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Blaming the unemployed

I once said that there is no dignity in taking help from the government. Admitting you need help requires a feeling of dignity at the beginning, just a little boost to keep you on your feet long enough to be able to walk on your own again. But when you are accepting that help for a long period, eventually your dignity starts to fade away and you wonder if you had any at the beginning.

One question that many economists and conservatives keep asking is simply this: are unemployment insurance benefits keeping the unemployed unemployed? To some extent this is true, and that extent I believe to be insignificant. At the same time, asking this question has the effect of blaming those who are unemployed for being unemployed. True some were likely fired from their jobs, but I feel that most who are unemployed became so out of no fault of their own and just want to get their careers back on track as best as possible, and likely as soon as possible.

The movie Dave (Rent it on Netflix) starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver had it right in a scene in which Dave, still acting as the President of the United States, gives a press conference talking about a new focus for the administration when it comes to jobs:

If you’ve ever seen the look on somebody’s face the day they finally get a job, I’ve had some experience with this, they look like they could fly. And its not about the paycheck, it’s about respect, it’s about looking in the mirror and knowing that you’ve done something valuable with your day.

Looking in the mirror and knowing you’ve done something valuable with your day. That is the dignity.

To those politicians in Washington and the various State capitols who are asking this question, let me ask one in return. Actually let me address it to all elected and appointed officials, at the State and Federal level: have you ever suffered the lack of dignity that comes with being unemployed?

Likely not. You’ve likely never had a worry in your world, never worried about whether you’re going to have to choose between paying the phone bill so you can still place and receive phone calls while searching for a job and buying groceries so you can eat. Or having to spend money you know you can’t afford to spend in a bid to impress another company in the hopes they’ll hire you, only to see that opportunity sink away like the others that you have come across and pursued.

Further I ask that those of you who go to these rallies and town halls with politicians, the next time one of these politicians or political candidates starts talking about unemployment, ask them if they’ve ever been unemployed, and if they answer yes, ask them how long their longest unemployment stint was, and ask them to describe it in detail. Those of us who have previously been unemployed would be able to tell just by their description whether they’re full of it.

On March 24, 2008, I was laid off from my position at the MediNotes Corporation1 in West Des Moines, Iowa, two months and a week shy of three years of service. I was given two weeks severance and my accrued vacation benefits were cashed out, along with being paid for the extent of the pay period I had worked.

I wasted no time in trying to find a job. I actually had a feeling the layoff was coming given my work had been scaled back since the start of that year, and I had actually started looking for another position within a couple weeks before the layoff. When I was laid off, I already had an idea of what was out there in the Des Moines area, and I wasted no time pursuing it.

However my efforts would be fruitless. For ten months, my efforts would be fruitless. Despite my efforts, despite searching job boards, placing phone calls, writing e-mails, sending letters, it would be for not. During that time I was collecting the maximum allowable under Iowa’s unemployment. But with a car loan, car insurance, eventually the registration fee on that car, rent, groceries… even that plus my fiancée’s wages from her job, we were barely getting by. Actually we weren’t getting by. There were several times we almost lost the apartment we were renting, we were behind on our utilities, we fell behind on the car, we fell behind on practically everything.

On January 22, 2009, I was offered the job I currently have, and I started that job on February 9 of that year. We’re still recovering from that 10 months of unemployment.

Needless to say we were close to losing everything in 2008. To the politicians in Washington and the various State capitols, I ask this: when was the last time you almost lost everything you had?

I once read that currently for every job there are at least 4 people applying. And there are jobs that are continuing to go unfilled because qualified talent is hard to find. We have a very paradoxical economy right now.

But the one thing that must be kept in mind is that a person who goes from a mid to upper 5-figure salary to a job that pays $12 or less an hour is not doing himself any favors with his career. True a person should take what they can get to pay the bills, but at the same time, those of us who have been on the unemployment line know what we must take in order to keep from screwing ourselves over in the future.

That is one reason why I was unemployed for so long. I easily could’ve taken on something less. I was actually willing to take a pay cut to find something local.

There have been a lot of articles written evaluating in one extent or another why people are unemployed long-term, and a lot of it is rather narrow-focused, or rather, I should say, narrow-minded and really makes me wonder how expert the "experts" really are when it comes to being unemployed.

People who are unemployed are looking for work that will place them in a financial position to which they have become accustomed, or at least not be too great a derelict of that position where possible. Taking a job with a significant pay cut has multiple effects on long-term career growth. Most employers, when discussing salary, tend to ask of your last position, not last few, and certainly not your highest-paying one. Taking a significant pay cut will, for lack of better words, set a person back salary-wise, meaning that person will have to work even harder than previously just to get back up to where they were within an acceptable time frame.

This will place a limit on the job search itself. Most people when searching for a job are thinking only short-term: finding a job and considering a salary that will be only temporary. Even if they stay with the same employer, they will not make the same amount of money and will, presumably, receive raises over time. But at the same time they would rather not find a job with a salary that’ll take them two years (or more) just to get back to where they were before being laid off.

It’s easy to say that one needs to take whatever they can find to pay their bills, but that is not always realistic. Going from a job making $55 thousand a year to a job making less than $15/hour "to pay the bills" will have potential future employers asking a lot of questions when they go back to trying to pursue their careers, yet this isn’t something you hear in unemployment analyses. Plus if you were to be let go of that $15/hour job, unemployment benefits will also be slashed because unemployment benefits are also calculated based only on the last job.

There are a lot of analyses being made and a lot of articles being written about unemployment by people who, at least to me, provide the impression of having never been unemployed. They’ve only moved from one job to another, constantly moving up in salary and amenities without putting serious thought to those who have been out of work, long term or not, and the plight we face or have faced with regard to not only the short term, meaning finding work, but also the long term and the impact the next job will have on our careers and long-term growth potential.

When I was unemployed I easily could’ve taken any number of the other jobs that were advertised around town — assuming they wouldn’t consider me over-qualified. But let’s be realistic: 1. taking such a job would’ve netted me less than what I was receiving on unemployment, and 2. I would’ve had a hard time explaining to my current employer why I took that job. If I was fresh out of college, that would’ve been one thing, and I did work a temp job at a construction site in 2005. However, when you’re a few years into a career, having suffered your first layoff, it’s a little more tricky.

Back in January, I posted an article called "Don’t be narrow focused on health care reform" in which I said that the health care reform that was passed earlier this year, despite being over two thousand pages long, was very superficial with regard to health care, with those authoring the bill not really thinking through the ramifications of what they are doing.

I feel the same with unemployment, and really many other points of view as well. Sometimes you actually have to nearly lose everything to find the right perspective on something. So to the politicians who are making the decisions that affect over 350 million people, though I think for many or, likely, most, we already know the answer, was there ever a time when you were close to losing everything?

It’s easy to blame the unemployed, but why blame someone who was unlucky enough to land on a list of people to be cut from a company out of no fault of their own, and is only trying to find something that won’t place them too far off their previous career track?

I really think it’s about time everyone starts being realistic. At the same time, a dose of humility can’t hurt either.

  1. MediNotes was acquired by the Eclipsys Corporation of Atlanta, Georgia, in October 2008, and Eclipsys has since completed an acquisition with Unisys. []
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  • Thomaskimbrell

    Remember. even if you fired from a job does not mean there was good reason for the separation. I was fired from my last job and Texas Workforce desided the company had not good cause for doing so. I ended up receiving my benefits. 

    • http://www.kennethballard.com Kenneth

      Would you mind going into a little detail, such as what occurred around the termination and the reason your former employer gave in firing you?