, are The New York Times, The Washington Post and, since this is A Map of California, The Los Angeles Times.

The problem with those newspapers is that — surprise — they require revenue to continue operating.  Accordingly, they maintain their websites, to a greater or lesser extent, behind a paywall.  Newcomers to these sites may generally read some articles for free (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “clickbait”) before being faced with a popup informing the user to pay up or be shut out.

Lately, I’ve been doing more than a little bit of research on the expiration of federal unemployment benefit extensions, and it’s finally caught up with me.  Today I came face-to-face with the dreaded New York Times popup notice “you have reached your final free article for this month.”  The notice includes a link to a page where readers may purchase a Times digital subscription.

This is not the first time that I have used this forum to express my opinion that effective democracy requires universal access to major newspapers (otherwise, the freedom of the press guaranteed us by the First Amendment doesn’t mean a whole lot).  Nevertheless, I feel as if I do owe the Times some duty of support, particularly since I check their headlines on my phone every morning and rely on their journalistic prowess and wide range of opinions not only for statistics, but also to open my eyes to ideas that may be new to me.  As the popup notice informs me that a digital subscription costs 99 cents, it’s hard to say no.

But then I looked at the other terms and conditions.  Apparently, the cost for digital access to the Times is 99 cents per week for the first four weeks.  After that, it’s $3.75 to $8.75 per week, depending on the plan I choose.  Even if I choose the most economical plan with the least access, the cost would come to about $184 per year.

I suppose I could try to be sneaky by purchasing a subscription for the introductory offer of 99 cents per week to get me through January and then cancel at the end of the month.  This assumes that I remember to actually cancel at the correct time, which I know full well is highly unlikely.  My credit card would likely be charged for a while before I noticed (something the Times undoubtedly depends upon).  And even if I do remember to cancel promptly, I’ll just be back in the same boat come February, hoarding my newly refreshed complement of ten free articles in a miserly fashion.

Under normal circumstances, this whole thing wouldn’t be a big deal.  I’d put it on the Visa, consider it a little present to myself and promptly forget how much I paid for it.

Unfortunately, normal circumstances no longer prevail.  Now that three months have elapsed since I was laid off at work, I can no longer justify a $184 expense for my own enjoyment.  Not with our fifteenth wedding anniversary coming up.  Not with my mother’s 80th birthday celebration coming up.  Not with the expense that we reluctantly resigned ourselves to a couple of weeks ago — to buy a bed that the two of us could actually fit into without my wife being shoved up against the wall like a perp on a cop show while I hung off the other side within inches of kerplopping onto the floor.

Perhaps I should email the New York Times to suggest that they implement a special discounted rate for the unemployed.  Nah, they’d probably just tell me to go to the public library.  Got gas money, anyone?

I have a better idea.  Now that the suspended coffee movement has taken off, perhaps the idea could be extended to suspended Times subscriptions.  Surely some benevolent individual would like to buy two subscriptions and suspend one so that a certain unemployed blogger in the northern reaches of the Golden State can do his research.  Pay it forward and all that, right?

I still have three more months of unemployment checks coming, and I pray that I am somehow able to find employment before the end.  While there is the possibility that Congress may begin considering a stopgap measure to temporarily reinstate federal unemployment extensions when it returns to session on Monday, such a provision would likely expire before my state unemployment claim runs out and thus would not apply to my situation.  And it is far from certain that Congress will be able to agree upon even a temporary measure.  In my last free Times article for the month, journalist Annie Lowrey reports that Congress is “setting the stage for a major political fight” and that “the constrained fiscal environment makes its [federal unemployment benefit extensions] reinstatement somewhat less likely.”  I believe it’s fair to expect that the fur will fly this week in the House and in the Senate.

Some have suggested that the unemployed will just have to become more resourceful.  As for me, I have figured out that I can obtain additional access to New York Times articles via the Yahoo email account I use to keep track of Scrabble tournaments and the gmail account that I somehow obtained when I began occasionally cross-posting over at Blogger.

After that, there’s always my wife’s email account.

Be forewarned, dear nieces and nephews.  I may need to borrow your email passwords soon.

 

Why the Conservatives are Wrong about Unemployment

looking

The conservatives in Congress (I wanted to write “Republicans,” but some Democrats have been taken in by this fallacy as well) are sufficiently ambivalent about the plight of the long-term unemployed that they were willing to allow federal unemployment benefit extensions to expire last Saturday while they went off to enjoy their weeklong New Year’s vacation.

Coddling the Slackers

Yesterday, I quoted Sen. Rand Paul’s statement that extending unemployment insurance beyond the 26 weeks of benefits provided by the states does a “disservice” to those who are out of work and creates a “perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”  This viewpoint reminds me of the conservative argument for welfare reform back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Why would anyone work if they are paid to sit their lazy asses on the couch at home all day?

There are two primary ways that conservatives express this position (and probably many types of variations):

  • “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”  Also known as “blaming the victim.”  Popular among those who long for the “good old days” when, as Archie and Edith Bunker used to sing, “everybody pulled his weight.”  Who cares that you were laid off due to no fault of your own and now you can’t find another job due to the state of the economy?  Lift yourself up by your bootstraps, Horatio Alger!
  • “We don’t want to be enablers.”  Extending unemployment benefits over a lengthy period of time will create a “culture of entitlement.”  The government doesn’t owe you anything!

If the Box is Marked with an X

Among the facts conveniently omitted by conservatives in Congress is that those receiving extended unemployment benefits are required to look for work.  Once a laid-off employee exhausts his or her initial state claim, the federal extension forms that must be completed on a biweekly basis require the benefit recipient to look for work and to document his or her work search.  In California, a little X appears in a box that requires the claimant to list a variety of specific information regarding employers applied to within the past two weeks:  Name and address of business, position applied for, name and title of contact, etc.

Thus, extended benefits do not encourage “laziness” among the unemployed.  On the contrary, receiving benefits requires increased industriousness on the part of the claimant.  Failure to adequately document one’s job search results in no check being sent out.

There are those who would counter the facts by alleging that claimants regularly lie about their job searches on these forms.  The truth, however, is that most claimants apply for many more jobs than the few that they are required to list.  It is no secret that unemployment checks, which typically replace only a small portion of the previous income of a jobless person, don’t last forever.  Conservatives who wish to eliminate all federal unemployment extensions like to argue that stopping the flow of money will light a fire under the unemployed and encourage them to do whatever is necessary to rejoin the workforce post haste.  But we are not children.  We can count the weeks, and most of us know exactly when our unemployment benefits will stop.  Our fondest goal is to become employed before D-Day.

None of us want to reach the point at which we lose everything and must choose between finding a family member to take us in, prevailing upon the mercies of an overcrowded homeless shelter or living under a bridge or in a box over a heating grate.

If the conservatives in Congress truly believe that those unemployed for more than 26 weeks are so lazy and unmotivated that we are willing to endure fates such as these for the privilege of not working, then they are even more deluded that I had heretofore imagined.

Federal Unemployment Extensions: The Doomsday Prepper Model

unemployment

Happy New Year, everyone!  We made it to 2014!

Thanks so much for reading and for making A Map of California such a success in 2013.  I could not do it without you.

We have been down south in the Central Valley for the last couple of days.  We visited my parents in Madera, had lunch with old friends in Modesto and attended a Scrabble party in Fresno with acquaintances whom we have not seen in a while.  After writing nearly every day for the past three months, it was refreshing to take a little break to ring in the new year.  But I’m glad to be home and back at my keyboard in California’s rural north country.

Sitting in my parents’ living room past midnight, I had an interesting conversation with my mother regarding the American system of unemployment insurance in general, and particularly, Congress allowing federal extensions to expire and heading off on vacation.

My mother, who will be turning 80 in a few months, states that most of the people she knows are currently unemployed and may continue to be out of work for a while.  She believes that state unemployment (the 26-week “initial claim”) is important because it provides newly laid off employees with income long enough for them to “make arrangements.”  In other words, while we sit at our computers applying for one job after another, we need to review our spending and our lifestyle choices, to batten down the hatches for the long haul.  We may need to cut unnecessary expenses, re-evaluate our cell phone and cable service and, perhaps, relocate to more economical accommodations.  If we make the most of these 26 weeks of government largesse, my mother believes, and if we have been saving money as everyone should be, and if we are not wasteful of those savings, then we should be able to get by for some time without the need to resort to federal unemployment benefit extensions.

I call my mother’s approach to layoffs the “doomsday preppers” model.  While this might not involve building an underground bunker, storing up canned food, devising a water filtration system and packing a “bug out bag,” it might well involve some of these things.  When I was laid off at the end of September after serving three years as a middle manager with a firm in southern California, we immediately sent a notice to quit to our landlord and proceeded to liquidate nearly all of our belongings, including our furniture, courtesy of my wife’s resourcefulness and the local “buy, sell and trade” site on Facebook.  We knew that a state unemployment check would not allow us to continue paying $895 monthly on our rental house.  We made arrangements to relocate 650 miles to northern California, where we could move in with my mother-in-law and drastically cut our expenses.  We also knew (from hard experience) that we would not be able to afford to hire a moving company to pack us up and move the detritus of our lives.  Thus, we sold everything, from the TV to the refrigerator to our king-size bed, our chairs and our dishes, most of it at a fraction of the purchase price.  We knew we would need the cash for God only knows how many months or years until I would once again become gainfully employed.  If ever, I told myself, in recognition of the fact that employers are not exactly falling all over themselves to hire those of us who are eligible for the senior discount at Denny’s.  I entertained the notion, much to my wife’s consternation, that this might be it for me, the end of my working life.  The big R.  Retirement.  Retirement with no pension.  I tossed and turned through many a sleepless, fitful night, wondering if I would end up as one of those old guys who are greeters at the front end of Wal-Mart.  Decades of working with nothing to show for it.  And how could we ever hope to help our aging parents when we can’t even help ourselves?

Conventional wisdom once dictated that families maintain a “rainy day fund” sufficient to cover expenses during a three or six month period of unemployment.  These days, we see recommendations that the slush fund be fat enough to take us through nine to ten months of joblessness.  For many of us, this is not nearly enough.  Depending upon your skill set and the degree to which it has become technologically obsolete, a layoff may leave you out of work for two or three years or more.  And it has been suggested that the increasing number of long-term unemployed who have been out of work for five years or more are unlikely to rejoin the workforce at all.  After all, erudite explanations of economic trends never does get one very far when trying to explain to an employer what you’ve been doing all those years.

Back before the sequester, when federal emergency benefit extensions stretched unemployment checks to 99 weeks, frugal living could make it possible for you to go for a while before dipping into savings and cashing out the 401(k).  But now, with all federal extensions having expired, it’s a different world.

Without even this limited federal security net, how is a newly unemployed person supposed to make plans to get by without any income at all?  The doomsday preppers recommend preparing economical dinners at home rather than eating out, giving up your Starbucks coffee and renting out your spare bedroom or basement to help pay the mortgage.  We should dump Netflix, get a library card and never pay a penny for entertainment.  Ask credit card companies for lower interest rates and ask for reduced payment on your car loans.  In other words, do what you can to save money now in the hope that you pinching pennies til they squeak may keep you from being bounced out on the street before you get hired again.

While it may be practical to take extreme budgetary measures while the unemployment checks are still coming in, the fact is that they won’t do the trick for someone who hasn’t been able to find a job for the past three years.  Most of us don’t have anywhere near the resources required for such a spate of unemployment.  Family ties do help, as extended families are forced to crowd in together and share their resources.  But not everyone has this option.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of Scrooges out there who insist that someone who has been out of work for two or three years just isn’t looking hard enough.  Cutting off unemployment benefits, the theory goes, serves to light a fire under the employed, creating a sense of urgency to find a job, any job.  For one thing, this fails to take into account the fact that many of us are turned down for even unskilled jobs on the grounds that we are overqualified (and even if we do land that job at the fast food drive-thru, how is that supposed to support us?).  For another, it unfairly characterizes as “lazy” those of us whose skills have become technologically obsolete.  A good example of this sad lack of understanding of American suffering is Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who last weekend opined that federal extension of unemployment benefits beyond the 26-week state initial claim constitutes “a disservice” to workers.  “When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy,” Paul told the media.

There is hope.  Congress goes back into session on Monday, and influential voices from President Obama to House minority leader Nancy Pelosi have argued that restoring federal benefits to the unemployed must be legislators’ number one priority.  Even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed to consider the move, but only if a way can be found to offset the cost.

A bipartisan bill in the Senate would extend federal unemployment benefits for three months while the details of a more comprehensive plan to assist the unemployed are hammered out.

The cumulative effects of failure to help those who are out of work due to no fault of their own has not been lost on Congress.  The decreased spending power of an additional 1.3 million Americans will cause businesses to suffer, will result in further layoffs and could lead to a downward spiral that would suck our economy into a recession from which it would be difficult to recover.

Congress’ actions in allowing federal unemployment benefit extensions to expire hurts everyone.  If this blatant nonfeasance is not rectified promptly, many of those currently holding jobs will soon be receiving pink slips and making doomsday preparations of their own.