The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


September 4, 2013

Targeting jobless is out of line

All of us have had times when we’ve needed help. Maybe we were hobbled by a broken leg or laid up after surgery. Maybe it was just a lousy flu, something that knocked us out and made us ask another to lend a hand.

That never feels good. We don’t like to lean on people. It can make us feel weak, though it shouldn’t.

Now imagine being one of the millions of people who spent Labor Day, a day dedicated to the contributions of American workers, unemployed. Imagine having to care for a family and stitch a life together on government assistance while you face repeated rejection from employers.

That doesn’t feel good either. You know it, I know it, and America’s unemployed know it better than anyone.

Yet we have politicians who feel it appropriate to demean the unemployed, to use them as a political cudgel.

On Aug. 26, Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, told a group of conservative supporters in South Carolina that there are “more than 100 million Americans that are simply not in the workforce.“ He went on to compare them to stubborn children who refuse to do their chores.

Allow me to dissect these appalling statements.

First off, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics - the government agency from which King claims he got these numbers - there are about 11.5 million unemployed Americans. The bureau also lists nearly 1 million as “discouraged workers,“ individuals who believe there are no jobs available for them.

So where is this 100 million slackers figure coming from? King is presumably folding in the 88 million Americans who are not in the workforce, a number that, according to the National Employment Law Project, includes 40 million people who are retired and 13 million people who are disabled, along with students, stay-at-home parents and the sick.

“I certainly don’t think the stay-at-home parents in Mr. King’s district would appreciate being compared to children not doing their chores,“ said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the self-described nonpartisan law project. “And suggesting that our economy would be better if grandparents came out of retirement is absurd.“

Yet here we are, listening to an echo of what has become a common refrain from some pundits and politicians: Blame the unemployed. It’s akin to the “welfare queens“ trope of the 1980s and ’90s, an effort by advocates of austerity measures to stigmatize those who receive state and federal aid, be it food stamps or unemployment checks.

It’s as distasteful as it is dishonest.

During a recent speech to constituents in Ohio, Rep. Dave Joyce, also a Republican, said employers “can’t find people to come to work sober, daily, drug-free and want to learn the necessary skills going forward to be able to do those jobs.“

Again, this is baloney. States that screen welfare recipients for drugs have found negligible results.

A recent Associated Press report found that out of 466 welfare applicants given drug tests in the past year in Utah, only 12 tested positive, a percentage far below the national average for drug use. The AP reported that Florida’s screening program had similar results, with 108 positives out of 4,000 tested.

Researchers say that if anything, companies having trouble filling positions should blame their methods rather than the job candidates. In a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, wrote: “With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time. In other words - to get a job, you have to have that job already. It’s a Catch-22 situation for workers, and it’s hurting companies and the economy.“

So aside from being deceptive, what are these loudmouth politicians suggesting we do about unemployment and the economy? Here’s what King said at the event where he chided the unemployed: “I want to restore the pillars of American exceptionalism. I want free enterprise to be back in place. I want to restore the rule of law. I want this country to understand and believe how we got here.“

That’s awesome, Steve! It doesn’t have any meaning, but it sure sounds good.

“Demonizing the unemployed is a really nice boogeyman to distract from the fact that Congress has done nothing for job creation, not a higher minimum wage, not anything,“ Conti, of the National Employment Law Project, said. “There are legions of easy solutions and things that Congress could do to help create jobs, but instead it’s much easier to blame the unemployed.“

I prefer not to make this too partisan, so let me say this: Regardless of the politics behind our economy, can we at least agree that casting aspersions on the unemployed is bad?

These are our friends and family. They are people who need our help and support, people who by and large bristle at having to ask for that help and support.

They are proud people, smart people, hardworking people who have fallen on hard times in a recession the likes of which the country hasn’t seen in decades.

Do not disparage them. Do not try to use them to further a political agenda.

Find a way to help them. That is the only task that matters.

Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter RexWorksHere.


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