"The most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'" (Ronald Reagan)
If Charles Dickens were alive today, chances are he'd be looking around and rephrasing his famous words to "It is the worst of times.... and still the worst of times."
As I write this piece, Greece's economy is barely hanging on, with those of Italy and Portugal supposedly set to fall like dominos after it, and the tsunami effect of Europe's rapidly spreading economic woes to soon presumably cross the Atlantic and beyond. In the shallow halls of Congress, according to Real Clear Politics (www.realclearpolitics.com), which currently and deservedly only enjoys a whopping 12.7% approval rate, the so-called "Super Committee" isn't thus far wooing anyone in grandiose expectation to find $1.2 trillion in spending cuts by its November 23rd deadline, and unemployment is over 9% and most likely about double that figure when you add in the unreported numbers of the unemployed who are just underemployed, or who have stopped looking for employment. In astronaut parlance, "Houston, we have a problem!"
With regard to unemployment, as I once heard someone say, "Been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt!" I was laid off from a job roughly 20 years ago, and ironically, around this time of the year, and shortly after we purchased our first home, and we barely survived (besides my wife's income) by me driving a taxi, tending bar (in a haughty restaurant that went belly up and silently closed its doors without warning to any of us working there one night shortly after New Year's Eve), and oh yes, our good friends at the state unemployment office!
I don't necessarily blame the individual workers in the unemployment office. They are mostly just decent folks working a job to support themselves and their families just like each of us. My problem however, is more with the system and the permeating mindset of that abysmally incompetent system that is only hysterically inept when you can stop yourself from crying long enough.
First of all, I didn't even initially realize that I even qualified for unemployment because I was working, although at substantially less pay than I was making prior to my lay-off. Supposedly, my checks were not for the full amount because I was working, and in either case, they weren't going to be for much anyway. And I was embarrassed, not just at being laid off, but at the prospect of collecting public charity. But I was vulnerable then and I listened to well-meaning people who advised me that collecting would be the prudent thing to do.
I'm told that today people can file on line for benefits, but this was still the golden age of standing in mile-long lines and filling out reams of paperwork, and just hoping that you didn't make a mistake on a form or had gotten into the long line and be forced to repeat the hideous process, or to finally get up to the window, only to be told that the counselor there to process your claim was now due to go on his or her break.
I recall one counselor at the unemployment office with a very maternal demeanor randomly advising me not to drink. Aghast, I replied that I would never drink on the job. She replied, "No honey, I don't just mean on the job. I mean overall! I've been doing this job for years, and I don't know what it is about you men, but you always take a job loss harder than a woman does and then you all get to hitting the bottle!" I thanked her for her unsolicited, albeit, well-intentioned advice and told her I would try to keep it in mind. (Burp!) Oops...excuse me!
Another counselor asked me if I had been "tested" yet. Not sure what she meant, I assured her that I was safe and up to date on all my shots. But she told me she meant career testing. They could give me a written test that would direct me toward a new career path. Willing to try anything that would help, I zealously embraced the idea. She told me I would need to make a special appointment to take the test and she scheduled it for me.
When I arrived to take the test, another counselor asked me if I knew what I liked and disliked in terms of work. I said yes. He then asked if I knew my own personal strengths. I said yes (Many!). He then asked if I knew my weaknesses. That was easy, none, well, except for maybe an excess of charm and humility, but I again answered yes. He then said, "Great!" and then tore up my paperwork, and cancelled my appointment, telling me the test was generally pretty useless as that's all it would tell me anyway, so instead, I should just go pursue a job that I knew I would like and be good at. At this point, I was looking around for Allen Funt, but neither he, nor his famous "candid camera" were anywhere to be found in the vicinity! (Do they really pay these people to show up every day and actually give this kind of advice?)
Still another counselor told me that I might well qualify for federal aid for education and job retraining, and hey, why not? After all, I already knew what I was good at and liked...and obviously, I didn't even need a test! So, like a fish on a hook, I bit into the bait! And then, much like the foolish and hapless fish, I was also soon reeled in! Yes, you guessed it! I had to make another appointment!
So I showed up for my appointment, again waited in a long line, filled out more paperwork, and was told to then sit in a designated waiting area and wait some more. After that, I was called up to a counselor's desk. I asked her if I qualified and she said I had to fill out some paperwork. I said I already did and she said that paperwork was just to see her, but now, I had to fill out more paperwork to see if I qualified. (At this point, I was already more interested in collecting worker's compensation....for writer's cramp!) So, I filled out several more forms, which she meticulously (or perhaps...just slowly) reviewed. She then told me that I qualified. Great! Then she wrote an address of yet another office on a slip of paper which she handed me and then told me to go there to actually now apply for the federal aid. (Yes, paperwork....Round 3!) With a sigh, I agreed. However, as I stood to leave her desk, she then quipped that it probably would not do me any good, though. I asked why, and she shrugged and told me that most of the allocated federal aid had already been used up and no one knew when or even if any more would be forthcoming. I then angrily asked why I just had to go through all this dog and pony show for nothing. She said because it was my "right," so they had to let me try. (HUH?)
Soon after being laid off, I paid good money to take a bartending course and then had to shell out yet more money to buy a tuxedo (everything but the jacket) to work in this high end restaurant which, as I mentioned before, later folded with no previous warning. (Three steps forward...12 steps back!) Now I was obliged to report that further loss of income to the unemployment office. A counselor told me that I had to schedule an appointment for a hearing. (No paperwork required this time, oddly enough!) I asked why I needed a hearing and she said for me to prove that the restaurant is no longer in business, as if its closing was my fault, or as if I was foolish enough to make up such a ridiculous fabrication. I told her to try to call the establishment in question at about 8PM on a Saturday night, and then when nobody answers the phone, to figure it out for herself. Otherwise, how was I going to prove that the restaurant was now out of business? Angry, frustrated, mortified and insulted, I refused the hearing, and subsequently never received my last three unemployment checks. (Gee, I guess I showed them!) By the way, the restaurant owners also mysteriously disappeared into the night, never to be heard from again, and my final paycheck from them was left bouncing all the way back from the bank!
Thankfully, I was soon after notified that I was getting recalled back to my original job. I bid a tearless farewell to the unemployment office and somehow survived on about three weeks with no more checks. On top of that, the shyster taxi outfit I drove for almost refused to give me back my mandatory lease deposit to drive their cars until I advised the owner of my contacts at a certain other government agency called the DMV, and I also relayed to him several observations I made during my brief period of employment with his company regarding his cars, drivers, and business practices. POOF! With my kidnapped money now rightfully back in my rightful hand, I bid him a tearless farewell as well!
Now I understand that the unemployed can collect for the odd number of 99 weeks. (And I can't help but ask, "Why not just make it an even 100?") Given that a sad new trend is now emerging in the US that fewer businesses wish to hire the long term unemployed, maybe this is a good idea, but I have also heard reports that some folks don't even start looking for work until a month or so before the checks are due to run out. (Which I find personally aggravating considering that my last three checks were pretty much donated back to the state because of its utter and myopic stupidity!)
I know a single mom who once went through a tough time some years back and for a short period of time was forced to go on welfare until she could get back on her feet again. Much like me with collecting unemployment, she was hesitant to even apply for welfare, and once on the dole, she soon found out that also like unemployment with me, the welfare office with her he had little to no interest in actually helping her, and systemically impeded, and even discouraged her efforts to help herself. All they wanted to do was keep her dependent on their "service" (to just keep doling out money). Eventually, she managed to work herself off the welfare rolls and has never returned.
As for yours truly, flipping burgers in a local fast food greasy burger joint makes a whole lot more sense than subjecting myself to not only that humiliation ever again, but the needless aggravation as well. No, it's certainly not glamorous, but is still is honest work, nevertheless. And if that's not enough to make ends meet, then I'll work in three or four burger joints. This whole sordid and ironic saga was a nightmare I don't wish to ever become a deja vu.
Having been in their position, I truly feel for the unemployed. But as an answer, government just doesn't seem to be it. It doesn't even really seem to be a lesser of two evils, but rather, just "less."