The Scarlet U

I have now been unemployed for 10½ months.  This is the longest stretch of time that I have been out of work in my entire adult life.

It’s not as if I’ve just learned to ride a horse and this is my first rodeo.  I experienced a nice little spell of unemployment in 2009-2010, at a time when the American economy was truly in the toilet.  Duration:  8½ months.  Having always worked for private industry, I thought that now, finally, I had a solid public sector job that was not likely to tip over and blow away with the first gusts of recession.  Three years and three months later, I was laid off.  State funding had been cut for five consecutive years, the organization was out of money, and one of the managers had to go.  I had the least seniority, so adios, amigo.  But first I had to lay off half my staff and figure out how the other half would continue to run the operation.

When I started my last job, amazed friends would tell me “Wow, you’re the only person I know who lost their job and is working again.”  When I lost that job, my long-retired parents tried to make me feel better by admitting that almost everyone they knew was out of work.

There are some things that most unemployed Americans have in common.  We applied for unemployment benefits and most of us received them, at least for a while.  We gussied up our résumés, filled out job applications, went on interviews.

Once we get past those basics, however, everyone has his or her own coping strategies.  For my wife and me, we picked up stakes and relocated 650 miles north to save money by doubling up with family in a church parsonage.  My sister, on the other hand, changed careers by going back to school with the money from her divorce settlement.  Then she had a hard time locating work with a certificate in hand and no experience.  Finding herself unable to make the accommodations necessary to live with family, she ended up camping out in a weekly motel room in Reno (because it is cheaper than California and because it is near one of her, ahem, “boyfriends”) with her cats and her laptop and cell phone and résumés.  She eventually found a job in Idaho, but couldn’t manage to keep it for more than a few months.  Problems with personality clashes.  Panicked at her lack of income, she began bouncing around the country taking short-term assignments.  New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon.  I can’t keep track.  There aren’t enough lines in my address book.

I do think one’s success as an unemployed person (if there is such a thing) often comes down to one’s personality.  If you’re a “Type B” personality (like my father and myself), an easygoing sort who works and plays well with others, you’re more likely to be able to make life’s little (and big) adjustments until you’re back in the saddle again.  If you’re a “Type A” personality (like my mother and sister), however, your alpha ways are likely to keep you flailing (and failing) at the headwinds that knock you down repeatedly.

These days, a person who becomes unemployed cannot help but wonder whether he or she will ever be able to get back in that saddle.  In the past, such a thought would have been preposterous.  Self-indulgent at best, delusional at worst.  But times have changed.  Once you creep past that six-month mark, you’re kind of out of luck.  With no more federal unemployment extensions, one is likely to face an income of zero for the foreseeable future.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the prospects of reemployment are poor once you’ve been out of work that long, and diminish with nearly each passing day.

Back in March, New York Times business writer Binyamin Applebaum published a piece titled “Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again.”  Sadly, the numbers demonstrate that this assessment is not some bit of facile hyperbole.  While unemployment as a whole has been decreasing in recent months, evidence seems to indicate that if you don’t find a new job within six months of losing your old one, you may be permanently forfeiting your right to work.  Of course, everyone from Congress to the Federal Reserve to newspaper reporters gets to play little games with the numbers.  For example, just because you’re out of work does not necessarily mean that you’re counted in the unemployment statistics.  If, after being unemployed for quite a while, you finally give up and quit looking for a job, then (ta-da!) you’re no longer unemployed.  You’re simply “out of the work force.”

I wonder where exactly I fall on all those neat little line graphs and bar charts that the economists like to include in their reports.  I suppose I’m still considered among the long-term unemployed, as I’m still looking for a job.  Sort of.

To date, I have applied for 141 advertised positions.  For many of these, the process included filling out lengthy applications, writing a series of essays and supplying a cover letter, a résumé, my college and graduate school transcripts, and a list of references.  When combined with creating files in PDF format, preparing envelopes and going to the post office, this rigmarole can take most of the day.  And that’s just for one job.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be called for an interview, which generally means packing up dress clothes, making hotel reservations, getting in the car and driving hundreds of miles (thousands, in a few cases) only to find out that an internal candidate was hired.

Then there are the dry spells.  Those are the times when you go weeks without seeing any new job postings for which you might remotely be qualified.  In order to minimize those dry spells, I steadily broadened my job search parameters.  So it’s in a field that is only peripherally related to my experience.  Apply.  So they want a few more years of experience than I actually have.  Apply.  So it’s 2,800 miles away.  Apply.  So it only pays half the salary I was earning before being laid off.  Apply, apply, apply.

After a while, however, when you repeatedly come up empty handed, you start to slow down your job search.  My wife, God bless her, has encouraged this to help me save my sanity.  So I do other things.  Write a couple of freelance articles for nine bucks each.  Work on my blog.  Work on my book.  Spend time with family.  Sleep more.

My mother reminds me that my brother-in-law’s father applied for more than 300 jobs when he was laid off.  When even that didn’t work, he was fortunate that he had enough years in at his company that he was able to retire and draw a pension.  Then he died.  And indeed, some days, those seem like the options.  Retire.  Die.

“Retirement,” of course, has become a fuzzy concept.  In the 21st century, most of us long-term unemployed people aren’t eligible for pensions.  Retirement becomes a de facto kind of thing as we gradually face up to the reality that we aren’t going to work anymore.  And that we have no financial cushion to get us through once our savings and 401(k)s are gone.  Many of us apply for disability payments, although those are harder to come by these days.  And there are plenty of us who continue to make halfhearted stabs at applying for unlikely jobs right up until the end of our lives.

The number crunchers insist that the economy is improving, both in terms of job creation and new hires.  So why are the long-term unemployed having such a hard time finding work?  Many answers to this question have been suggested.  One factor is that the long-term unemployed are getting older.  While one might think that a prospective employer would jump at the prospect of hiring an over-50 applicant who has years of managerial experience well-documented in a lengthy résumé, this is often not the case.  For one thing, it’s not a good long-term investment to bring on an employee who is likely to retire in a few years.  For another, employees with extensive experience are more expensive to hire.  You can’t reasonably expect a candidate with 30 years of experience to be willing to accept an entry-level wage.

For an analysis more rooted in economics, Applebaum points to a Brookings Institution paper indicating that there are both “supply side” and “demand side” aspects of the problem.  On the supply side, the long-term unemployed get more and more discouraged until they stop looking for work.  On the demand side, employers wrinkle their noses and just say “no” to applicants who have been out of work for a while.  After all, they’re probably not up-to-date on the latest developments in the industry and their professional contacts are likely attenuated if they’ve been out of the game too long.  This attitude among employers leads Applebaum to refer to the long-term unemployed as “people whose hopes are slipping away.”

And then, of course, there is the thinly-veiled antipathy to the long-term unemployed that was exposed with such virulence among conservative Republicans in Congress earlier this year.  Because, as you know, we’re all no-good lazy bums.  Four years ago, at the height of the Recession, The New York Times dubbed this phenomenon as pinning the curse of “the scarlet U” on the unemployed.

According to this line of thinking, if we’ve been out of work so long, it must be because we really don’t want to work.  We’re obviously not looking for work very hard, and furthermore, we’re probably being too picky.  There’s plenty enough work to go around for everyone if you’re just willing to take what’s available.  Don’t tell me you’re discouraged!  Get yourself together, man, and pull yourself up by your bootstraps!  If all you want to do is sit home on your sofa and watch your big screen TV, then you are a LOSER and have no one to blame but yourself.

And it’s true, we are losers.  First we lose our jobs.  Then we lose our unemployment checks (thanks, Congress).  Then we lose our savings.  Then we lose that TV we’re watching and that sofa we’re sitting on.  Then we lose our cars, our homes, our friends, our families and our self-esteem.  As the months and years go by, the losses mount up until, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, we end up “sans every thing.”


Applebaum, Binyamin, “Unemployed? You Might Never Work Again,” New York Times (Economix blog, March 10, 2014).

Guo, Jeff, “Uneven Recovery: They’re Hiring, but not for the Long-Term Unemployed,” Washington Post (Storyline, Aug. 5, 2014).

Kasperkevic, Jana, “The Ghosts of America’s Long-Term Unemployed,”  The Guardian (U.S. Money blog, March 27, 2014).

Norris, Floyd, “Economy: A Drop in the Long-Term Unemployed,” New York Times (Off the Charts, July 25, 2014).

Rampell, Catherine, “The New Poor: Unemployed, and Likely to Stay That Way,” New York Times (Business, Dec. 2, 2010).

See also: “Unemployed? Employers are Discriminating Against You,” A Map of California (Jan. 13, 2014).

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.

Federal Unemployment Extensions: The Doomsday Prepper Model


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.

The Minimum Wage Debacle


When the clock ticks past midnight on New Year’s Eve and the calendar flips over to 2014, the minimum wage here in California will increase by a dollar from eight dollars per hour to nine dollars per hour.

You can’t get very far on $8 or $9 an hour, but this is what a lot of us have to contend with, year in and year out, with no relief in sight.  This is what the smiling server at the counter or the drive-through window of your favorite fast food place earns.

At one time, some of us justified this paltry compensation on the grounds that fast food provided part-time jobs for high school students, not only providing them with spending money, but also inducting them into the workforce, providing opportunities for advancement and indoctrinating them into the Protestant work ethic.  National fast food chains even received special exemptions from the federal minimum wage, allowing them to pay “subminimum” rates as a reward for providing jobs for large numbers of the hard-core unemployed.

It’s a nice theory, and maybe it held purchase, up to a point, thirty or forty years ago.  But today, that server who you can barely understand through the crackly drive-through speaker and who you gripe at for messing up your order is probably not saving up to buy a prom dress or to finance a Saturday night date.  More likely, she is a single mother with a couple of kids at home, scraping by with an emaciated paycheck that places her family below the poverty line.

Many fast food workers have to resort to public assistance to keep themselves and their families afloat.  Some fast food employers make a point of encouraging employees to take advantage of whatever aid may be available from local charitable organizations and federal or state assistance programs.  Why not?  Let’s get someone else to help them out so that we don’t have to pay them more and we don’t have to reduce our profit margins.

Please think twice before shooting dirty looks at the person in line in front of you at the supermarket who is paying with an EBT card.  You may be thinking that this lazy person is living off the dole and sucking the taxes right out of your pocket.  Chances are, however, that this person is employed and contributing to the American economy, just like you are.  Only he or she is trying to support a family on minimum wage or less and probably needs to make a trip to the local food bank when the paycheck is spent and the EBT balance reads 25 cents at the end of the month.

This is also the person who doesn’t work a regular schedule, eight hours a day, like you do.  Your neighbor’s work schedule changes all the time, based on shifting patterns of customer volume and the whims of a young assistant manager.  If business slows down unexpectedly, this employee will probably be sent home, further reducing the week’s wages.  To help make up for this unreliable stream of income, he or she may be working two or three jobs just to pay the rent, keep the heat and lights on, and put food on the table.  The kids may be receiving free breakfast and lunch at school, thanks to federal programs, but they still have to be fed dinner and on the weekends and during school vacations.  It’s a struggle to plan and prepare healthful meals when you’re always working and have to kiss goodbye a large part of what you earn to pay for child care.  The temptation to buy cheap crap full of sugar and sodium is ever-present.  Stick it in the microwave and, voilà, dinner.  Because you’re just so tired.  And it never ends, Lord, it never ends.

So it should come as no surprise that fast food workers around the country skipped work shifts to stage protests today, calling for a minimum wage of $15 per hour.  The fast food industry thinks such demands are ridiculous, citing a significant increase in the prices of their products that would result from such a measure.

Of course, this argument is very convenient for the fast food industry.  Careful what you ask for, people, because your favorite Big Mac or Whopper will end up costing you ten dollars.  Your beloved Dollar Menu will now be the $4 Menu.

I don’t have to tell my smart and insightful readers that the fast food industry is full of shit.  They care not what their prices are as long as the public continues buying and their profits continue to increase.  Their only concern is that some consumers may be priced out of the market and reduce the frequency with which they take the kids to visit Ronald at the Playplace.

The fast food industry also cites the likely paradoxical effect of job cuts should protesters get what they want.  Now there’s an interesting argument.  Are they saying that they are currently overstaffed but can afford to keep more employees than necessary on the payroll due to the low wages paid?  Why does this sound as if they are lying?  No employer is going to carry surplus employees when cutting out the fat could result into the additional profits going into their pockets.  I realize this is a highly simplistic explanation of a complex economic phenomenon, but there you have it.

I suppose I should stop picking on the fast food industry in general, and on its poster child, McDonald’s, in particular.  There are plenty of other industries around that subject employees to the same minimum wage indignities.  Fellow blogger and Californian Michael from Sophoxymoria tells a blunt and brutal tale of what it’s like to work in the Central Valley feed mills.  He’d like to find more lucrative work but realizes that this is easier said than done.  “I’ve been debating what to do,” he writes.  “I saw my paycheck and they bumped me back down to 8 bucks an hour, yes that is minimum wage, if they could pay me less I’m sure they gladly would.”  Michael goes on to gripe (and sometimes laugh) about uncaring supervisors, the disposability of temporary employees, and employers that look the other way rather than address rampant on-the-clock drug use and sexual harassment.  (And he is a connoisseur of the taco trucks in Turlock, Modesto, Keyes and Denair.)

Some of the news reports are indicating that participants in today’s protests were able to skip out on their shifts at fast food restaurants because protest organizers paid them $50 for the day, about what they would have earned at their jobs.  Beyond the minimum wage issue, protesters are asking for the industry to unionize.  So it is no surprise that some employers are blaming the hullabaloo on outside organizations who have their own agendas.  This conveniently allows low-wage employers to dismiss their own roles in creating the problems that resulted in the protests in the first place.

Here in California, we have it better than in many parts of the country.  True, six states have higher minimum wages than California’s, but at least we’re doing better than the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 per hour for the past 4½ years.  Five states in the deep south have no state minimum wage at all, and four states have minimum wages lower than $7.25 per hour (employers there must still follow federal minimum wage requirements).

What about other countries?  Everyone knows that the United States is the richest country in the world and that the freedoms we enjoy have immigrants from the four corners of the earth banging down our doors to get in.  Yet our federal minimum wage is lower than that of many industrialized nations, including Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Australia.

Come 2016, California’s low-wage workers will get yet another dollar per hour in their paychecks when the state minimum wage reaches $10 per hour.  Unless, of course, activists are successful in their efforts to convince Congress to double the federal minimum wage before then.

In the meantime, Michael and thousands of his fellow low-wage workers will continue to barely survive on their meager earnings, taxing already underfunded government antipoverty programs and further squeezing churches and charitable organizations doing their utmost to prevent hunger and homelessness.

Happy holidays.


Unemployment, Community and the Future of the Family


I have been thinking about unemployment insurance a lot lately.  With the questionable future of my current work location, some of my coworkers who have never had occasion to receive unemployment benefits are contemplating what would be a first for them.

In the short term, I think unemployment insurance constitutes sound economic logic.  Capitalism assumes that most people will work for a living and use their income to support themselves.  This cycle of earning and spending is what makes our economic system go ‘round.  The social contract posits that when a break in this cycle occurs because an individual becomes unemployed due to no fault of her/his own, she or he is entitled to dip into common weal for a brief period of time during which efforts to become re-employed occur.  In other words, the taxes of those who are working help to support those who, temporarily, are not.

The idea is that those who are laid off due to economic factors beyond their control (bankruptcy of the employer or a recession, for example) should not be punished.  On the contrary, they should be rewarded for their past labors while they find their way toward resuming their roles as productive members of society and contributors to the economy.

Implicit in this provision of the social contract is that the unemployed person will return to the work force as soon as possible.  This implied condition is made explicit by state unemployment laws that limit benefits to a prescribed number of months.

Remaining unemployed rather resuming work at the earliest opportunity is discouraged by a twofold maneuver.  First, unemployment benefits are calculated on a schedule that assures that individuals receive a relatively small percentage of the income earned while working.  Hopefully, the receipt of unemployment benefits will provide the out of work with a modicum of support for their families (on an austerity budget, to be sure) sufficient to prevent hunger and homelessness.  Second, unemployment benefits end after a specified amount of time.  This provision is designed to light a fire under the unemployed, creating a sense of urgency fueled by the prospect of destitution should benefits end before re-employment is secured.

Where this neat little system falls apart, of course, is when this threat morphs from theory into reality.  Recent statistics suggest that the unemployment rate in the United States is falling, an indicator of increasing economic health.  As with any financial measure, however, the accuracy of one’s numbers depends on how you count.  The apparent decrease in the unemployment rate is, at least in part, a product of fewer individuals receiving unemployment benefits.  It is well known that a reduction in the unemployment rolls does not necessarily mean that more people are gainfully employed.  It may well reflect the thousands of people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, thus falling off the charts even though they are still out of work.  These are our neighbors who fly under the radar, neither employed nor on unemployment benefits, and thus nonexistent as far as our tunnel vision economic figures are concerned.  The long-term unemployed become invisible.

Let’s spend a moment thinking about what happens to those who find themselves in this predicament — out of benefit weeks and still out of a job.  Out of luck.  As a society, we are simply abandoning these people, leaving them to their own devices.  After all, they need to be punished because they failed to follow the rules by finding work within the prescribed period of time. 

But what if their failure to find work is no fault of their own, just as the reason that they became unemployed in the first place was no fault of their own?  What if a person has diligently sought employment to no avail?  This can happen for any number of reasons.  In this age of microchips, there is the ever-present threat of technological obsolescence (otherwise known as “I’ve been replaced by a robot.”)  I can appreciate this one, having personally performed two different types of jobs that have virtually gone out of existence in this country.

Perhaps the plant has moved out of state or overseas, where operating costs are so much lower.  Perhaps there is no similar work available in the unemployed person’s geographic area.  Perhaps he or she is not at liberty to move due to family commitments or health challenges.  As it is, we have become a very mobile society, rolling stones who miss out on yesteryear’s advantage of strong community roots.  We acknowledge this as far as not denying unemployment benefits to those who decline to move hundreds of miles away to the nearest available job.  But then we shrug it off when the benefit period runs out.  If you really want to work, move far away from your support system and work!  If not, starve.  Let the support system to which you are so attached take care of you.

Whoa, stop right there.  When a person loses her job, we don’t throw her on the mercy of her family.  We recognize this person as a valued member of society who has fallen on hard times, and we provide her with some measure of support.  After a time, however, we say “okay, we’ve done enough, now it’s your family’s turn.”  What is wrong with this picture?

There are those who long for the good old days when members of extended families took care of each other.  No unemployment benefits needed, or as Archie and Edith Bunker cheekily sang every week during the opening of TV’s All in the Family, “didn’t need no welfare state (everybody pulled his weight).”  If one member of the family was unable to earn a paycheck, that individual could contribute in other ways, including child care, elder care and household maintenance.  Then, of course, there was also a thriving underground economy (in our inner cities, there still is — and not all of it has to do with selling drugs, either).  People grew gardens and raised chickens, both for their own consumption and to help feed their neighbors.  Payment was not always in cash; barter thrived.  Although Craig’s List and the TV show Barter Kings suggest that we may be returning to this model, it is still a drop in the economic bucket.

You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum:  The extended family who we expect to support the long-term unemployed has ceased to exist, at least among the middle class (leaving people out on the street and scavenging in dumpsters).  As if the post-World War II transition from the extended family model to the nuclear family were not bad enough, the cancer of family breakdown has now advanced to the point where even the nuclear family has crumbled into dust.  Fathers have become marginalized as single mothers raise their children and young adults choose to remain single for longer and longer periods of time.  There is no longer any shame or stigma attached to “personal choices” from abortion to childlessness to refusal to provide financial and emotional support to aging parents.  Meanwhile, the middle class, who have failed miserably in their attempt to glorify the nuclear family, continue to look down their noses at the poor who are forced by economic circumstances to crowd many people into small dwellings, whether urban apartments or rural cottages.

But I am hopeful.  Perhaps the vagaries of the economy and the evanescence of unemployment benefits will have the unintended effect of encouraging the resurgence of the extended family.  Perhaps the day will come when it will again become common for grandparents, uncles, cousins and friends to share a residence, each one contributing his or her special talents to the communal well-being of the family unit.  Perhaps contiguous family units (in old-fashioned lingo, these were called “neighbors”) will again check on each other’s welfare and engage in random acts of sharing.  Perhaps we will shake off our jaded ways and decide that community is still important.  Perhaps we will once again decide that we need each other, that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers.

As John Donne wrote more than four hundred years ago:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.