Last spring my husband came home from work with the news that he had been laid off again. This was the third time in the past few years that he’d been laid off. The difference this time was in the finality of the decision as there would be no call back to work. The past five months have been spent trying to adjust to the new normal of life in the ranks of the unemployed. We are certainly not alone. We are the 99%. The unemployment rate for Oregon in August was 9.6% with 21 of the state’s 36 counties in double digits with a high of 15.6%. Of the 14 million estimated to be out of work nationally, 75% have been unemployed for more than six months and 50% have been out of work for over two years. The academic reality of what it is like to be unemployed is evidenced in a recent Rutgers two year study where 32% of participants stated there were under “a good deal of stress” and 47% were under “some stress”. 11% of those in the Rutgers study had sought professional help for clinical depression. Those people were more fortunate than most as the majority of the unemployed can’t seek professional counseling due to loss of employer paid insurance coverage.
Even more of the unemployed are left with very limited options for counseling services because of government cut backs at local mental health clinics due to budget short falls. One of every two participants in the Rutgers study explained that they had avoided friends because of the shame of their situation thus increasing their sense of isolation and having the unintended side effect of shrinking their professional network.
Research reveals that unemployment’s impact also includes lower skill levels making it even harder to be rehired. For those who are unemployed for more than a year the long term outlook is grim. Many will find salaries approximately 20% lower, if they are fortunate enough to find work. Some companies are red flagging those applicants with a record of long term employment as clearly it must be due to the applicant’s deficits rather than the fact that jobs are in short supply. Last summer a local theatre held a job fair for some open positions. Standing in the long lines waiting to apply were middle aged men and women dressed in their business suits with their briefcases filled with their professional resumes. Next to them were the teenagers and young adults who were the targets for these few minimum wage positions. How is it possible to maintain dignity through this experience?
My husband and I have lived privileged lives. As part of the white middle class majority we both have been blessed with numerous opportunities contained in the American dream that came our way due primarily to our privileged position. I know that this current national experience is even more difficult and heart breaking for those people who have grown up without benefit of privilege but who also aspire to the same kind of success that my husband and I have sought. For a personal view of the reality of life for many of our fellow Americans I refer you to: http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/. Unlike many of the people who share their stories at this website, my husband and I have some options to draw on as we survive this hard time. As we’ve made our way through the past few months I’ve been troubled and eventually outraged at comments made by a few government officials about the unemployed. Senator Orrin Hatch stated "Too many Americans are locked into a life of a dangerous dependency not only on drugs, but the federal assistance that serves to enable their addiction."
In other words, the unemployed are as much a drag on society as hard core drug addicts and both should be demonized for their situation. The underlying belief there is that those, like my husband, who have paid into unemployment throughout their work lives, prefer to stay on the ‘dole’ instead of working and earning a living. It is the fault of the unemployed that they are unemployed. Senator Rand Paul stated that those on unemployment need ‘tough love’ to get their lives back in order. In other words, the unemployed are lazy and just need the proverbial kick in the butt to get back to work. Others have made statements that the unemployed will not go back to work as long as they can receive the unemployment check because too many are ‘spoiled’ by the receipt of unemployment benefits. In other words, the unemployed would prefer to live on the edge of financial ruin because we are too used to unearned handouts. Why work when you can have a small percentage of your former salary sent each week? Just this week presidential candidate Herman Cain stated that the blame for unemployment falls on those who are unemployed. So if all the unemployed would just take personal responsibility for themselves the jobs would be there and they too could be rich. If you wondered at all why thousands are occupying Wall Street these few comments should give an idea.
The question could fairly be asked how this qualifies as a counseling issue. The counseling profession is committed to advocacy. The ACA Code of ethics speaks of an “examination of the barriers and obstacles to growth and development”. It seems to me that this current national economic struggle is an opportunity for those of us who are members of ACA and who understand the enormous implications to the well-being and personal development to people of economic injustice, to speak up and to act. I think this is what is driving the thousands of people across the country to turn out to occupy Wall Street, Seattle, Portland and numerous other cities across the country. What exactly that speech or action may be is a question for which I do not have a specific answer.
What’s your answer?
Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.