The Unemployed Aren’t Scumbags

A comment on a discussion topic involving extending unemployment benefits to the chronically unemployed stopped me cold. I’ll get to that in a minute. First I feel the need to clarify a few things.

I appreciate extending unemployment benefits is a complex issue with no simple answers. It may surprise some people to know I’m torn on what should happen with the extension. It’s not an effective long term solution; it was never intended to be a social program. Only 1/3 of unemployed people even qualify for the benefit. The rest are small business owners, independent contractors and such who didn’t work in a setting with unemployment insurance. They are the forgotten majority in all of this.

That said, there is a growing distaste in our country for those who need unemployment and have been without work for an extended period of time. Even though most intuitively know our country is still in a recession with a serious imbalance between people ready and able to work and the number of jobs available, there is still a readiness to believe all who can’t find a job are somehow flawed or lazy. I hear comments every day to that fact. The latest comment was on a public post by a friend asking others what they thought about the possibility of UIA extending. Ready for the comment?

“Get a job you lazy, leech-sucking scumbags!”

I honestly felt ill in my stomach when the words touched my eyeballs. Trust me, I know that is the knee jerk reaction of some whose view of the unemployed is based solely on the stories of abuse, and there IS abuse, but this person I actually expected would have the smarts and compassion to have taken a closer look before taking that stance on a public forum amongst people who were directly or indirectly touched by this crisis. Like the author of the comment, I live in Michigan, the hardest hit state in terms of job loss. There are 625,000 unemployed people here and no where near that number of available jobs. Being a scumbag has nothing to do with unemployment for most and to suggest the solution is as simple as “go get a job” is asinine.

Please know, I don’t expect people to be ‘okay’ with the abuse and turn a blind eye. It angers me, too. We can’t afford to keep paying people to sit at home when they could be making an effort to be productive. What all should realize is the motivated job seekers who are giving it all they have and still can’t find anything are just as disgusted with those sitting on the couch eating Ruffles as everyone else. And not just because they are a drain on the system, but because they are giving everyone else a bad name.

What’s too bad is how readily we focus on those we know aren’t pulling their weight. Our focus is so narrow we are comfortable making ugly generalizations publicly about the group as a whole. We know, at least I hope we know, there are good, hard-working people stuck in the middle of this nightmare. I know this because I’ve made the commitment to make myself as aware as possible of who the unemployed really are. I wish everyone would. They are chasing jobs well below what they did before in scope and salary with little success. They want to work. Unemployment isn’t cutting it. They are unable to sleep at night wondering when the next ax will drop.

To those of you out looking, keep going. Most of you already know Washington D.C. isn’t going to solve this mess. Plug your ears to the painful remarks. They really don’t apply to you and dwelling on them won’t solve anything. Focus on individuals and activities who add momentum to your efforts. You are in my heart and in my head every day.


  • Justin says:

    I agree whole heartedly that unemployed people are not scumbags. Having found myself unemployed for a short period a couple years ago I can relate. I also have many friends now who are currently unemployed that are educated, talented people that just happened to serve in industries that are in a deep down cycle. It is a bad economy, and it has definitely hit a segment of the population that normally has been insulated from that in the past. It is easy to generalize that anyone on unemployment for 2 years is milking the system. However, I do question if 2 years (or longer) is not enough time to even relocate if necessary to find a new position. My only concern is if there is an option to stay on unemployment indefinitely (or close to it) that there is no incentive to get back to work. I know when I was off I made it my full time job to get out there and make contacts and search the job boards all over the country because I knew a job was not going to fall in my lap. Good post though, there definitely needs to be some compassion and understanding for people’s employment struggles and it is good to have a program as a safety net, I just hate to see abuse and those that game the system.

  • Lisa says:

    Justin, many would love to move if they could afford to. They are stuck in homes that won’t sell. Some have elderly parents they need to care for here. Others are trying to find jobs elsewhere, but the gap of employment on their resumes and the fact they don’t have established networks in other markets is making it difficult.

    I agree extending unemployment takes away the incentive for some to find work. Those who have always made around what they are making on unemployment are at risk for that. Many who I know can’t afford to stay on unemployment. They are having to make decisions on how much of committed bills they can pay at a time to avoid catastrophe. Discretionary spending is long gone.

    The abuse is angering all of us. I think all of us should also be angered that Congress hasn’t made a commitment to fund UIA with ARA funds instead of adding to the deficit. Republicans were making that demand. That was the reason many were holdouts on the extension. It wasn’t that they didn’t care, but that they wanted it funded with money already accounted for in our deficit instead of adding new. I admired the Republicans for drawing the line there. Now it seems they are going to cave on that to get the tax extensions they want. Respect lost. We all know we can’t keep adding to our deficit and all in Congress are showing us, yet again, no one is really committed to the mission.

  • LynnH says:

    Wow. Somehow we focus on the unusual, negative bits every time. We don’t talk about the time the neighbor ran over to help an elderly person stand up after a fall. We don’t mention the purse that was returned with contents intact. We know our brother has been out of work for 9 months and has been interviewing for jobs at half his old pay, but we somehow don’t think of him as a “unemployed” person and we think unemployed means only people we don’t know?

    My neighborhood (in Lansing) has a lot of empty houses. First the jobs go, then the houses. I pick up litter on the empty lots so they look tended. This impacts us all.

    We’re in this together. I’m shocked at that statement, too. Thanks for the column.

  • Lisa says:

    Lynn, thank you for your words. You are spot on with, “we think unemployed means people we don’t know.” That is true for so many. When I’ve challenged remarks some have said the response is frequently, “well, of course I don’t mean so-and-so.” If you don’t mean so-and-so you have to say as much. I guarantee so-and-so thinks you do. I know a lot of so-and-so’s who aren’t applying for benefits they qualify for and need because the shame is overwhelming.

  • Lisa says:

    By the way, Justin. I love how open and motivated your company is in terms of doing what it can to get unemployed professionals back to work. Every time I’ve asked for help with initiatives to bring the unemployed together with the business community, HRU has been there. I appreciate that more than you know. So do the job seekers.

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