February 22, 2010

The New York Times chooses bad poster children. Again.

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 5:31 am by chavisory

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.

And then:

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.”

And:

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.

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11 Comments »

  1. Allison M. said,

    What gets me is that just about every local library offers courses on basic computer programs (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.). Excel seems to be the starting point for a lot of specialized programs–in other words, once you’re familiar with Excel, companies see that you have potential and are willing to train you.
    When I was searching for a job, I applied to all sorts of positions, even ones that supposedly ‘required’ knowledge of highly-specialized computer software. I actually worked for a company that trained me on it because they saw that I had potential.
    In Chicago, you can rent a studio in a decent area for under a grand, easily. While it does take money to move as you mentioned, I bet they’d be eligible for Section 8 housing as well. However, I’m sure the Eisens don’t want to apply because it has become inherently wrong to utilize Section 8, check to see if you’re eligible for food stamps, etc.
    Why doesn’t she think about going obtaining some sort of training or going to school? If she would have started on a four-year degree, she’d be over halfway done by now. Judging by there financial situation, she’d also be eligible for grants left and right as well as low-interest student loans.
    I don’t know that the idea of middle class needs to be given up (although I get what you’re saying) but rather redefined in some people’s minds. Growing up, I knew that my mother and I had less than other people but it never entered my mind that we weren’t middle class. My husband’s childhood is a very different story–they always had nice things and never went without. For several years when I was pretty young, I’d wear clothing that was a little too small, my mom would make my clothes, we didn’t have cable and we ate a lot of spaghetti and potatoes.
    I’m starting to ramble on, but you’re right. Articles like that drive me nuts. One, if you don’t know how to cook pinto beans, why pick them up? Just so you have something to show you actually went to the food pantry? What if someone else knew how to cook them? Two, most food items have cooking directions on the packaging. Sorry, that really annoyed me.

  2. Byron said,

    I generally agree with you. All the local and national news sources do the same thing. Here is an unemployed married couple who made plenty of money and had every opportunity to save a reasonable amount over the years, but didn’t. Now they’re in over their head with their Hummer payments and 25,000 square foot house that they could never really afford in the first place. Don’t you feel sorry for them? As someone living within my means, no, I sure don’t. But living within one’s means is not the norm, and news needs viewers and readers. Have to appeal to the masses.

    I do think the “shrinking of the middle class” deserves some attention, though. It seems to me that part of the American Dream™ is to be able to provide a comfortable life for yourself and your family with some assurance that financial speed bumps along the way aren’t crippling. Of course, this kind of “responsible middle class attitude” barely exists anymore since the American Dream has turned into some horrible consumerist disease of hummers and giant houses and 55-inch TVs and so on.

    Disclaimer: Even though we bought a new TV last year, I think Annie and I are in the barely existent Responsible Middle Class, so I’m kinda biased.

    Oh, and about the beans. How flippin’ hard is it to fire up that computer, go to google.com and type in “how to cook pinto beans.” There is no reason that anyone with any kind of internet access should not be able to figure out how to take care of themselves, no matter how spoiled they were before their extravagant lifestyle came crashing down around them.

  3. chavisory said,

    To clarify a couple things: I don’t think they were probably living extravagantly before all this happened, and it seems that they DID have quite a bit of savings (which they’ve run through by paying too much rent). It can be harder or unrealistic for older people to go back to a 4-year degree program or find the funding to do so, and even if she managed that, a college degree is no guarantee of a future job anymore. It is especially hard to get public assistance if you have no children, and many cities make it unnecessarily hard or humiliating to get food stamps. (New York requires, for instance, that you be fingerprinted. I applied once, and they treat you like a criminal. A very stupid criminal.) So I’m not belittling the real hardships that these people are facing.

    I’m just so bothered that they showed, as far as revealed by the article, almost NO problem solving ability. And when papers go around writing up cases like this as emblematic of what’s going on, it makes it so easy for people to blame “big government” for breeding dependence and laziness, or real victims for inability to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, instead of looking at the bigger picture problems of unrestrained free market capitalism. I just wish the Times was better at picking examples who aren’t so easy to blame for their own dire circumstances, because it obscures the bigger issues of how we’ve all gotten screwed.

  4. Jay Furr said,

    Always one with the trite response, all I can say is “put ’em in a pot of boiling water for a couple of minutes, turn off the heat, let ’em soak for a couple of hours, pour off the water, then add more water and salt to taste and simmer on low until done.”

  5. Allison M. said,

    I’ve actually been on food stamps before and I know how humiliating it is. But when push comes to shove, you have to do whatever you can to make ends me. Sometimes it involves doing things you don’t want to because pride gets in the way, but eventually realization sets in that you have to do something.

    As far as schooling, I was more referring to learning a new skill set. I think you’d be surprised how much they could get via student loans since they haven’t earned much in the past two years.
    I know once Ben hit grad school, there was no longer a cap on how much you could take out as far as loans were concerned. I’m not saying that’s the only way or the best way, but it is possible.

    • MinaMinaMina said,

      I *knew* it was you! :o)

      So, you probably mean to say “make ends meet” … but, then I could just be nitpicking ;o)

  6. chavisory said,

    Interesting. About the student loan cap, that is. But yeah, she could even have finished an associate’s degree by now, or vocational training in something that would be immediately applicable. I’m just afraid that someone like her wouldn’t begin to know how to apply it once she had it, if she’s so passive she won’t pull out a cookbook.

    I would certainly go apply for food stamps again if I were desperate enough. I’m just not desperate enough to put myself through that again, though, yet…. If it were truly a matter of not eating, of course I would do it.

    A college friend had a low-paying internship in Louisville and said Kentucky makes it beautifully easy to get food stamps. Her EBT card even kept working when she moved back to Georgia. I was stunned at how bad New York makes it because her experience in other states was so straightforward.

  7. MinaMinaMina said,

    You know what I’m doing with my unemployment? I’m raising my son to read and use ASL *before* he goes to preschool. And, teaching him that he doesn’t always have to follow the rules if they don’t make any sense and the person(s) delegating them refuse to explain the reasoning behind it. Well, I’m not going to raise him to be a complete shit. But, he will go through life never afraid to ask “why?”.

    Oh, and I also do not know how to cook a pinto bean. Why? Because I know that I don’t like them. However, if I had to learn, I could use the same damn computer I’m using to search for jobs to search for flippin’ directions on how to cook them!

  8. MinaMinaMina said,

    The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Dept makes it really simple, I was not at all embarrassed to be applying for state assistance. Actually, I have been paying into this sort of program since I moved here in 2003. That’s not to say that I am entitled to it, but rather I am not made to feel like a freeloader and I have paid into it. It is only right that I not feel embarrassed or ashamed for using a program under its intended purpose. I get my WIC checks and if anyone’s got a problem with it, they can pay for my damn groceries.

  9. Erin said,

    What’s funny is that the beans probably had the directions right on the package. I’m pretty sure they do usually.

  10. Jay Furr said,

    A lot of food shelf beans are delivered in giant 50-pound bags and then repackaged by staff into one or two pound bags. In other words, they don’t always have the instructions.

    Believe it or not, when I was a kid in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the 1970s, they taught us ‘responsible use of your food stamp dollars’ in 7th grade. It was *assumed* that a large percentage of the kids, coming from rural Appalachian families, would at some point be on food stamps.

    I guess it’s different when you’re a New York City resident. They don’t assume that white-bread WASPs are going to need to know how to use their WIC dollars wisely. However, a lot of states *do* have programs that focus on precisely that. Google “WIC Dollars” and you’ll see what I mean.


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