News & Politics

The Unemployed Aren't Invisible: Washington and the Media Just Aren't Paying Attention

America's 14.1 million unemployed aren't voiceless; it's just that no one is listening, and no one's got a plan to help them.

It hits you like a punch in the gut, losing your job. Being laid off. Being fired.

It stops you cold in the middle of your day even if you've seen it coming. Even if you hate your job and being out of it will be a relief. If you love your job, it hurts like a bad breakup—it's heartbreaking.

I was laid off not long ago, and I know all too well the mix of panic and hurt that comes with the news. I know the jumble of thoughts that come rushing in—how will I pay my rent blending with I'll never find a job I like this much again, worst-case scenarios and ways to make money and plans I'll have to cancel all at once.

I was one of the lucky ones. I found a good job quickly. Millions of others, though, are still struggling to pay their bills, ignored by politicians too busy pandering to deficit hysteria to listen to their stories. 

The New York Times said the unemployed have become invisible. Maybe in Washington, in political circles where the question is not what to spend to put people back to work but which programs to cut. But there are 14.1 million unemployed right now, scattered around the country, many of whom have been out of work for months or years.

The Times asked, “And where, if anywhere, is the outrage?” But instead of asking unemployed workers, they sought out the usual panel of experts, professors, historians, economists, lawyers, even an organizer. The unemployed themselves are as invisible in the Times story as they are in Washington, good for a quick mention but not to be listened to.

The outrage, if you bother speaking to those out of work is easy to find.

“People are the most precious resource that this country has; the determination that people have makes this country what it is. But they continue to step on the backs of people who have given their all, not just for one generation but for generation after generation, you work and pay taxes and try to live in a decent home, and then they say, we can't help you,” Benita Johnson of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania told me. She's been out of work since May 2010, and has only been able to find temporary positions since 2006—after taking a serious pay cut to get a job that would allow her to get her bachelor's degree at night.

Nicole Sandler, a progressive radio host who lost her full-time position when Air America went under, has some anger at Democrats as well as the Right. “They let Republicans frame the discourse,” she noted, while Republicans “ran on creating jobs but they haven't passed one jobs bill since they've been in power. They're limiting women's rights and busting unions. Where are the jobs?”

Sandler relies on odd jobs to pay her bills at the moment, doing voiceover work and filling in for radio host Randi Rhodes, and hosts her own show online at RadioOrNot.com. “I live in South Florida, there aren't many places for people to go,” she said.

The stories at HelpThe99ers.com, a site Sandler founded as a sort of social network for the unemployed to find work or help, range through all types of careers and across the country. The 99ers are those whose unemployment benefits have reached the maximum, 99 weeks, and have run out. The long-term unemployed are left dependent on relatives, friends, community, and any income they can scrape together—Benita Johnson operated a gypsy cab between temporary positions, when her unemployment benefits expired.

A worker from Albuquerque, New Mexico calling himself NMVeteran describes himself as an honorably discharged, highly decorated Army veteran. He's been out of work since being laid off from the restaurant Chili's after six years of employment. “Reason? I had been there so long that I was making more than anyone else on the floor – a whole $8 an hour, GASP!”

Gena D in Connecticut is a former property manager with 13 years of experience, supporting her 21-year-old daughter and her 3-year-old grandson. “I am beginning to think that perhaps I have no more to offer the business. I am 57 years old and find myself lost without a job,” she writes.

The recession has hit already-marginalized populations harder—African-American workers face an unemployment rate of 16.2 percent as opposed to the national 9.2 percent, and as of November 2009, the National Center for Transgender Equality reported trans people facing unemployment at twice the level of the overall population. Robyn Winterson, a transgender woman and recent immigrant to the US whose name has been changed for this article, has struggled despite her PhD and legal status. “Being a trans woman makes finding work exponentially more difficult. Sometimes you walk into an interview and you immediately see people stiffen, their faces fall. And when that happens, it doesn't really matter what's on your CV if that's the reaction -- you know you're not going to get the job.”

She added, “As a community, trans people were struggling with endemic unemployment pre-recession. We tend to have fewer family supports and face institutional and personal discrimination, which makes us even more vulnerable to downturns in unemployment.”

Johnson points out that the recession, combined with the changes to the US economy over the past couple of decades, has changed the way jobs are found and pushed workers into more temporary situations, for less pay—the much-vaunted “flexibility” of the job market that in actuality leaves many people underemployed and underpaid.

“You're looking at the job description and they say competitive salary, and then you see that it's with a temporary agency, and you know you're not going to make a competitive salary,” she said. “And you're seeing more and more and more of that. Companies don't have to pay any taxes, they pay a flat fee and that's it. I've looked into housekeeping work or dogsitting and even that work is going through temporary agencies as well.”

That flexibility has extended to the academic labor market as well. Winterson noted, “The academic job market was already on the slide with casual jobs replacing full time, but the crash made everything much, much worse for everyone.”

PhDs know all too well that education isn't an insulator from layoffs and financial crunch. Nor is the kind of public exposure and experience Sandler has, or the years of public service Johnson had, or the great working relationship I had with my former boss.

Antonio Lodico of Pittsburgh's Mon Valley Unemployed Committee noted that he's worked with people from all areas of the economy, from bus drivers to journalists, teachers to call center workers to chemical engineers.

The unemployed are everywhere and they are everyone. They are recent graduates and they are people nearing retirement age, hanging on until Social Security kicks in. They are taxpayers, and they are consumers—they are the people upon which our economy depends. They are all of us.

Lodico said, “The unemployed look like America because it is America.”

*****

The discourse around job creation usually takes the form of asking what's politically possible, and noting that without widespread anger and organizing, major change is impossible. The Times rightly noted that some of the public frustration with the economic crisis was channeled into the Tea Party, but it didn't point out that depressed progressive voter turnout in November was largely due to Democratic inaction on jobs, and that the Tea Party governors and legislators voted in in 2010 have created the conditions we see now, where jobs are disappearing along with benefits and workers are worse off than before. “The midterm elections proved to the American people that you have to be consistent about voting and about making sure that the people who you elect to office are the people who are going to represent your interests,” Johnson pointed out.

Public sector jobs are just the latest target of governors like Rick Scott in Florida and John Kasich in Ohio, and in the latest round of labor department data, it's clear that layoffs and benefit crunches on the state level have deepened and lengthened the recession. And many states are seeing a push by those same politicians to cut off jobless benefits or make unemployment insurance harder to come by—Sandler noted that in Florida, Gov. Scott just signed a bill reducing unemployment eligibility to 23 weeks instead of 26 weeks. Never mind that, according to the Times, the average job seeker will be hunting for nine months before finding work again.

Conservatives like to talk about personal responsibility and laud education as a solution, implying that the jobless just aren't working hard enough. The unemployed, of course, know otherwise. “What's the sweet spot between well qualified and over-qualified? Education's supposed to fix problems, but it also vies with a public anti-intellectualism,” said Winterson. “Jobs counselors have told me to remove my PhD and teaching experience for non-academic jobs, much better to be unemployed for five years, apparently.”

Johnson, meanwhile, quit one job to put herself through school as an adult back in the early 2000s, assuming she'd make the money back and then some when she graduated. But she's actually had a harder time since getting her degree. When she began working in social service, she thought it would lead to a permanent position but instead, she told me, “Your job is tied to grant funding and when the funding runs out, you don't have a job.”

Winterson faced similar problems, applying for jobs in the public sector only to hear that the funding had dried up and the position no longer existed.

“When people talk about wanting to cut government agencies, let's put that in perspective. When you cut funding to an agency, that means that people are going to be laid off. It increases the amount of people who are out there looking,” Johnson pointed out.

“It also creates a hardship on the agency because they still have to do their jobs. If you think people feel disconnected from government now, imagine if you wanted to call in to Social Security or the IRS and you didn't have the opportunity to talk to anyone or even get a good reply when you apply online.”

Meanwhile, those same attacks on organized labor have made it that much harder to organize the unemployed. The unions that are trying to rally jobless workers are busy as well fighting attacks on their right to exist and defending collective bargaining and benefits for the members they have. There's little time and funding to spare for campaigns outside of places where they already have a base.

Lodico said that the hardest thing about organizing the unemployed is getting people to stop internalizing the idea that being jobless is their fault. “People look at it not too differently than AIDS patients did in the early '80s. People are afraid to come out because of the demonization,” he said. And the right-wing rhetoric all over the news doesn't help.

But the unemployed are still fighting for their rights. Benita Johnson worked with the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee, founded in the 1980s, organizing against a Pennsylvania bill that would have revised qualifications for unemployment, making it harder for workers such as her to receive the benefits on which they depend. The bill was defeated, a victory for the unemployed on the state level even with a new Tea Party-backed governor.

“If you don't mobilize to affect policy, it doesn't matter how much you complain,” she said.

Lodico pointed out the personal benefits of organizing for unemployed workers as well. “Whenever I seem to find a great leader, after a couple of months of them really getting angry about the whole systemic thing, they turn around and find a job,” he said. “I'd like to think that when people get involved in something larger than themselves and start to see that the problems are bigger than them, then they quit internalizing what should never be internalized.”

Nicole Sandler, meanwhile, created HelpThe99ers.com in response to a phone call to her radio program. “I was filling in for Randi Rhodes and somebody called in, this woman named Cindy from Syracuse, who is a 99er. Her story just so got to me and I realized that I wanted to do something.”

The site is filled with heartwrenching stories from the “invisible” unemployed, like this one, from Deb in Ohio:

“In the meantime I continue to believe that there will never be any passage of H.R. 589 or similar for us '99ers'. I see fewer postings on this website and I believe that so many of us are just exhausted with even talking about how stressful all of this is or how we are struggling. After awhile even venting is exhausting.”

Sandler's site isn't an organizing space, but rather a support network. “I wanted to hook up people who could help with people who needed help. I know there have been some successes,” she noted, though she's unaware of anyone actually getting a job through the site.

“That very same woman, Cindy, some guy, she lived in Syracuse and it was a pretty nasty winter, somebody bought her a quartz heater to keep warm,” she said, but noted, “It's been help, it hasn't been a thing to fix anyone's problem.”

****

That sort of problem-solving is only going to come from actual job creation. And the way Sandler and Johnson see it, the government needs to stop worrying about the deficit and start putting people to work. “Our infrastructure is crumbling, we need a jobs program, we needed an FDR and we didn't get that,” Sandler said.

Johnson echoed the FDR wishes. “I wish the government had provided more money to colleges and universities so people could go back and get certifications and degrees. I wish the government had provided more money to small businesses to give them incentives to hire, or incentives to hire in this country instead of taking jobs outside of this country. I wish they had provided more money to local governments to provide services to people in need. I would rather see my tax dollars go toward that then bailing out a bank.”

The 2010 election, of course, put the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives as well as state governments, and so getting any sort of job creation bill passed would have to come from them or at least meet their standards. Representative Hank Johnson told me that that's unlikely. “They want to do everything they can to inflict as much pain on regular working people as possible so that come 2012, they'll be so angry because of their personal circumstances that they would vote for the Republican in the general election.”

With the kind of sweeping stimulus legislation that is so deeply needed off the table with this House, Johnson and his colleague Rosa DeLauro have introduced a bill, the Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011, that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against the long-term unemployed in hiring. “We've got at least 6 million people who have been unemployed for six months or longer. To shut those people out of the job market with just a blanket exclusion from consideration is wrong. It's morally indefensible,” he said.

He noted that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has held hearings on the problem of discrimination against the unemployed, and that he also proposed an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that would make the unemployed a protected class under that law.

Rep. Johnson and his colleagues at the Congressional Progressive Caucus are doing a listening tour both in physical locations around the country and online at SpeakOutTour.com, where people can share their stories of dealing with the economic crisis. Many of them too tell their stories of unemployment, like this one from Robert Green in Arizona:

“I am a 54 year old construction project manager who has worked hard and honestly up to the level of site project manager for 30 years. I was laid off nearly two years ago. I have been back to college classes and have found the whole re-educating an experience to be more of a place to sink a lot of money and time into trying to get a degree that apparently is not helping us get back to work anyway. I have applied by email, hand carry and online application to over 600 resumes to everything from warehouse worker in a big box store to a front line project manager for the forest service, TSA, Police Officer, you name it. I am trying to not only reach outside but up and down my industry to include traveling if necessary to get back to work.”

Rep. Johnson says that his constituents, in Georgia's 4th District, want to know when there's going to be another stimulus bill—and a bigger one.

“I'd like to see a massive job creation bill based on funding for infrastructure here in America,” he said. “I would like to see us building high-speed rail across the nation. I'd like to see us enhancing public transportation in the cities and counties of this nation. I'd like to see us putting more federal dollars into our public school system.”

Most of that, though, will have to wait until a more progressive Congress is elected. If nothing is done to create jobs in the meantime, it's impossible to guess if voters will support Democrats in 2012 or stay home, as they did in 2010—or fall for a populist message from a Republican candidate. The recall votes in Wisconsin and the successful ballot measure push in Ohio bode well for progressives, but there's a long way to go between now and 2012, and meanwhile the debt ceiling showdown threatens public support for the unemployed as well as those dependent on Social Security.

While politicians battle publicly, the invisible unemployed keep working—at finding new jobs, at helping one another, at organizing. Benita Johnson is philosophical. “I don't take it personally, if my ancestors could survive slavery and my grandmother could survive the great depression, I can survive this.”

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.
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