Friday, April 11, 2014

Life, Liberty and ...Cell Phones?

I was struck by a lengthy USA today article about the long-term unemployed, those who have been looking for work for six months or more.  It is really a tragedy that unemployment has stayed so high for so long with barely enough new jobs to support population growth and many older workers shunted aside.  The number of long-term unemployed has increased 5-fold over the past decade, causing financial and psychological hardship.

The article presents three examples, presumably to elicit empathy and compassion by showing real people dealing with this crisis.  They quote their expert:  “It’s usually a shock followed by a slow downward spiral to a lower standard of living and a radically changed life.”  Unfortunately, the examples given include several instances of poor decisions and seem to indicate that expectations have been set to where Americans have redefined the concepts of sacrifices and rights.

The first couple lost both their jobs and a total $75,000 income.  They lived for 2 years on unemployment and gifts from relatives.  Since then they have gotten by on Social Security disability, food stamps, federal assistance for utility bills and another program that pays most of the mortgage on a three-bedroom duplex.   But they kept their cable TV and “our home” and “our cars” – that’s right cars, plural, with associated maintenance, insurance, registration, etc.

Next is a 46-year-old with an MBA from Chicago, out of work for five years.  After a couple of years he had “exhausted his jobless benefits, and his inheritance was dwindling.”  State aid to pay the mortgage on his high-rise condominium has expired and he lives on his savings.  He got a part time job and “ditched his landline phone and diversions such as two-week cruises and going to the theater.”  He admits turning down training to become a nurse based on his MBA degree – unclear whether that was out of pride or not wanting to see his degree wasted.

Finally, a Florida man, now 60, lost his $97,000 job in 2008 when the company shut down.  Since then he has applied for other jobs and tried consulting.  He lived for two years on unemployment insurance and his savings.  “He’s downsized his lifestyle, dropping a country club membership, forgoing health insurance for now and limiting his penchant for $150-plus dinners-for-two to a monthly indulgence.”  He has pretty much dropped the job search, figuring he can live off savings and Social Security (beginning in 2 years).  He spends much of his time on the beach, reading books and boogie boarding.

So the new American Bill of Rights seems to include:  cable TV, a house, two cars, and a cell phone (“ditched his landline”); and it’s a sacrifice when we are forced to give up cruises, trips to the theater, frequent luxury dinners, and country club memberships!  We can live off government programs and charity while we reorient to the new lifestyle as we continue to be picky about career training even after five years of unemployment.  Remember, these examples are offered as representing typical cases, ordinary situations that we are supposed to empathize with.

In a little more than a decade Americans have faced shocking events that should have moved us to adjust our perspective, emphasizing the importance of core values and downplaying the pursuit of material possessions, readjusting our expectations about what is necessary and what we “deserve.”  Terrorist attacks of 9/11, the bursting of the housing bubble and the subsequent Great Recession, this long-term unemployment issue, and loss of lives in the Middle East should have been a wake-up call, a reminder about reality, a warning against complacency.  The message seems to have been lost even on many who have been directly affected.

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