Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why Don't the Unemployed "Just Get a Job?"

"You shouldn't have dropped out of school!" a man yelled from his car at the young man who was walking. Why did the driver make the assumption that the young man had dropped out of school? Was it because the pedestrian had long hair? Was it because the driver often saw the pedestrian walking? Little did the presumptuous older man know that the younger man was on his two mile walk home from the train…the train that took him to college each day where he was earning a 4.0, while working a part-time job on the side.

"Try not to get caught in a rainstorm when you go for an interview," said the career adviser to the young woman who had taken public transportation through a thunderstorm in order to make it to the appointment for which she was paying the older woman $75 of precious borrowed money to help with her resume.

Were these young people "poor people" who were raised in poor families?  Not at all. They were middle class people who didn't currently have a car, middle class people who had seen better times.

"Middle class people who have seen better times" are all around us. We rub elbows with them all the time. Many of us "have seen better times" one time or another in our lives.

I remember when I worked part time at J C Penney some years back. Many of the customers treated us salespeople as if we were their lower class servants, as if we have a caste system here, which of course we do not. (I hope.) Perhaps some of the customers who thought they were "better" would have been surprised to learn that one of my co-workers was supplementing her job as an accountant and another was supplementing her job as an elementary school teacher. Who knows why they needed additional money. Perhaps it was just getting hard to make ends meet. Or maybe the other breadwinner in the family had lost his job, or perhaps there were medical needs.

Of course, working at a department store is not a guaranteed income either. The hours are usually "all over the place"…sometimes leaving at 10 at night and returning again at 6 in the morning; sometimes working 30 hours a week; other times working only 8 hours a week. One person I know took a job at a mall anchor store with "guaranteed five hours a week". Sometimes they would want him to come in for two or three hours at a time, which was barely worth the cost of the gasoline to get there, and certainly not enough to eke out even a meager living.

I have left the names out of my stories to 'protect the innocent', as they say, but all the stories are true. I have spoken with many people about today's economy, and these are just a few of the stories I have heard.

One woman I know was happy to obtain a work-at-home job. For less than ten dollars an hour, she was expected to provide and maintain her own computer and wired internet access. But when the company's connection went down - many times each day - it caused outages for all of the employees, keeping them from doing their jobs. The employees were paid for the time they actually worked, not for the time in between which was spent on outages, which were entirely beyond their control.

And then there are the drug testing stories. One woman I know spent two hours on public transportation, followed by a mile's walk, to reach an agency which had offered her a temp job (the job itself was in a location which would be easier for her to access).  She arrived at the agency at the specified time, but after she passed the typing test, the agent told her she would need to go two miles down the road to get a drug test.  By the time she would be able to get back, going on foot, they would be closed. They offered no suggestions or encouragement.

And that story reminds me of another story. One young man applied to work at a Walmart store.  They sent him over 20 miles (each way) for the drug test.  Although he had never used drugs in his life, they never got around to calling him back for a job or an interview.

Then there is the ubiquitous 'job' that sounds legitimate, but turns out to be a networking plan, not an income for someone who is out of work…or worse, it turns out to be a complete scam.  In the meantime, the prospect has spent money going to a bogus 'interview'. And no, it is not "ignorant" people who waste their time on these scam interviews. Sometimes it is a college graduate with years of work in a professional career.

Why am I sharing all these stories? It's so easy for our automobile-driven society to think – without really thinking about it – that those people who are walking down the street, those people who stand at bus stops, somehow made the choice to be there rather than to be driving a car, or that those who are unemployed need to "just get a job". For any readers who are unemployed, I want to tell you that there is always hope. I know a lot of people who have been laid off who have gotten a job. But for those of us observing, let's just realize that it is neither easy nor instant. 

May we remember that those who are unemployed, or underemployed, and those who do not drive a car for whatever reason, whether they were brought up rich, poor, or middle class, are usually not in this situation through their own "fault". Sometimes they need to exercise incredible perseverance and resourcefulness. Sometimes they need a little help, or a little encouragement. But certainly they need and deserve our complete respect and quite often our admiration.  

Friday, August 09, 2013

A Beggar at the Door of My Car

As I loaded my groceries into the car, a man approached me. 

"Would you give me a couple quarters?" he asked, adding, "I'm hungry!"  

I continued putting my groceries in the car, thinking about what I might have just bought that would be ready-to-eat, wishing I had bought a protein bar. I pulled out a bag of hoagie buns and offered them to him. He made no move to take them, and I said, "I guess they would be awkward."  

"Can't you give me money?" he asked. "I want to buy a sandwich." 

"I will go with  you into the store & buy you a sandwich," I offered. 

"No," he whined, "Can't you give me quarters?" 

"I don't give people money," I said not unkindly, but firmly, shutting the rear passenger door where I was loading the groceries, and turning my back on him, ignoring his continued pleas. For the first time, I realized I was a bit nervous, as I could see out of the corner of my eye that he followed me from the passenger side of the car to the front of my car. But I guess he decided I wasn't going to be any help; so he went to another car. I noticed they listened politely, and politely turned him down before he went on to the next car. 

As I write this, I'm thinking what if a  friend had written this article and I was reading it. I might be saying, "You stood there and talked to a stranger at the door of your car?!"  Well, first of all, I have had sixty years of life experience in a variety of locales and situations, and I have always been one of the most cautious people I know; so if no alarm bells went off in my head, I was probably okay as far as danger goes. (Okay, I know that there are probably numerous things wrong with that last statement.) 

Also, there wasn't a lot I could do except be polite and firm, as he was already there by my open car door. I learned when I lived in Los Angeles to never show fear, although I guess I could have just said no in the first place, which is what I usually say if someone approaches me on the street, asking for change.  But I didn't. 

And maybe that's because I know what it is to have relatives, and friends who have relatives, throughout that spectrum: hungry, or dependent on alcohol, or with a debilitating, but non-violent mental illness that causes them to have difficulties in life. And I have relatives who have none of those problems, yet have been temporarily down on their luck. Those are some of the reasons I'm a little open to helping a little, if I can. Along with the words of Jesus, "I was hungry and you gave me to eat." 

But just as I wasn't sure how to handle that situation while I was there, I also wasn't sure whether or not to report it to the store. I finally did call, and the woman on the phone told me she appreciated me telling them. This is not the kind of store where people beg in the parking lot; but I don't think it was so much that thought  that caused me to call. What tipped the balance for me was his being right at my car door in my personal space. If you approach me on the street, I can walk way, but I can't as easily walk away from my car. If you spend time close to me and my car, and then you follow me halfway around my car after I say no, then I have to assume you could possibly be a danger to myself or others. 

Recalling a different situation, although I said I don't give money, there are exceptions to that. One evening we were walking downtown and passed by a woman playing beautifully on a flute. To me, she looked hungry, and also sad. When I put money in her bowl, she said thank you, and I said, "You're welcome, and thank you."  She looked pleasantly surprised that I said that and wished me a good evening. She had provided a service, she had entertained me, just as they do in San Francisco or New Orleans. I thanked her, just as I do the cashier in the store, because we have each provided one another a service. I felt better for having reminded the flutist of that, with my "thank you", than I did for giving her a little money. When we help people, it's not like we are feeding the squirrels. We are dealing with human beings who are created in the image and likeness of God. Although I will back away from perceived danger or even report it, yet when I do help someone on the street, I like to treat them with the same respect I would my family members or friends, or my friends' family members. After all, aren't we really all part of the same human family?