Win Ben Stein’s Acrimony: When Public Figures Malign the Unemployed
If you haven’t read the news lately, the phrase on the lips of every politician, pundit and pollster is still “jobs.” Now, however, the debate has shifted to the necessity of unemployment benefit extensions, with some suggesting that continued funding of jobless citizens only breeds laziness and complacency. As if being out-of-work wasn’t bad enough, America’s unemployed find themselves as a two-sided token for political debate, either martyred as faceless victims of economic turmoil or vilified as shiftless layabouts.
The result has been an increasing number of disparaging public remarks from political figures, most of whom assume the worst about jobless professionals’ circumstances. The foremost example of this came in a recent editorial by pundit and former game show host Ben Stein, wherein he opined that those still without jobs perhaps deserve it:
“The people who have been laid off and cannot find work are generally people with poor work habits and poor personalities. I say ‘generally’ because there are exceptions. But in general, as I survey the ranks of those who are unemployed, I see people who have overbearing and unpleasant personalities and/or who do not know how to do a day’s work. They are people who create either little utility or negative utility on the job.”
Similar assertions have been made by former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, who claimed in a CNN interview to know of studies “that show that people stay on unemployment compensation, and they don’t look for a job until two or three weeks before they know the benefits are going to run out.” Ron Johnson, a U.S. Senate candidate in Wisconsin, echoed Delay’s sentiment during a public television interview: “When you continue to extend unemployment benefits, people really don’t have the incentive to go take other jobs. They’ll just wait the system out … Then they’ll go out and take probably not as high paying jobs as they’d like to take.” Johnson advised, “That’s really how you have to get back to work. You have to take the work that’s available at the wage rates that’s available.”
In the spirit of fairness in the face of these allegations, I’ve offered an opportunity for rebuttal to one such unemployed citizen: Joe the Computer Operator. At age 51, Joe handled systems administration for a chemical company until three years ago, when he was laid off and saw his job outsourced. Without a source of income, he says, “I had to move in with a friend because I could no longer pay my rent.” Joe states he will “send out hundreds of resumes,” but “99 percent of the time I do not get any response.”
So what does Joe say about Delay and Johnson’s comments? Quite simply, “I do not agree.” “I have continued to look for work while I was receiving my unemployment benefits. I am sure that some do not look for a job while collecting benefits but I feel the majority of us want to work and do look for employment.” Of particular note was Johnson’s “take the work that’s available” remark, to which Joe retorts, “It is easy for someone to say ‘You should take a minimum wage job,’ but then when I ask ‘Well, how do I pay my bills and survive while making $8 an hour?’ they never have an answer. The math just doesn’t add up.”
At Ben Stein’s descriptions of “poor work habits” and “unpleasant personalities,” Joe bristles, “This sounds like profiling and discrimination to me. Just once I would like to see a dope like this have to walk in the long-term unemployed shoes. The bottom line is that there are no jobs—just look at the numbers. We can’t all have poor personalities and bad work habits, can we, Stein?”
For Joe, meanwhile, the search for work continues. “I am sending out my resume today for a Computer Operator position I found on one the many job boards I receive daily email alerts for. Maybe I will get a positive response from this one, but I doubt it.” Discouraged words, to be sure. But after seeing the insensitivity toward unemployed professionals like Joe, it’s not hard to understand the frustration.