When I’m interviewing people for my blog, every once in a while someone says something like, “and then my unemployment benefits ran out, so I had to get a job.
It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does it makes me cringe. Ugh, I think, they’re playing right into the hands of the right-wingers who think unemployed people are all hanging out at home with their Xboxes.
I should know better. The person talking to me never seems remotely like someone who’s been wasting her time. Usually, when I run into unemployed people they’re hauling bags of groceries back from the convenience store or carrying a baby while walking an older child to school. If they haven’t been trying all that hard to find work, it’s probably because they’re already juggling so many responsibilities that adding an $8-an-hour job would throw their entire lives out of balance.
When the right wing talks about people who get public benefits, these are the people they’re talking about. They’re not mad at the temporarily displaced software engineers. They’re incensed about people who are in and out of work for years, and who maybe, sometimes, aren’t really looking that hard for a job.
But if some people don’t make getting back to work their first priority it’s not because of an entitlement mentality. It’s because they know from experience that they can’t find a job that allows them to take care of their families in the most basic ways.
Of course most people on unemployment don’t want to stay there any longer than they absolutely have to. The 4:1 ratio between unemployed workers and job openings makes it pretty obvious that there’s no way for everyone to find work. And many of the unemployed people I’ve talked to are desperate to get a job, applying at every big-box store and fast-food place they pass by.
Tim, for instance, has been working in the construction industry since he was 14. Work is an absolutely essential part of his identity as a husband and father, and he would take any job.
“Any income’s better than no income,” he said. “I’m not the type to sit around.”
But when I talked to him he had only gotten called back for one of the low-wage jobs he’d applied for.
For some people, though, the “just work at McDonalds” solution seems untenable. Nicole, for example, was laid off from a nursing assistant job at a hospital. She was looking for work when I spoke with her, but she didn’t want to take anything that would pay less than she’d been making. She’s worked retail before, and the money just isn’t enough to support her family—three kids and a long-time boyfriend who has mental health problems that keep him from working.
“It’s like I’m working for nothing,” she said. “The job, to me, is not worth the aggravation.”
Nicole was using her time on unemployment to go to nursing school. It’s a move many economists would applaud—she’s gaining the skills to find a niche where she can contribute more to the economy than she has in the past. But it goes directly against the talking point that says people need to hop off the unemployment rolls as fast as humanly possible.
Another mother, Tara Deering, succeeded in graduating college and getting a decent job while raising two young daughters as a single mother. But her success was dependent on unemployment benefits—her father was able to take care of the girls as long as he was collecting. When his benefits ran out, he managed to find a job, but Tara had to quit hers.
“I ended up homeless,” she said.
Much of Tara’s story from there—which included getting two new part-time jobs and then and losing them within a period of months—grew out of a lack of child care. That might be the most common reason that people don’t push as hard as they can to get off unemployment or other benefits programs.
Where I live, in New Hampshire, child care subsidies are only available for families that make 250 percent of the federal poverty level or less. That means two parents working full time at $12 an hour wouldn’t qualify for a subsidy if they have only one child. Full-time infant care typically costs nearly $11,000 a year in New Hampshire, so they could easily be paying more than 20 percent of the family’s income for child care. Even at lower income levels, state subsidies don’t cover the full cost of care.
For people who have been scrambling for years to pay their bills while keeping their kids safe during the day, being unemployed can offer a little breathing room. Sometimes, that can bring benefits to the people around them that are more valuable than the money they would bring in if they managed to wrangle 20 hours a week at Walmart. An unemployed father might create a more stable home for a little while, so his wife doesn’t have to take a day off if a kid gets sick. He might also be able to watch a neighbor’s child after school, or help his parents fix their roof.
Jeff is someone who’s spending big chunks of his time helping a boy who isn’t even related to him, even while he’s also trying hard to find a job.
“I’m 54 years old, and this is the first time I’ve been out of work,” he said.
While he’s unemployed he helps care for an ex-girlfriend’s son, teaching the five-year-old to ride a bike and exploring the city’s parks with him.
Ironically, low-wage jobs and skimpy benefits for working families probably go a long way toward perpetuating the stigma against people who collect unemployment or other benefits. Many people I talk with, including people who’ve been forced to use government benefits themselves, are angry at what they see as abuse of the system.
They’re angry that someone else stays home and gets food stamps while they leave their kids with a sitter and work a minimum-wage job, or that an able-looking neighbor collects the disability benefits that their sister was denied.
Of course kicking those people off of their benefits wouldn’t do much for the people doing the complaining—at best it might mean an infinitesimal reduction in the taxes they pay. What would actually help is jobs that pay a living wage, and a real social safety net that would help parents keep their jobs or support them while they spend time at home caring for a child. But ideas like that aren’t even on our radar screen as a nation, except perhaps as the bugaboo of European-style socialism.
I’ll leave it for people smarter than me to debate the sustainability of the European model, but it seems unreasonable to dismiss out of hand systems that keep most of a nation’s people out of the kind of desperate, dangerous conditions that often accompany poverty in the U.S.
Or, rather, it seems even less reasonable to suggest that people living on unemployment have much to gain from getting a job at McDonalds.
About Gershon's blog: "This is an attempt to find out more about the working- and middle-class people around me. I live in Nashua, New Hampshire, which isn’t a poor city. The average job in the metropolitan area pays about $28 an hour, according to the state agency that collects that kind of information. Unemployment in the area is under 5 percent. But I’m continually astonished by how hard things are for many people I see every day. I chose people to interview for this blog pretty much at random. I didn’t pick them out because I thought their stories would illustrate a particular political or economic idea. They’re just people I saw around who were generous enough to talk with me."