“Get a Job” and Other Cruel Jokes

“Get a Job”, is a common thing to hear when you are demonstrating against anything. If you protest the high level of unemployment, there will still be oblivious hecklers that scream “get a job”, as they tear by in their gas guzzlers. I guess the irony is lost on them. The meme is a common one, many conservatives believe that if there are any jobs available, there should not be unemployment. They paint a picture of entitlement where the job seeker is lazy. Speaking from experience, being unemployed is one of the more exhausting occupations I’ve ever had.

When you’re unemployed and without a trust fund or wealthier relative, you live in a state of fear. You don’t know how your bills will be paid and if you can afford basic needs for your family. Things like haircuts, and new shoes for kids seem kinda luxurious, cable tv is out of the question. You live differently than your peers and can watch how your lack of funds excludes you from simple events you used to enjoy. You feel a bit of shame at using government programs as the safety net they are intended to be. Your sense of self was shaken to the core at your layoff; now putting your best foot forward elicits nothing but an automated response that says, “don’t call us, we’ll call you” if you’re lucky. When you’re unemployed, getting a decent job is always on your mind, whether or not you are currently revising your resume. In order to get a job quickly, you contort your abilities, experiences, and desires wildly to fit what ever job vacancy arises; you lie because the job that fits you just right no longer exists. You are told that you are selfish if you actually want the job you seek to align with your values and skill sets. You are supposed to take any job.

The reality of jobs available is bleak. The town I live in does have some jobs available, the vast majority available to non-professional college graduates are less than living wage. Living wage here is $11.35/hr with no medical insurance/costs covered. Accepting less than living wage in this town while having dependents means “securing” a life of poverty. You cannot find clean, well kept, desirable housing on a less than living wage salary. If you got a $10 an hour job and worked 40 hours a week, that would net you about $1067. General recommendations for a manageable, livable budget suggest that you should only spend a third of your income on housing. That makes for a housing budget of around $360. If you have any children or elders living with you, that amount simply will not buy housing without forcing you to sleep in the same room as your dependents; and the chances of a landlord or roommate wanting to rent to you with that kind of overcrowding known up front, is very small. This is assuming that you can get anyone to rent to you because, you cannot prove that you have an income. If you actually want to take the family dog with you, well, you can add a hundred or so dollars to a typical rent and add some extra (non-refundable) pet deposit up front. The only housing attainable with a budget of less than $600 for two bedrooms is either out of town (so must then add the extra gas costs for driving the kids into school) or are in houses who’s kitchens are used to cook meth. Safe, affordable housing is not just a catchphrase, it is a real crisis for millions of people finding themselves a casualty of “class warfare”.

It’s one thing to take a philosophical hard line when it comes to necessities like housing, “well, that’ll make those lazy unemployed people find more/better work”, but it is cruel when the “more better work” never materializes. Let’s assume that you have a good friend willing to live with your kids and you can “afford” (a relative term when you have no income to afford anything with), $600/month. Your utilities and phone will likely cost you at least $200/month – what employer hires someone that has no contact phone, likely you will also need a computer/email/internet access to actually do any job searching. So for the most basic living expenses, you now have $267. This is assuming that you have strict usage limits on all of your utilities and data resources and did your homework (online) to find the best possible deals and programs to sign up for. While dealing with securing shelter, you should be sending multitudes of customized and well researched resumes. It is expected that you tailor every resume to reflect how you are the best candidate for a job and preferrably build up your online presence with an online resume or networking site. You are not supposed to show any signs of stress (employers can smell desperation a mile away), your clothes are supposed to be impeccable (even if you live in your car), and transportation must be a non-issue (and if your car isn’t up to snuff, it could be a red flag indicator of how you manage things).

On your leftover $267. you must figure out how to buy a month’s worth of food, cover medical expenses, buy gas/cover vehicle repairs, fulfill any debt obligations, and forget about any gifts for birthday or holidays. Forget about spending on things like your kids yearbook, your kids bringing gifts to parties they are invited to, meals out, even short trips away, or enjoying your free time (due to the stress of life and guilt of what you “should” be doing). Taking a job for less than living wage  means accepting the fact that you will be busting your ass for 40+ hours a week and still be in a panicked state of poverty, unable to provide enough for your family.

Conservatives believe in authority and tradition over all else. Many conservatives believe that in the above scenario, the unemployed person is reaping what they sew – they must not deserve better because God is the ultimate judge and provides what people deserve. Folks have a right to believe what they want to, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a set up. The system we work within – a capitalist system – is designed to keep taking money from the have-nots and giving it to the haves. Down in the lower economic levels of our society, there just aren’t enough living wage jobs to go around. Lots of people are willing to work but can’t sign on for continued poverty, especially if it means losing the medical and food safety nets  – the only secure pieces of the puzzle – that they have without accepting that sub-wage job. Conservatives value hard work but, perhaps because of our private culture of pride, maybe they don’t realize how much hard work is involved in being unemployed. You are constantly trying to make something work, constantly re-inventing yourself, constantly giving self pep talks and never getting paid for any of it.

Progressives value empathy. They are more likely to realize that unemployment is only a corporate “adjustment” away. They realize how bad it would be if they did not have their regular salary and benefits to depend on, how close they are to crisis without them. Progressives realize that bad things do happen to good people; and they want to have compassion. Progressives look at the above trailer and think about the reputation of  trailer park neighborhoods (not that there aren’t some good ones), and they recognize that if they found themselves on the receiving end of a pink slip while scratching their head, they would not want to raise their children in substandard housing. The idea behind “the rising tide lifts all boats” is that conditions will be good for all of us, not just a lucky few. I’m not a fan of our culture of secrecy. I believe that when we talk to our fellow citizens, even humans, we should not hide our struggles, but speak about them plainly. It helps those struggling to feel less lonely.

Raising a family on a living wage is tough enough. You have to be diligent with a very tight budget and never get unlucky – like with a major car repair, illness, or tragedy – in order to keep your head above water and live without accruing debt. It is not realistic to ask the same of a family trying to get by on less. Once you are in poverty, so many problems with seemingly simple solutions become insurmountable. The economic system in place exploits the plight of the desperate family and does not value the quality of human life or skill sets. If you find yourself wanting to tell someone, “Get a Job”, it can only be assumed that you have a job you’re pleased with. Instead of chiding, reach out and see how you might be able to help.

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4 thoughts on ““Get a Job” and Other Cruel Jokes

  1. Stefanie says:

    Thank you for illustrating how having a full time job at a lower-than-living-wage or even a living wage can be so difficult. Even though my family and I are in this situation ourselves, it still is hard to grasp.

    Other factors to consider are:
    Many jobs available pay less than $10/hr, and/or are part time.
    There is incredible scheduling difficulty in working more than one job, as each employer assumes that your work for them is the priority.
    Child care is costly and difficult to schedule, especially for last-minute requests (if you get called in to work) or for early morning or evening shifts. A full time job means children are in childcare.

    • Amy Meier says:

      Good points. I think the public at large severely underestimates the cost and difficulty of finding decent care at the drop of a hat. This burden often falls disproportionately on women since their jobs frequently pay less than men. When you have to subtract the cost of childcare from any hourly rate, the uphill battle of a living wage is all the more unachievable.

  2. Carolyn Comeau says:

    Amen! There have been days when I have obsessed with checking various job sites to no avail. It gets pretty grim after a while. In our case,a medical issue necessitated spending most of our savings on medical bills and “insurance, Yet my husband is still uninsured and kids are on Medicaid. There are the daily indignities similar to what Amy describes — not only do you say goodbye to things like buying a gift for a kid’s birthday party, but you are racked with guilt if you buy a pizza on Friday night and squirm when you need to explain to your kids why there is no allowance anymore. And then there are the askance looks from the front office staff at your kids’ dental office, where you can only do Medicaid for a year — after that, you have to pay. As if these uncertainties (jobs, income) have expiration dates…I wish! Cannot imagine a world like my parents’, where there was a modicum of security. Yes, our good ol’ American bootstraps mentality reinforces guilt about not being employed, even in the midst of this downturn we haven’t seen the likes of in nearly a century. Good post, Amy!

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