February 22, 2010
The New York Times chooses bad poster children. Again.
Has anyone else noticed this tendency? The Times could be doing some really valuable on-the-ground reporting of the effects of the recession on everyday individual Americans who, despite working hard and doing everything right have found their lives, careers, health, and security unraveled by economic forces far beyond their control. But their reporters keep choosing to highlight really bad poster children. (I’m sure many people remember these two.)
I’m about to walk a really, really fine line of victim-blaming and mentally distinguishing the “deserving” from “undeserving” poor here. I know that.
Sunday’s article, “The New Poor: Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs,” about the mal-adaptability of our social safety net to long-term, intractable unemployment, profiles Jean Eisen, out of work for two years now. Her unemployment insurance extension just ran out for the second time. She’s doing without medication, getting groceries from the food pantry, and willing to do just about any job she’s able to do, no matter how menial. The 6-month unemployment rate of women in her age group has doubled since the early 1980’s, according to the article.
My heart was with her, until this line: “She and her husband now settle their bills with only his $1,595 monthly disability check. The rent on their apartment is $1,380.”
Okay. I don’t know what cost of living is like in southern California, but there are 1-bedroom apartments cheaper than that in NYC. And $1,595 is more than I usually make per month working. And up until recently, when the latest extension expired, she was also getting $702 biweekly from unemployment. I understand it takes money to move, plus deposit and first month’s rent, but seriously? It sounds like these people showed no forethought whatsoever much, much earlier in their unemployment, when they would’ve still had the cash to move to a cheaper apartment so as not to strain their savings with $1,400 rent.
After a trip to the food bank, she says “I’ve got 10 bags of pinto beans. And I have no clue how to cook a pinto bean.”
All of which helps explain why Ms. Eisen — who has never before struggled to find work — feels a familiar pain each time she scans job listings on her computer: There are positions in health care, most requiring experience she lacks. Office jobs demand familiarity with software she has never used.
She has no idea how to cook a pinto bean? Okay, knowing how to cook beans isn’t probably going to get her off unemployment, but…she doesn’t have the skills, or the mental initiative, to get out a cookbook and look it up? She’s been out of work for two years and hasn’t tried to learn some of the computer or accounting skills that office jobs ask for?
I’m not overlooking or denying the import of the facts here that there are 6 applicants for every single job available in this country, that manufacturing jobs that used to pay enough to raise a family on have disappeared overseas, that high school and even college degrees used to mean a whole lot more than they do now, that medical costs are crushing, that age discrimination is a big problem for older women especially, that something is very, very wrong when Ms. Eisen could earn $13.25 per hour, plus bonus and benefits, with a high school diploma in the 1980’s, and in 2010, I can earn the about the same ($14.50), LESS after inflation actually, on a good day, without any benefits, with two college degrees and a prestigious internship under my belt. I’m not saying there aren’t deep and nefarious economic forces at work here beyond any of our individual influence, or that people aren’t suffering and legitimately afraid of homelessness who worked hard their whole lives, saved, lived within their means, didn’t buy homes they couldn’t afford, and have done everything rational to cut back on expenses and still find themselves driven to the brink. I’m confused at the Times’ seeming selective inability to find them. (Because they did, several weeks ago, for an article on the 6 million Americans now living on no income other than food stamps.)
But doesn’t it say something about why this woman can’t find a job that she’s not mentally self-reliant or literate enough to look up the instructions for cooking beans, or try to pick up some computer skills in two years of unemployment?
And even at that, I don’t really blame her.
Our entire educational system encourages passivity and obedience for the majority of students, and blatantly discourages or even punishes inventiveness, independence of thought, critical thinking, high literacy, passion for any subject, skill, or craft that doesn’t fall under the school system’s purview, excellence at anything for its own sake, and an attention span of more than 50 minutes. The overriding lesson is that the way to success, security, and financial comfort is to “work hard,” get good grades, and follow the rules. And it’s a big fat lie. Ms. Eisen probably has gone through life more or less doing what she was told. Doing what she thought she was supposed to. And it’s left her so helpless that she can’t figure out by herself how to cook a pound of beans, let alone pull through a major economic downturn intact.
This is something we are going to have to change about the way we educate kids if we are ever to fix our economy in a sustainable way. And I never, ever hear it talked about in any speeches or pleas for education reform.
And secondly, we’ve got to stop worshipping and fetishizing “middle class” status. What is it, what’s magical about it? As far as I can see, it consists of the ability to live in the suburbs and maintain a lot of stuff that people don’t actually need to live well. As far as I can tell, the Eisens are in the trouble they are now largely because they maintained their middle class life long after they couldn’t really afford it. People don’t think about what they need; they just consume. We as a society need to stop shaming the non-middle class, and stop being afraid to live with less. Or rather, I think it’s time we demand more social benefits—affordable college, healthcare, public transit and healthy environment—and learn how to live well without more superfluous material ones.
And the Times is, quite unintentionally I’m sure, trivializing the real severity of the economic situation for a lot of people right now by choosing as its emblematic economic victims people who couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag in any kind of hardship.