Monday, September 07, 2009

On Labor Day: The Indignity of Unemployment

In the 1970s, one of my earliest jobs was in the fund raising department of a non-profit employment agency that specialized in finding work for those who were then still called “the handicapped.” Our pitches for support always emphasized the importance of “the dignity of work” for those who were in some way limited, yet longed to be self-sufficient. I was a young wage-slave consumed with fantasies of fame and fortune rather than guided by clear career goals, so naturally I hated having to get up early in the morning and schlep to an office bathed in fluorescent light where I performed largely dull, clerical tasks and often spent the day waiting to leave. But I loved getting that paycheck every two weeks (paltry though it was), contributing at home, and sustaining at least some of my necessities and all of my indulgences. So I totally understood the dignity of work, and was continually amused by the irony that our supporter base was comprised largely of the very rich, extremely social and primarily female – a population that for the most part had never worked a day in their lives and were preoccupied with the dignity of shopping, grooming, and supervising their housekeeping staffs.

More than 30 years, numerous jobs, and 11 years of self-employment later, I find myself among those whom we now call “the differently abled.” I’m reminded daily of the truth of the dignity of work and miss my capacity to be part of the full-time work force. As I used to say when I was making a half-way decent living, “I like to know where my next soft-shell crab is coming from.” These days, I take pride in coping with a fixed income and trolling three different supermarkets for sales. I haven’t had a soft-shell crab in years.

But I’m still among the lucky ones, because I still enjoy the dignity of supporting myself in some way. On this, the first Labor Day since the nation fell off the edge of our flat economic earth, millions of Americans can’t say the same. According to today’s New York Times, reporting on statistics from the Labor Department and a Rutgers University study, the dignity of work is in outrageously short supply. We’ve reached 9.7% unemployment nationwide, based on an irritating scale of miscalculation – meaning that unemployment figures are based on the number of people receiving unemployment insurance benefits, and employment figures include those in the military, who are underpaid for their national service and, in the main, have no civilian jobs to come home to.

The real numbers show that 17% of the population is unemployed, severely under-employed, and/or have reached the point where they are “discouraged from seeking employment” (English translation: exhausted, defeated, and out of viable options). A full 20% of Americans work only part-time, although the majority would prefer full-time work. And 11.3% of veterans (those who survived their military “jobs”) are unemployed. These are the folks who used to know the dignity of work and who now live with the crushing indignity of unemployment.

Some of them also know the misery of homelessness and the insult of public assistance. In New York City, for example, those on welfare get their rent paid and receive $67.00 every two weeks for all their other expenses. They also receive food stamps in peculiarly-calculated insufficient amounts and the ordeal of health care via Medicaid. This is the gravy train of entitlements that conservatives begrudge the men, women (and their children) who would give their right arms for the dignity of work – but that would put them in the disadvantaged population of the differently-abled who, along with both younger and older workers, have been hardest hit by this brutal recession the pundits have started telling us is slowing down.

To those of you lucky enough to be employed, I wish you a much-deserved happy Labor Day. To those of you still mired in the quicksand of unemployment, I wish you a swift rescue by the marketplace and government that, to a great extent, are enjoying the Indulgence of Indifference and Delusion.

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