Americans enduring unemployment have typically, in the culture of the U.S. political economy, not been responded to with sympathy but rather with disdain, judgment, and blame.
And this has been true, we see, even when the nation has faced conditions of great economic austerity, begging the question, how can we blame people for not working when there is a scarcity of jobs?
The answer: quite glibly, apparently. Just take Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker who in a 2014 gubernatorial debate, defended his record of having created only 5,800 jobs (against a loss of 13,000!) when he promised 250,000 for Wisconsin, by asserting, “We don’t have a jobs problem; we have a work problem.” If Wisconsin citizens weren’t so lazy and possessed some initiative, Governor Walker would have created another 250,000 jobs!
Similarly, Republican lightning rod Newt Gingrich, in the height of the Great Recession in November 2011, dismissively admonished Occupy Wall Street protesters to “take a bath” and “get a job,” while around the country, from 2009 through 2012 the country witnessed the following scenes: in May 2012, 20,000 people applied for one of 877 jobs at a Hyundai plant in Montgomery, Alabama; in Summer 2011, 18,000 people applied for one of 1,800 jobs at a Ford plant in Louisville; also in 2011, more than 41,000 people applied for one of 1,300 jobs at a new Toyota plant in Tupelo, Mississippi; in 2009, 65,000 people applied for one of 2,700 jobs at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.
This approach is akin to blaming thirsty people in a desert for not looking hard enough for water—except with this key difference: in our world we arguably have enough water, but our system withholds it from those who can’t find jobs in an economy in which jobs are scarce, operating on a logic that not only defies social reality but is illogically punitive and inhumane.
As we see from Gingrich’s comments, the reality of social conditions has historically simply not made a difference when it comes to blaming people for their lot.
Will the conditions of the coronoavirus begin to alter this dominant American mentality?
It’s quite clear that many people cannot go to work because places of business are simply closed. Some 17 million people have applied for unemployment benefits in the last three weeks.
It’s clear they are not to blame. The phrase we hear quite frequently these days, in regard to people’s joblessness, is that “it’s through no fault of their own.”
States across the nation have struggled to process the enormous number of claims flooding their systems.
In some cases, it may simply be the unusual volume of claims. In other cases, it’s not just the volume of claims overwhelming the systems; it’s the state’s historical lack of care and concern, or its stubborn outright resistance and reluctance over time, to provide benefits to the unemployed.
That resistance is a by-product of the mentality that unemployment is not a social condition but a personal flaw and failure, the result of laziness, a desire to free-load, and so forth, which in my experience is hardly the case. Just look at the examples above from the Great Recession when people by the tens of thousands showed up to compete for the few jobs available.
In Ron DeSantis’ Florida, for example, this no long history of hatred and judgment of the unemployed.
Not only do they pay the least of any state in unemployment benefits ($275 per week), tying for first with North Carolina for the duration one can receive benefits (12 weeks), but Republican leaders have admitted that the current system, designed and implemented when current Republican Senator from Florida Rick Scott was governor, was in fact built to fail.
As Politico recently reported, “Privately, Republicans admit that the $77.9 million system that is now failing Florida workers is doing exactly what Scott designed it to do — lower the state’s reported number of jobless claims after the great recession.”
A DeSantis advisor admitted as much to Politico, speaking colorful tones:
“It’s a sh– sandwich, and it was designed that way by Scott. It wasn’t about saving money. It was about making it harder for people to get benefits or keep benefits so that the unemployment numbers were low to give the governor something to brag about.”
But it’s not just about having something to brag about; it’s clearly also about hating on people who suffer from lack of work, something most Americans clearly crave.
Indeed, Scott’s continuing animosity towards the unemployed persists, despite the job desert Florida, a state whose economy heavily depends on tourism, has become. The Pensacola News Journal reminds us:
“Scott was among a handful of Republican senators who criticized the federal relief package and its $600 weekly benefits for those out of work. Scott, who voted for the package, complained that the payments were too robust and would “disincentive people from returning to the workforce.”
Since 2013, auditors have been highlighting the myriad problems with the system, and year after after year the problems have gone unaddressed.
Meanwhile, now hundreds of thousands of Floridians are seeking immediate relief, some having tried for multiple weeks to apply for benefits. And they risk missing out on federal relief funds because of the dysfunction in the state system.
But let’s be clear, the problem didn’t begin with the system; it began with a mentality that hates and judges the unemployed, finding it easier to judge individuals than address the inability of our economic system to serve the needs of those living with in it.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.