Wednesday, February 19, 2014

If You are Unemployed, Apparently You Do Not Want to Work

Nina Easton writes on economic topics in Fortune Magazine. Seldom have I read as wrongheaded an understanding of the unemployed in our country than her recent article, "Time to Get Creative About Helping the Unemployed Back Into The Job Market" (Fortune, Feb. 3, 2014). If she had cited some ideas about helping unemployed people, I wouldn't have an issue with what she wrote. But she offers nothing creative or helpful. Instead, she cites statistics that are supposed to convince us that people who get food stamps and disability checks actually are healthy people who are lazy, who could find employment but choose not to. Since anything can be "proved" with statistics, I'm not going to argue with her claims. Instead I want to talk about what the poor and unemployed really are facing.

People on disability are not faking it. They have been broken by years of working physically damaging jobs, by factory accidents, and by chronic illness. Some of them can still walk without a cane, but most of them are not in any shape to work at any job. They're in constant pain, they're on medications that fuzz their brains, and they often can't see well enough to drive. The young ones have very obvious mental incapacity; if they are able to work, they do work in sheltered workshops. But they can't be expected to count your change at a Sheetz, and Walmart has eliminated greeters. These people as a group also lack education, which means they are unlikely to qualify for many jobs. Then the reality is that employers today very rarely make any accommodations for people with disabilities, despite the laws in place that are meant to help such people. Why should a chain restaurant hire a middle-aged server who has trouble walking when it can hire a healthy teenager or young adult? Why should a discount store hire a mentally challenged person who can't speak intelligibly and can't comprehend the employer's list of duties when there is a college graduate begging for the same job? In an economy in which the best and the brightest of our young generation are struggling even to find minimum wage work because there aren't good jobs for so many people, it does not matter whether the least educated and least healthy among us are trying to get jobs or not. They lose out because their competition is younger and more agile. 
Regarding food stamps, I don't like when well-fed individuals begrudge hungry people a meal, which is what cutting down or cutting off food stamps does. How does it hurt me if someone else eats? It doesn't. People who get food stamps use government money to buy food, which in turn supports many other businesses and means there are more grocery store jobs and trucking jobs--and farmers' crops don't go to waste. No one loses if people eat. If the argument is that an unemployed or underemployed person probably could pay for food, the reality is that if a person meets the government's rules for qualifying for food stamps, money is scarce. The money that has to be spent on food then can't go for rent, or for a car repair that could make it possible to get to a job. Food stamps also help keep children from starving, which is a noble cause. Food stamps are good. We should keep this program going until no one in America is hungry.

What about disability checks? Easton indignantly cites Lexington-Herald writer John Cheves' claim that disability checks yield "as much as $710 a month per person." That might sound like a fortune to an eight-year-old, but is a mere $8,520 a year. I defy anyone to loll in the lap of luxury on so little income. It divides out to $4.09 per hour if there is a 40-hour-a-week job available. Who can live on $4 an hour?

So how do the unemployed in our country survive? They live with relatives and friends, or they rent tiny apartments or government price-supported housing. Mostly, they depend on a  personal support system. People who move in search of work from a chronically depressed town whose factories have fled lose the very support system that sustains them, which is why they mostly do not move. Even supposing there are many jobs for which they qualify, we have plenty of statistics and history books to tell us just how miserable people are when they follow good jobs and end up living far from family and home. Remember the excesses of the Gold Rush? Rampant crime. Brothels. Suicide. Back when Detroit was a powerhouse, Bobby Bare had a popular hit with "Detroit City," a song about the loneliness of moving there to work one of those good factory jobs. The most telling phrase was, "I wanna go home."

In an increasingly connected world thanks to the Internet, it should be possible eventually for unemployed people living in depressed coal-mining towns in West Virginia to do work from home. Even low-skilled customer service representative work. What is the advantage to this? Why shouldn't they all move to city slums? The social fabric is not destroyed when people don't have to abandon their personal support systems to work. The result is less crime. More money is saved when people live in families, and if money is saved, more education dollars and discretionary dollars are available. It becomes possible to start a business, because there is seed money for it and other people in the area are employed also and thus have money to spend. That's my idea: The Internet is going to save us all. Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong, but meanwhile, considering all the stupid ways our government wastes money, I'm okay with helping unemployed, underemployed, and disabled people keep up a basic standard of living. This is a rich country and we should spread the wealth to our people as they need it.