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Down and out on New York pier, 1935, June 2009. (Lewis W. Hine via FDR Presidential Library). In public domain.

Election ’12 should be about how to generate more jobs and how to grow the economy. Sadly, it hasn’t been about these issues, and given the toxic political and cultural climate, it will not be about jobs or the economy when this cycle ends on November 6.

I’ve seen this horror movie of economic downturns and mini-depressions in American society and in my own life now three times in the past thirty-five years. Each time, I’ve been better prepared, more informed, more able to ride out the storm. And each time, I’ve seen the ugly side of what we call the United States of America, a place that has and will continue to punish the unemployed and underemployed for problems beyond their control. Especially if they were and are women, young, over forty, of color, and among the poor.

In the period between ’79 and ’83, when the effective inflation rate for that four-year period was more than thirty-five percent, when we experienced a double-dip recession, when interest rates reached 22.5 percent. My mother’s meager income of $12,000 in ’79 didn’t keep up, even as it reached $15,000 in ’82. We were late with our rent at 616 by an average of three weeks each month and didn’t have food in the apartment the last ten days of any month, going back to October ’81. Things were so bad that my mother, a supervisor in Mount Vernon Hospital’s dietary department, brought food home from the hospital kitchen for us to eat for dinner several times each month.

“Negro Women,” Earle, Arkansas, July 1936, August 21, 2012. (Dorothea Lange via Library of Congress/http://libinfo.uark.edu). In public domain.

The good news was, Mount Vernon Hospital’s employees went on strike for higher wages and increased job security in mid-July ’82. The bad news was, although Mom was a sixteen-year veteran, nearly fifteen of those as a dietary department supervisor, Mom never joined the union. She didn’t want to pay “them bloodsuckers” dues, and said that she “couldn’t afford them” anyway.

I can only imagine how much spit and venom Mom faced on her way to work every day for three weeks. Considering our money situation, which I knew because I checked the mail and looked at our bills every day, picketing and getting union benefits might have been better than working. It wasn’t as if there was food in the house to eat anyway. As much as I enjoyed Mount Vernon Hospital’s Boston Cream Pie, I thought that picketing for a better wage was the way to go.

Soon after I started eighth grade, the other shoe dropped. Mom, so insistent on not joining Mount Vernon
Hospital’s union, was the odd woman out. The hospital’s concession of five percent increases per year over three years left them looking to cut costs. The only personnel left vulnerable were non-union service workers and their supervisors. My Mom had been cut to half-time by her boss Mrs. Hunce. Mom was screwed, but it was a screwing partly of her own making. It was the beginning of a two-decade-long period of welfare, underemployment, unemployment welfare-to-work, with an associate’s degree along the way. So much for hard work leading to prosperity!

I’ve gone through my own periods of unemployment and underemployment over the years. The most severe one for me was between June and September ’97, right after I finished my PhD. It was the first time in four years I hadn’t had work or a fellowship to rely on, and it was brutal. I did interviews with Teachers College and Slippery Rock University for tenure-track positions in education foundations, only to finish second for one job, and to see the folks at Slippery Rock cancel the other search. In the latter case, I think that they felt uncomfortable hiring someone of my age — twenty-seven — and my, um, ilk (read race here).

What made it worse was the fact that I couldn’t simply apply for any old job. I did actually try, too. McDonald’s, UPS, FedEx, Barnes & Noble, among others. I couldn’t even get Food Stamps in July, because my income threshold for March, April and May ’97 — $1,200 per month — was too high. And because I technically was a student for tax purposes my last two semesters at Carnegie Mellon — even though I was adjunct professor teaching history courses — I didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits either.

Shuttered Homestead steel mill, 1989, August 21, 2012. (Jet Lowe/Historical American Engineering Record). In public domain.

I had to omit the fact that I had a PhD to get a part-time job at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, which began after Labor Day ’97. I ended up teaching as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University’s College of Education the following year. Still, my income level did not return to where it was my last year of graduate school until June ’99, when I’d accepted a position with Presidential Classroom in the DC area.

I am nowhere near those times of being considered or treated as a statistic, marginalized in media and in politics as being lazy, shiftless, not smart or hard-working enough. But as a person who teaches near full-time and has more than occasional consulting work, I know how precarious and temporary work can be.

Ironic, then, that the people making decisions that have put people like me and my Mom in terrible financial straits have never missed a meal or not paid a bill because they were choosing between heat and not making phone calls. That most Americans regardless of party affiliation shun the poor, unemployed and underemployed is a shame and a pitiful example of how we really don’t pull together during tough times.

These attitudes are why rugged individualism and hard work aren’t enough to get and hold a job. An education, a real social safety net, even regulation of the job market, would help level the playing field for millions. Or, maybe some of us should learn Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Arabic or Portuguese and move to where the jobs really are.