Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Quandries of the Unemployed

I am unemployed, and I have been since past August, a long enough time that I have just switched over from 'normal' unemployment payouts to Emergency Unemployment Compensation. Once upon a time, this would have been highly embarassing to admit, but not so much in this economy, when the typical reaction I get when I tell that to someone is... well, "In this economy!" A sort of sympathetic exclamation, it's said with a smile and a raise of the eyebrows and a shrug of the shoulders. Similar to "duh, I get it, of course you are, that's totally normal." And if that's not the response, then it is "Me too!"

The State of Maryland determines how much your unemployment payout is on how much you got paid in the 6-18 months prior to your date of unemployment (by which I mean, they look at the time priod from 18 months prior through 6 months prior, skipping the most recent 6). I was lucky enough to have a decent-paying job during that time, so I qualified for the maximum. And I will now tell you how much I'm taking in because I apparently have no qualms about sharing a bit of my financial information over the Internet (what?): approximately $1400 a month. This translates to getting a job which pays either $12/hour or, with higher taxes, nearly $28,000/year.

As has oft been pointed out by economic theorists, this takes away a whooole lot of incentive to get a job. I definitely have no reason to go to Starbucks or something, trading in a workweek's worth of free time and some part of my income for the mere title of "employed." That's a straight up easy decision there, folks.

(Please note at this point in this post that this is not a dangers-of-unemployment-insurance rant; kindly read to the end fearlessly.)

It goes beyond that as well. Personally, like so many liberal arts majors of this generation, I have yet to find any place of considerably meaningful employment. (Like it is with ali d, Starbucks just isn't what I want to be doing.) Since graduating, I've hopped from generic permanent office job to generic temporary office job and back, never once finding some place I would be comfortable staying for year after year. Job security is worthless if you don't like the job.

So in many ways, I have been glad to have this opportunity to take my time finding the next job. (Okay, yes, I apply to two+ jobs every week, as that is required to keep my unemployment checks coming, and I apply my heart out to those office jobs, but I never get a call. I suspect that this is because my resume clearly shows I haven't been employed since August, and who wants to employ someone who hasn't been employed?) I want to work in the arts, particularly the theatre, and with any luck before my 47 weeks of Emergency Unemployment Compensation runs out, I will find such a position.

(I might have been working in the theatre long ago, if I were at all capable of affording to do a poorly-paid/unpaid internship, but that's the subject of another post.)

So here's where it gets complex. I personally consider myself very libertarian. Nevertheless, I understand the need for a social safety net - it makes no sense for anybody if the unemployed immediately go broke in a bad economy, which contributes to their landlords going broke, and then their grocers, and so forth. My understanding is that the way it's supposed to work is sort of like storing grain in a granary during good years, so that you can survive a famine year; in a good economy, everyone pays taxes into a common fund, which, in a bad year, we then tap into to prevent rolling bankruptcies. (Go oversimplification go!) But at the same time I naturally feel, well, a little uncomfortable sitting here for months on end, cracking open the newly released Final Fantasy XIII while you're at work.

(If the unemployment agency is reading this: NO THAT'S NOT ALL I DO. ...I also write plays!)

(And apply for jobs! And apply for jobs too!)

How does one handle being in a situation that is extremely beneficial to oneself, but on a moral level, one feels guilty for, and on a political-philosophical level, one doesn't necessarily agree with? After all, if everyone did what I'm doing, society would collapse. But on the other hand, if I just went and got some mediocre table waiting job, or an underpaid brainless office job, or, even worse, a temp job, I would not last long for one reason or another, and would quickly be unemployed, again. But on the other other hand, is that somehow my duty to this Great Nation, to - if I can't find work that I stay married to for years on end - at least be a serial monogamist? But on the other other other hand (I guess basically we're talking Goro from Mortal Kombat here), am I not essentially doing little different than if I were employed, in the sense that the money the state is giving me is going straight through me to my landlord, and my grocer, and the Chipotle, and the Metro? (Not to Square Enix, though, FFXIII was a gift.) There is no clear, definite answer to the question of "is this right, what I am doing, and if not, should I do differently?"

America is supposedly the land of freedom, last I heard. A conservative (or libertarian, which I may be a bad example of) will tell you that taxing Peter so that Paul can stay afloat after Paul lost his job is a violation of freedom; a liberal might say that this preserves Paul's freedom from dire economic straits, and after all Peter has that same peace of mind-type-freedom, should Peter lose his. (Well, okay, no, a liberal would say "where's your compassion?") A Me-Myself-and-I would say being forced to move back to my parents' house or work at Starbucks would severely limit my freedom, to which a conservative would reply, "that ain't my problem, dude!" (A conservative who is both a hick and a surfer, apparently.) Circles, circles, circles.

So, is there, somewhere out there amidst all the bureaucracy, perhaps an assumption about my behavior that I can ascribe to? Meaning, did the government - of Maryland, I suppose, which is the one paying me - make certain assumptions about the reasons for providing unemployment, or how long and for what reasons a person might be on unemployment? If so, that would make it easy for me to be somewhat more certain of myself - if there is an underlying assumption for what type of behavior makes the system work best, I can follow that, and at the very least I can know that I'm contributing to the effective functioning of the welfare system, regardless of how I feel about the policy itself. But I'd be willing to bet the government program is not so well-defined (I mean this is government we're talking about), and I'm no economist. So for all I know, I am either keeping in line with, or breaking, a system which I either do, or do not, agree with.

(I told you this is not a rant. It's an existential wail of confusion.)

*Sigh.* I think I'll just go back to playing Final Fantasy.


Stephen said...

Ronald Reagan raised taxes, so don't feel so guilty.

Also, this post reminds me of this...

It looks like there are some people out there who think the artsy twenty/thirty somethings among us should not be allowed to eat.

Anonymous said...

Its terribly upsetting that people can use the system in this manner. There are people who wake up every single day at 5 am (yes all 7 days) to go work at a job they hate because they have a little thing called “pride”. Even the idea that a place like Starbucks is beneath you is very highfalutin and you should be embarrassed to have such a skewed perception on where you stand in the world. As far as giving back to the community and economy I don’t think sitting around playing video games and eating at Chipotle (which a lot of people working hard can’t even afford) is doing anyone any favors. Do you volunteer somewhere; no you sit and allow other people to feed, cloth, and house you. People who go out and work at the “mediocre table waiting job, or an underpaid brainless office job, or, even worse, a temp job” are the ones that inevitably put money in your pocket. Later you go on to use an analogy of storing grain for a famine. What if everyone threw morality to the wind and decided it’s their year to sit around and relax, kick back and o ya fill out two applications a week? All that grain we (the country) have been saving for desperate people to feed their children would be depleted quite quickly. Alas not all of us would allow this to happen, even if that means working a job (heaven forbid) we don’t absolutely love. You also referenced several times how welfare money was coming from the state of Maryland, which ok is true. However that money comes from tax payers, people who work, people who are making less then you do on unemployment, and people who may or may not be supporting an entire family. I’m just not sure you have a concept of what unemployment is supposed to do, it’s not there for a ‘relax time’ or ‘I can’t find myself time’ it’s there for times of desperation when there is no other choice.

Max Nova said...

Mr. Anonymous. It is sad you cannot bring yourself to reveal at least your first name. It would not be prideful, I promise.

Perhaps you could combine your pride and hard work and go back to school. Take out a student loan and study for a field that you would not hate working in. I know you may feel that only freeloaders would take student loans, but I promise I won't tell, as you are anonymous.

Matt Lindeboom said...

While anonymous commenting is often the coward's way out, the commenter does raise a point or two.

In the end if you are a libertarian, don't the money. If you're a conservative who doesn't believe in safety nets, don't take the money. If you're liberal, well, take the money and donate some or all of it to a cause. If you're a real person with complex political views that don't fall into these cookie cutter definitions, take the money if you can use it, and then go about finding a job because it's the responsible thing to do. Eventually the gov't will stop giving you money anyway.

Brett isn't abusing the system. He lost his job and he's collecting unemployment. He's taking the time between jobs to figure out where to go from here. And like all of us, if eventually he can't find something he likes, he'll take a job at something he doesn't like because he has to. C'est la vie.

The Salon article Stephen posted was interesting. It sounds like part abuse, part living off Mommy and Daddy without having to say that their living off Mommy and Daddy (In this case Mommy and Daddy is the gov't. Also, full disclosure: come this may I will have been living under my parent's roof while saving money for 1 year). One of the hipsters, Mike, has a "meager part-time blogging job;" are you serious? That's when you get the job at Starbucks or McDonalds. You don't apply for food stamps or welfare because you don't feel like getting a job that doesn't add to your oeuvre. I would be interested to know whether Mike and his friends even vote. I felt like I was reading about children with no sense of the world in which they live.

Also: "every single day at 5 am (yes all 7 days) to go work at a job they hate because they have a little thing called 'pride.'" This smacks of melodrama; I don't doubt that there are people who do this --god bless them -- but always comparing everything the extreme opposite rarely does much for an argument.

CK said...

You are absolutely right! America is the land of freedom...the land of freedom that was built off back-aching, dirt-under-the-fingernails, painstaking work, which I doubt is something you would know a thing about. I doubt a majority of their grunt work was very fulfilling. However, I'm sure mixing a latte for the morning workers who are applying themselves in this atrocious economy is far more demeaning. I doubt the clients Starbuck's rakes in every morning is utilizing the poor economic state as a crutch for not having a job. Yes, there are several people loosing their jobs on a daily basis, and yes, there are several people collecting unemployment checks, my sister being one of them. However, she'll be damned if she is going to be sitting idle, squandering tax payers HARD EARNED dollars. I find it amusing you find working a temp job or any job that does not suite your standards as degrading, while you are living off your unemployment bitching on a blog that you can not fulfill your heart's desire. I am supposing you have recently graduated, no longer under mommy and daddy's pay check *tear*. Otherwise, you would already know that the real world is not sunshine and buttercups. Sometimes you have to buck up, get your hands dirty, and do things you don't want to do. This land of freedom was not built off the backs of idlers whining and moaning about the unfairness of life. You're right, the majority of people are faced with similar dilemmas as yourself, except odds are, they probably are genuinely trying to find a job. Truth? I think you would be better off running back home to mommy and daddy. You are obviously not ready for the implications and hard ships of the real world. Besides, America, land of freedom, doesn't want to take you away from Final Fantasy. Play on in your delusions until you snap into reality.

Matt Lindeboom said...

Thanks CK, really. Your "insightful" comments added tremendously to this dialogue. Please, enlighten us some more to the history of dirt under our nails and broken backs!

See what I did there? I used sarcasm like you did. Pretty good, huh?

Why are you ranting? Anonymous at least engages with the material. I'm surprised that you didn't write your ridiculous block of text in full caps. You've wasted our time.

I appreciate Brett's honesty. He's grappling. That's easy to see. It's also obvious he's stepped on some toes. In the future, please explain the reasons behind why your toe is hurting, rather than screaming nonsense in his face.

Thank you.

Dennis said...

Why don't you just sell pot like a normal unemployed person? Geez....

Seriously though.

I think I'm as conflicted on your blog as you are on your financial situation! I agree with most of the points Mr. Anonymous and CK present. I wouldn't have worded them so aggressively/dramatically, but to each his own I guess.

There is a difference between ideology and reality. I don't agree with how these programs work. They need to be far more stringent. I don't agree with the extension that was put on them. I will continue to vocalize those opinions and vote based on those opinions when the time comes.

But if I'm put in a position where I can choose between working a shit job (trust me, I know what shit jobs are) and getting paid more to look for a job I may enjoy, why the hell would I work a shit job?

I *get* that.

The difference, and this is where my opinion aligns with Anon and CK's posts, is that I would take the first job I found that could pay my rent/bills, regardless of how much I enjoy it or am fulfilled by it. I would look for a more suitable job while working.

Or at least that's what I'm saying now, as I write this from my desk at work. (It's a lot easier to say that kind of thing, as opposed to living it.)

B.Graham said...

Dennis you have captured exactly what I have been trying to figure out in my head since I first read this post. Bravo.

As someone who did take an office job as a means to an end rather than freelance my passion for another year, I can't say I don't feel a twinge of self righteousness when I read or hear something like this. But then, I didn't have a choice because I was never laid off, I was just out of work from the beginning. If I got a severance and monthly checks as a buffer to keep looking for a dream job, or at least a job in my desired field, I'm not sure what I would do.

Ozkirbas said...

Honestly, I sympathize with our mysterious visitor's perspective. And Dennis pretty much got across anything that I would have said. On first impression, that's all I really thought about.

Given, I'm willing to give Brett the benefit of the doubt. I'm sure his 2 application quota occurs during his low weeks and, if he's been unemployed this long, I'm sure he's done everything from calling places back over and over to endlessly reapplying and whatever else a good applier is supposed to do.

Although we probably don't agree politically, Matt brought up some pretty valid points, as well. Brett isn't abusing the system, not really. He's doing as much (if not more) than he's been told to do. Legally, he's conforming to their standards and if those standards were higher (and they probably should be), I'm sure he would have obliged. But, a section in Matt's comment actually gave me pause:

"And like all of us, if eventually he can't find something he likes, he'll take a job at something he doesn't like because he has to."

And here's why-
Assuming, that this plays through (no offense, Brett. I'm sure you're more than capable of finding that satisfying job) and Brett ends up at Starbucks, doesn't that stick him exactly where he's trying to avoid? Unemployment is meant to be a temporary aid while the no-longer-employed seek employment, yet Brett seems to illustrate a pretty fatal flaw - from his perspective, no one's hiring him because he hasn't worked since August. Where society utilizes unemployment in this fashion, doesn't that simply delay the inevitable?

People have a property interest in the money they earn and inherit. While there are legitimate reasons for a government to acquire some of these funds (also read: well, where else are they supposed to get money?), maintaining a temporary stop-gap delaying people from taking the jobs they hate even though they will take them eventually isn't one of them. Is that the situation for all people seeking unemployment? No. But, personally? I think that's pretty strong evidence of a broken system (given, no matter what your political perspective - I don't think anyone is going to assert that unemployment functions perfectly).

Genuinely, though. Good luck, Brett. Hope it works out.

PS - England has a movement to tax banks to fund their social programs. I haven't really done much research on it, but that does sound like an intriguing idea

goneboy87 said...

Brett, I'm glad to see that you'd rather take your sarcasm and turn it upon someone else rather than actually hear what they're trying to say. So with that in mind, I'm going to try to avoid the use of any sarcasm so that you might actually entertain the thought of reading all that I say and taking some of it to heart. (On a side note, this does disappoint me, as I truly enjoy sarcasm, but I shall try my best to eliminate it from my post. Please forgive me if I fail somewhere)

You have captured the very essence of the problem the American work force has created for themselves since the Depression, (if not earlier than that). No longer do Americans as a whole feel the necessity to work and provide for food on their table without assistance from the government. People were ashamed to stand in the lines for the soup-kitchens because it meant that they were relying upon someone else for their sustenance. Perhaps you should watch the movie Grapes of Wrath sometime when you have a chance, to understand what people were willing to go through in order to eat. Ask any married service-member why they don't take food stamps, and I can guarantee the answer that you'll get. It isn't because they aren't entitled to them, but rather because they view food stamps as something to be used by individuals who lack any method of providing for themselves. These are men and women who work far more than 60 hours a week to provide freedoms for you and me, people who can't work a second job because they are forbidden to do so, and they still find a way to survive on their own because they refuse to burden their fellow citizens with taking care of them. They earn the money that they use to provide a roof over their heads and food on their table.

Before you ask, I do currently have a job, and I am thankful for it. I have worked jobs since I was twelve years old, and since the time I turned sixteen I have been blessed to have continual work. Believe me, not all of the work was something that I enjoyed or looked forward to doing, but it was always a paycheck. Before I graduated high school I was working two jobs and de-conflicting my work schedules with them so that I could put food on the table to take care of my family. My father had been in a motorcycle accident, and the insurance was only paying for his medical bills. Wisconsin wasn't going to pay for his unemployment, because he still technically had a job. Thankfully he recovered before I graduated high school, and managed to attend college and get a bachelor's degree in Information Technology. It is a job I like, and something I do look forward to doing every day. Like every job, there are downsides and aspects of the job can be frustrating. However, if an individual focuses upon the negative aspects of a job they will never find a job that fits them, they will all seem mediocre. I certainly didn't like shoveling horse-shit out of a barn, or sweating in fields of Christmas trees as I was shearing them with a machete to make sure that they grew into the nice little, pointy shape that we all recognize as a Christmas tree. I thought they were mediocre jobs, unbecoming, and certainly not jobs that I wanted to be married to for any period of time. However, the alternative was to begin relying upon friends, neighbors, and our church for money to pay the family mortgage, bills, and food; so I learned to cowboy up and take whatever work I could find.

goneboy87 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
goneboy87 said...

It disappoints me to know that my tax dollars are going to an unemployment fund where people will collect money from said fund for extended periods of time rather than taking a job to provide for themselves. You said yourself that you haven't been employed since August, and now you feel that your extended unemployment is hurting your cause at getting a job. I do understand that one job may not cut it, but I wonder how many single mothers have had to work two jobs to put food on the table for their children, how many fathers work extra shifts at a factory to get the money their family needs, how many people cut costs in order to survive on a more meager income than what they were previously accustomed to, and I wonder what two part-time jobs could do for your income? 2 part time jobs at 24 hours a week adds up to 48 hours per week, and often you can get more than 24 hours for a part time job. In America, we seem to think that because an employer has to pay overtime after 40 hours/week that we are entitled to stop working at 40 hours.

Do yourself a favor Brett, reach down in your shorts and tell me if you feel anything there. If you still have a small bit of manhood left, why don't you start working and providing for yourself. Take any job that you can get, and then keep looking for a better job that you'll enjoy more. Until then, you're allowing every high school student who is paying FICA, Social Security, Federal and State Taxes to provide for you, while you as a physically capable adult are surviving off of their hard efforts. Let me know how that feels to look in the mirror in the morning when you wake up and realize that children are providing for you. I've traded my greasy jeans, t-shirt, and shit-kicker boots for a uniform comprised of a shirt, pressed pants, tie, jacket, and dress shoes since high school, but I would gladly take back the former and work the 12 hour days I knew too well during the summers before I lounged in my house, or casually applied to the minimum of 2 jobs per week. One more challenge for you and every other reader. Before you type some smart-assed reply, do the following things:
1) Look in the news, and see what other international societies do to provide for themselves. How much work does an individual take on to maintain the pride of being self sufficient.
2) Watch the Grapes of Wrath, the black and white version. I'd encourage you to read the book, but as I have yet to have time to read the book in its entirety, I don't feel I can rightly tell you to do something I haven't managed to do. See how society did whatever they could to provide for themselves.
3) Take an objective look at every family that is struggling right now to make ends meet, and ask yourself if you are truly working as hard as they are. I too have a college degree, and I can tell you that having an education does not exempt anyone from physical labor or monotonous tasks. You do what you have to in order to provide.
4) Think about what would happen if the entire country decided to take the course of action you would encourage in your post and/or are currently doing.

Have a great day, and good luck job hunting.

Matt Lindeboom said...

@goneboy87: to be fair to Brett, it was me who used his sarcasm and turned it back on ck. ;)

Max Nova said...

I'll respond to a number of things, then I'm out of this thread. Arguing on the internet is the essence of sadness:

"You have captured the very essence of the problem the American work force has created for themselves since the Depression, (if not earlier than that)."
- Huh? The US has had huge HUGE economic advances in the last half-century. If the years 1945-2000 are caused by worker laziness, then we need a whole lot more.

"It disappoints me to know that my tax dollars are going to an unemployment fund where people will collect money from said fund for extended periods of time rather than taking a job to provide for themselves."
- The two most trite American phrases: "It's a free country" and "My tax dollars are paying for your ...". Well it's not and they aren't. There's not one big pot of money that Obama divies up each April 15th like a Santa.

"Look in the news, and see what other international societies do to provide for themselves. "
- Has no one on the right wing every heard of Europe/Canada/Australia? Seriously, every other democracy has a bigger safety net than the US and people cry bloody murder that we give people food stamps. Also, they fund the arts!!!

"Do yourself a favor Brett, reach down in your shorts and tell me if you feel anything there. "
- So artists don't have testicles? Why not just make this a proper internet argument and say he's worse than hitler? I can sense that's what you really wanted to say in your heart.