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King: The shame of denigrating the unemployed

Published January 3, 2014 2:32 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In order to execute an abomination, it helps to create myths about the victims:

The Jews aim for world domination, all gypsies are thieves, all blacks abuse government assistance programs.

It's a national abomination that 1.3 million Americans lost their extended unemployment benefits over Christmas. Bring forth the myth: Extending benefits only causes the unemployed to prolong their search for work, or not to look for work at all. End the benefits and they'll find work.

This suggests that suddenly unemployment will fall nationally from seven percent to who knows? But do you want to bet that ending extended unemployment benefits won't move the unemployment number at all?

Being unemployed isn't a vacation. It's not a glorious excuse to watch television at home and snigger at working stiffs who get a paycheck, have savings, take vacations, hope for promotions, and whose children will be able to afford to go to college.

Unemployment means cold economic fear — fear of not being able to provide for yourself and your loved ones; fear that your marriage will crumble; fear that your children will have the humiliation of not having the clothes, the electronic gadgets, the sports equipment, the vacations, the meals out and the college education, without which one is doomed to second-rateness.

What happens when a breadwinner loses a job? Fear for the future becomes a constant companion: It erodes the good times of family life and confiscates future plans. The specter of hunger and homelessness pushes out laughter and dreams. Worry moves in and begins to dominate a household; an unwelcome but palpable presence.

People who are sick to their stomachs with economic worry don't laugh much. Joblessness silences the normal joys of life.

Unemployment is not something I've read about. As a young man, I suffered its debilitating privations both in London and in New York. I was even evicted from an apartment in New York because I couldn't pay the rent. Where will I go? How will I eat? What will become of me. These survival fears are multiplied a hundredfold when there are dependent children.

The jobless, although they may be so through no fault of their own, blame themselves and sink into self-flagellating despair. The desire to work where there is no work is a hunger to belong, a hunger to be useful, a hunger to provide for loved ones, and a hunger for the simple dignity of going to work.

Going to work is a beautiful thing. Not going to work is an ugly thing — ugly in all the horrors that can descend on a person or a family.

Unemployment insurance is not the solution, but it's a help; it's not a substitution, just a help — a desperately important shelter in a storm. It's not, as one conservative commentator suggested, about paying people not to work. It's about paying people to live, until they find work in an economy that is changing the very nature of work.

In his masterpiece "The Sun Also Rises," Ernest Hemingway wrote:

"How did you go bankrupt?" Bill asked.

"Two ways," Mike said. "Gradually, then suddenly."

If Congress follows Senate Majority leader Harry Reid's plan to pass a three-month unemployment benefits extension when it reconvenes on January 6, then a ghastly Christmas nightmare will be somewhat alleviated for 1.3 million Americans, who gradually or suddenly fell out of work — and some into bankruptcy — and will still have to pound the pavements, looking for those elusive jobs that will bring hope and dignity back into their shattered lives.

No unemployment checks for our fellow Americans is an abomination, originating with congressional indifference, buttressed by conservative mythology.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS. His e-mail is lking@kingpublishing.com