Then Let Them Eat Cake
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinprick/85047424/
We are living in scary times. Unemployment continues at record highs – officially 11% in California, 14% in Oakland. National trends mirror our local struggle, with 8.3% of the entire population officially unemployed. Yet in spite of this obvious systemic struggle, Congressional leaders are choosing to blame those without jobs, proposing a series of additional steps before an applicant can receive unemployment benefits. It’s a move that mirrors racist and classist statements echoed throughout history, and cannot go unchallenged.
This week, as they moved to renew unemployment benefits, Republican Congressional leaders included everything from drug-testing to GED requirements as requisites for receiving benefits. It isn’t hard to read between the lines: the unemployed are being characterized as high, uneducated, possibly both, and definitely not worthy of receiving support.
I have a few problems with this.
Problem 1: Requiring the unemployed to jump through hoops is inherently dehumanizing. I have twice been in a position to collect unemployment. I was lucky – my employer had paid in to the state account, I didn’t have anyone’s mouth to feed but my own, I had the option of crashing on someone’s couch while I waited the two months to receive benefits.
Still, for anyone who has gone through the process, particularly here in California, you know it is a difficult, uphill fight to claim those benefits owed. You ask friends and family for favors. You wait on hold for hours, just to tell stranger after stranger the specifics of losing your job. You check the mail daily hoping, praying your lifeline will come through.
Having to do it all, then pee in a cup? No one should have to face that.
Problem 2: Congressional leadership is furthering and expanding negative, divisive stereotypes. Characterizing the unemployment as merely lazy is nothing new. During even the best of economic times structural racism ensured employment opportunities were disproportionately available to certain communities, with others collectively described and dismissed as an unmotivated, unintelligent, and un-entitled people.
I don’t have to tell you this evil stereotyping still exists. What is different now, though, is the sheer number of people in need of unemployment benefits, stretching beyond those systemically shut out and including an ever-broadening collection of people. And yet we continue to hear the notion that folks should simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
America is now a place where fewer and fewer people have bootstraps.
And while for many this is a source of great despair, it can also be an opportunity for realignment. We are forced to confront the racial and ethnic stereotypes that for years allowed those in the “haves” to ignore the concerns of the “have nots.” We can maybe, finally, reach a point where the willing worker is given dignity and respect, regardless of the color of his skin, or her ability to find a job. And, as we dispose of the stereotypes, we can envision cities and states where prosperity for any requires prosperity for all.
And the government doesn’t make us pee in cups.
What are your stories about unemployment? Who do you know that doesn’t fit this awful stereotype?