As I write this, some 3.8 million Americans await the outcome of new unemployment claims. All told, since mid-March, 30 million have filed after losing work. State systems were quickly overburdened by this staggering need for relief; so much so that only two-thirds of applicants have been approved for benefits. But while a significant portion of the country is plunged into a financial crisis, we’re beset by familiar rhetoric stigmatizing this vulnerable group: They are not at risk; actually, they’re making too much money by sitting at home.
If you’re a cruel and repulsive politician, this is an easy way to pit the lower classes against each other. The essential workers at Walmart and grocery stores can’t go on unemployment, because those businesses remain open — but since, as a rule, these employees are paid jack shit, they may earn less for life-threatening work than the jobless who qualify for state assistance, plus the weekly $600 carved out in the federal coronavirus stimulus package.
This (rightly) strikes us as unfair, though the Republican-minded conclusion that we ought to strip money back from the unemployed to create some equilibrium of poverty is ridiculous. The real solution, plague or not, is to establish a minimum wage equivalent to a living wage; what the current disparity shows us is not that the unemployed are coddled and spoiled by the government, but rather that our society has never fittingly valued an indispensable swath of our workforce.
That is to say: Instead of withholding public funds, mandate better pay across the board.
Beyond that diversionary nonsense, though, lies another entrenched cliché often used to punish the suffering. It’s the notion of the “welfare queen” and the “disability fraudster” — the lazy poor person who is actually rolling in cash, thanks to their shameless abuse of the allegedly quite generous U.S. safety net.
Lately, disingenuous actors have flipped the cause and effect of COVID-19 layoffs to suggest that people chose unemployment over continuing to work, having realized it’s more profitable. This is wrong on such an elemental level that it’s almost a challenge to answer, but let’s try anyway: You cannot quit your job and get unemployment. That’s not how it works.
Why do you suppose you can still order from Amazon and order at the McDonald’s drive-thru? If the meagerly compensated, horribly mistreated employees of these companies had the option to increase their paychecks by walking out, you can bet your burger they wouldn’t hesitate.
The “reopening” plans advocated by some governors can be viewed as an effort to force thousands of such low-wage workers back into a hellish service industry that will make few, if any, allowances for their safety. To some, this might be justified through the received belief that no one should be paid for doing nothing (which, okay, wait till you hear about millionaires), and yet this industrious attitude also rests on a false assumption — that the unemployed are living it up, lounging around or otherwise appreciating a glut of free time.
Really, these are hours of incredible stress and creeping dread. From the minute you receive the first payment, the clock is running. You have a set number of weeks until they turn off the cash faucet, and you expend all energy not devoted to daily survival to finding another employer, any kind of economic lifeline.
When you’re stuck relying on American bureaucracy, it is your full-time job to escape.
This is a ghastly situation under normal circumstances, and it’s far worse in the gathering entropy of a global pandemic. Not only is job-hunting an exercise in futility right now — even Florida was forced to drop its brutal requirement that beneficiaries meet with five potential employers per week to collect unemployment — but with so many looking to secure what they’re owed from departments that are understaffed, confusing and dysfunctional by design, it’s a struggle to obtain basic information or help from an actual human being.
You can call their offices hour after hour to be repeatedly hung up on after a pre-recorded message, or log on to glitchy websites to wait in endless virtual lines, and on the off-chance you do manage to speak with someone, they’re liable to be as panicked and mixed up as you are. Our institutions were built to deny aid when the economy is strong. Why would they perform when it’s crashing?
Navigating the labyrinths meant to separate us from a bare minimum of stability and dignity is no different than winning a scratch-off jackpot: This is what a toxic culture holds to be true, and it’s depressing how common the sentiment is. Any history of this period in the U.S. will have to grapple with how a malignant individualism subverted our collective empathy — see: the anti-lockdown protests — and the failure to grasp that the unemployed are not enjoying their insecure status is one more example.
For god’s sake, pick on anyone else. It’s not as if we want for money-grubbing parasites.