Happy New Year?


On New Year’s Eve we had the final Christmas gathering of a few family members who’d missed the earlier get-together. When they left for home, the 2010 Christmas season was officially concluded, and New Year’s Eve was winding down to the New Year. I suppose it was about the stroke of midnight in Iceland, perhaps, when my day ended. Cathy was on the phone with a friend. That is how the season is for we older people.

Happy New Year.

One of the guests was a 46 year old. His 11-year-old son was out of town with his former wife. This family member is unemployed with no prospects other than an hourly part-time job with no benefits which he now has. I would guess that in the statistics he counts as one of the 10 percent or so who are unemployed as this New Year begins, since he qualifies for unemployment, and likely for the extension which passed in the cliff-hanger of last-minute legislation in Congress. He is a worker, like most of us, identifying himself through his job. After a month or two of unemployment last spring until about Thanksgiving time, he had a temporary full-time job with benefits, but one day he was let go for some unexplained reason. Reasons don’t need to be given, and besides there was no due process protection. I gathered the job was a very stressful one for him so perhaps in one sense it was a small loss.

Christmas day my wife invited a lady friend, in her 50s, who’s unmarried and now unemployed for over a year, to attend Christmas Day mass with us. She, too, will benefit from the unemployment extension. Through the friend we see the difficult realities of unemployment. She’s had a knee replacement so can’t do a job that requires long-term standing. She is too poor to afford or keep up an automobile, so any job she gets needs to be accessible by bus. She recently interviewed for a job which, if she had gotten it, would have required a bus trip with five transfers each way. Last Wednesday, Cathy took her to a work force office which is not on any bus line, and a very expensive cab ride. She is actively looking for full-time job.

Through these two folks, I see the reality of unemployment in this country. The male is obviously emotionally down — what should have been a festive occasion for him was not. He went home by himself last night. The female seems more at peace with her situation, though I know that she wants to work and she has a long history of doing good work. It is easy to say to both of them, “buck up, and keep on looking — good things will happen.” It is not quite so easy in their shoes.

Both want to work, but there are barriers.

It has occurred to me that this unemployment is a difficult issue for our country to gets its emotions around. If there is 10 percent unemployment, that means there is 90 percent employment, and most of the employed people are making more or less what they think is a fair wage and have some kinds of benefits. Similarly, retirees like we are generally are not poor; many are, in fact, very well off due to pensions, investments, and Social Security and Medicare. Unemployment is not our problem, unless we happen to have it within our own family — as my wife and I do.

On the other hand, American big business is flush with wealth, profit obsessed, and a news report earlier this week suggested that a major dent in the unemployment could have been made if that business had hired domestically in this country, rather than opting for cheaper job markets overseas. American business has little if any loyalty to its own country’s citizens. In too many ways they are considered a cost to be controlled, rather than a benefit. The corporate ethic has loyalty only to the bottom line…

For business and the already wealthy, I think the “piper will be paid” down the road. It is the poor, and the increasingly stretched middle class, who produce, by buying goods and services, the profit margins lusted after by companies and the rich. The continuation of the tax reductions for the wealthiest Americans further increases the national deficit, and the extra money they retain is normally not part of the national income stream: it is saved, often in off-shore tax shelters, whereas the poor and the middle class keep the money in circulation.

It is not easy to convince the already well off that spreading the wealth is helpful to them, too.

They may have to learn the hard lesson, along with the rest of us.