In some ways, working the desk in the computer lab of the library seems something like the stereotype of work as a bartender. We get quite a number of the down-and-out, and they frequently turn to us to share their frustrations.
A broad-shouldered man in his forties, slightly frayed and worn, came to me for assistance. He was confused by the instructions on how to submit his resume for a job listing on Craigslist. I helped him to read the instructions, and guided him in the process of attaching his file to an email. Afterwards, he spent several minutes expressing his frustrations. For the past three years he had been unemployed. He had previously worked for years in a respectable blue-collar job which provided him a modest but sufficient income, a job in which he was proud of his work. But changing economic conditions had caused layoffs in his profession, and he had found little demand for his skills. He tried to be inventive and branch out into new fields, but with plenty of applicants with specific training and skills in those fields, nothing had come of his efforts. He was obviously ill-prepared to enter into fields requiring computer skills, which severely limited his options. He was interested in re-training, but routine bills and his medical expenses drained all his available funds—most coming from government welfare programs. If it weren’t for those, he would likely be out on the street.
“I just want a job,” He mourned. “But I can’t catch a break.”
This patron was hardly alone. A large number of requests for help at the desk have something to do with looking for work: writing resumes, sending or uploading resumes, using online job boards, using the library’s computers to learn to type, learning other computer skills.
All my life I’ve heard conservatives insist that welfare corrupts self-reliance and personal industry, encouraging laziness, idleness, and indolence, turning good people into “loafers.” Tom Delay even recently went so far as to avow that people want to be unemployed, that “unemployment benefits keeps people from going and finding jobs.” When unemployment benefits are proffered, goes the theory, it prolongs unemployment because the recipients have less incentive to find work.
Seems a pretty dismal view of humanity, and I don’t buy it. Oh, I’m sure there are always some who abuse the system, but the extent and level is exaggerated. I see far too many people who want work, who want to be able to provide and to feel the sense of self-worth which comes with being self-sufficient. They may lack the background which has helped enable many of us to find a place in the modern economy. They may have some extra obstacles, and lack some of the skills or training which are prized in today’s job market. But they don’t aspire to be leeches and loafers. Welfare doesn’t extend some life of luxury, it extends their survival while they struggle to succeed or deal with the challenges which have prevented their ability to be self-reliant thus far. They may depend on government assistance to keep them housed or fed right now, but they don’t relish the notion of relying on their meager welfare checks indefinitely to support idleness.
The data shows that the conservative complaint is superficially correct. Unemployment welfare does prolong unemployment. However, an Economic Policy Institute analysis shows that a deeper look reveals a story missed by the critics: unemployment insurance allows the recipients the time and resources to find work suited to their abilities or to develop the skills necessary to be more effective in the modern workplace. This makes those individuals more productive and more economically secure in the long run—a valuable investment if we want the members of our society to be more self-sufficient. In the short run, If people are having difficulty finding work, it may have less to do with some supposedly welfare-facilitated loafing than with an economy which has been persistently hemorrhaging jobs for some time now. To assume that jobs will suddenly open up if we just cut off aid to the poor in order to prevent dependency and “loafing,” that everyone will be self-reliant and “independent” is naive, and the results could be disastrous for the poor in society—most of whom are like you and I, and “just want to work.”