But Do You Have a Job?

It’s actually a kind of funny question for me to be asking since, well, I’m not. It’s summer and so my substitute teaching gig is at an end. My telecommuting job from last year evaporated. I’ve been keeping an eye out, but due to family responsibilities, it’s not easy to find something that fits. It’s also the case that we don’t have a pressing need for the money. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

Despite all of these excuses, though, I am still among the first to say that – with the exception of the retired and those who have household duties (more significant than mine, till the Jumping Bean arrives) – not working is in the overall a detriment to the psyche. It not only makes me less economically productive, but it has a negative effect on my overall citizenry.

Having spent time living among the working poor, and time living among widespread unemployment, underemployment, and inconsistent employment. The difference in culture is night and day. And not because of economic status. Working, to an extent, breeds responsibility. When I lived in a shoddy apartment complex, and a neighbor friend quit his job because he couldn’t get a particular Saturday off, that my taxes might start going towards covering for the fact that he was unemployed did not bother me nearly as much as the effect I knew it would have on him.

I live in a part of the country that is not remarkably well-off. I work in a town (“Redstone”) that is especially struggling. But the unemployment rate in Redstone is low and “Now Hiring” signs are comparatively few and far between. It’s hard not to respect the work ethic involved, especially when you consider the limitations of the kind of lifestyle most of them will ever be able to afford. Those with brighter horizens left, but those left behind continue to work. It’s stultifying, in a way, but it has its own dignity.

One of the stronger arguments of the OWS crowd, in my view, was when they were accused of being lazy or whatnot and in turn said, “One of the things we’re protesting for is finding work!”

Right on.

We recently discussed the European model versus the American one. I’m not attached to the latter, to be perfectly honest. My main concern with looking towards Europe as a model is that I think a lot of what works over there simply won’t work over here. The other main concern is the high levels of unemployment. I’ve heard that rates often compared shouldn’t be and a more apples-to-apples comparison would reveal less difference. If that’s true, then that negates the concern. If that’s not true, then that poses a problem for me and something I want to avoid even if we move in a more Social Democratic direction more generally.

Of all the things that have happened to our economy since 2007, it’s the jobs picture that bothers me the most. The real estate market will work itself out, eventually. The stock market will do what the stock market will do. Inequality is not a primary concern in many of the ways that it is for others. But jobs? I fear that we will lose the work culture and work ethic that I believe has served us well. I fear we will give up. I fear that those locked out of the job market right now will be frozen out entirely. I fear a growing – and permanent – misallocation between the workers we have and the workers we need.

I fear that there is no really good solution to this. Out here in Arapaho, it can actually sort of work its way out, in a way. Cost of living is cheap. People don’t need a whole lot to get by. If the job doesn’t pay enough for them to so do, it’s not too expensive for Washington to help them out. It was the same in Deseret, except in addition to Washington you also had The Relief Society and various other religious initiatives. In other parts of the country, it’s harder to get by with little. Not only because cost of living is more expensive, but in densely populated places comparative wealth becomes more important (you want to live with these people, and not those people).

One of the things I do think we need to move past is the notion of self-support insofar as that government aid to people who work is a problem. Even if they ultimately take out more than they put in. Even if the “We are the 53%” were not mathematically bunk, I think we need to get to a place where it is considered beside the point even if it were true. I feel similarly towards the minimum wage and the implication that people have to be able to support themselves on the wages they get from their employer. They have to be able to live, but whether they make their way from the minimum wage or the EITC or some other subsidization (housing, for example) is less important. I don’t mind some incremental increases in the minimum wage, so long as it doesn’t discourage employers from actually hiring people, but questions like “How is someone supposed to live on $7.25 an hour!” strike me as problematic because if we raised it to what people would really need to live on (to the satisfaction of the people making the statement) would likely incur employment problem.

Of course, also problematic is telling employers that they can pay their employees as little as they like and the government will make sure that the employees get what they need to get by. I’m not sure what the right balance is here.

I do know that, in the meantime, I am hardly the only person who is looking at this as being about jobs. Which is great, and I hope it stays that way.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Seems to me that part of the problem is that idea that “unemployed” equals “sitting on the couch watching TV”. You’re right that it’s not good for a person to sit around and do nothing. Thing is, there’s kind of a lot that you can actually do, much more than people think.

    No, I’m not trying to say some Colbert-ish “we’re going to rename unemployment to Total Freedom Status!” I’m saying that while inactivity leads to death, the answer is not “the government should guarantee 100% employment”.

    • I wonder what nefarious person or group pushed that whole “unemployed are lazy freeloaders” line?

      Surely it didn’t spring, fully-formed, onto the public conciousness. We’ve all got personal, real-world, “people we know” examples of folks with good work ethics desperate to find work…and failing…during the Great Recession.

      So it seems manufactured. Who or what would benefit from casting unemployed as lazy, rather than as victims of “Number of Jobs MANY TIMES LESS THAN Number of Applicants”

      • Um yeah that’s…not really what I said, at all.

    • I think that being unemployed is very often going to lead to “sitting on the couch watching TV” or even worse. There are certainly people for whom this is not the case, especially those with family responsibilities or something else that tends toward pressing, but I think these people are outnumbered.

      I don’t think the government should guarantee full employment. But I think getting gearing policy towards getting people into the workforce is a good idea and I think the effects of chronic unemployment are bad for reasons that go beyond tax dollars.

  2. ≤i.They have to be able to live, but whether they make their way from the minimum wage or the EITC or some other subsidization (housing, for example) is less important.

    Amen, brother.

    • (That was a failed attempt at italics, not an opaque bit of arithmetic.)

  3. Of course, also problematic is telling employers that they can pay their employees as little as they like and the government will make sure that the employees get what they need to get by. I’m not sure what the right balance is here.

    I don’t think this works the way you think it does. Wages are determined by supply and demand. Welfare probably increases the demand for low-skill labor (because people who otherwise wouldn’t have money to spend now do), and decreases the supply (some people will choose not to work because welfare is enough for them). Both of these suggest that welfare increases wages. The model where firms will just pay workers as little as they can get by on, so they can pay less if welfare benefits are increased, doesn’t strike me as plausible. Workers will try to get the best offer they can, regardless.

    Welfare also raises workers’ reserve wages—a person without welfare benefits may be willing to take a $6/hour job while a person who has welfare—and thus assigns a lower marginal value to money, may hold out for a $10/hour job.

    I guess one scenario under which welfare could hypothetically lower wages in specific cases is if a worker has to choose between a more pleasant job with a lower wage and a less pleasant job with a higher wage. A person getting supplemental welfare may not consider the greater unpleasantness of the second job worth the extra $2/hour.

    • I get where you’re coming from on welfare-in-lieu-of-work, but I’m taking about salary supplements.

      If the US guaranteed everyone who worked (52 weeks a year) $20,000 a year and made up the difference if they got paid below that, don’t you think that employers would say “Why bother paying them $9/hr? The employees will know that $7.25 will be supplemented anyway.”

      That’s what I’m talking about. Now, that’s a very simple policy that we wouldn’t implement for that reason. But the more we offer to “pick up the slack” for employers, I don’t see why they wouldn’t take advantage of that. Especially with a glut of unemployed workers. Maybe a generous enough unemployment/WILOW might make them raise wages, but keeping people off the payroll to affect supply is problematic for many of the reasons discussed in this post.

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