“Get a job”? Get lost.

(An open letter to my grade school and middle school friend)

In fifth grade, you and I were both being harassed by the same bully. At one point, she threatened to fight us after school. You and I reacted to this very differently.

Me? I was terrified. My plan was to make a mad dash at the ringing of the bell at the end of the day. I wanted to flee from the safety of the classroom to the safety of the school bus, where the protective eyes of the bus driver would keep me from harm.

But you were ready to confront this girl head-on. Your dad taught you to fight, you told me. You were going to defend yourself. The way to deal with bullies was to confront them, you’d said.

I was impressed. I wasn’t brave enough to do what you did, but secretly wished I had been.

In the years between then and now, you remained a strong woman. You’ve had to be in the careers you chosen and excelled in. You’ve had to be strong through the trials life threw your way. And you’ve overcome them.

And in those years, I’ve found my courage and my voice, too. And just like you, I’ve learned that the best way to cope with bullying is to face it resolutely.

The soon-to-be unemployed encouraging others to just get a job.

That’s one of the ironies of our disagreement today. You posted an image disparaging Occupy Wall Street protesters — an image of military men overseas posed around a sign telling Occupiers to go back to work. As if no one who aligns with Occupy Wall Street is employed. As if the ones who are unemployed don’t want to work at all. To someone who has looked in vain for work month after month, “Get a job” are the words of a bully, sent like a kick in the teeth to someone who is already down.

The other irony? Many of the men in that photo will soon be on their way home to a country that has no jobs for them. Soon enough, they will be the ones looking desperately for work. Soon enough, they’ll be the ones to hear “get a job” as though it’s as easily done as wishing for one.

As I close in on six months of unemployment, I assure you that is not the case.

In an exchange with you and your friends today, it was suggested that maybe I wasn’t looking hard for work. One person posted links to jobs in my field, thinking perhaps that I hadn’t mastered Google or I hadn’t bothered to search out the listings myself. Or maybe to show that jobs are just out there for the taking. That amused me; I interviewed last week for the job he suggested.

Know what I was told then by the interviewer? “We’ve had so many resumes sent in, I don’t know what to do with them all. I need to tell them to pull the ad.” And yet, in that endless sea of resumes, I did manage to get at least an interview, so I must be doing something right.

You yourself suggested I just take a menial job to get by. Again, easier said than done. My girlfriend has applied for menial job after menial job in the past two years, hoping to land any kind of work: temporary, part-time, full-time, work-study — anything. The result? A few months working with the U.S. Census and a month in a retail job before Christmas last year. This is all she’s managed to come up with, despite holding a bachelor’s degree and working for the past 11 years as an elementary school teacher, all 11 years with the same school district.

(As a side note, it’s interesting to contrast our different approaches to job searches. As I said, she will apply for any work at all. I’ve been pickier and only applied for jobs that match my education and career goals. Since June, I’ve landed two job interviews while she’s had none. I’d suggest that it’s smarter to look for work at the upper end of your skill set. While most anyone can work in a fast-food restaurant, only a few people hold the license and education needed for the work I want to do. I’d be one of a couple hundred people qualified to work at McDonald’s, but one of just a handful qualified to apply as a therapist. And I don’t get the feeling that McDonald’s managers are keen on hiring people they know will flee just as soon as a better job offer comes along. So I don’t think menial labor is the answer you seem to think it is.)

She knows what works is, and so do I. I had my first job at 14 and worked on-and-off throughout college. Since graduating, I never went more than two weeks without a job until I was laid off in June. I had never filed for unemployment until my former employer started handing out furloughs like Halloween candy back in 2009.

We are not scared of work. We are not lazy. We want to work. There’s just this silly matter of there not being enough jobs to go around.

A recent study from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (http://www.bls.gov/web/jolts/jlt_labstatgraphs.pdf) found that for every job opening, there are 4.2 unemployed people. That’s mercifully down from nearly seven unemployed people per open job in August of 2009, but up from 1.8 people from every open job before the recession took hold.

Another government survey from the BLS (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm) showed that the average duration of unemployment currently stands at 39.4 weeks — about as long as it takes to gestate a baby. Maybe I should think of this time as a pregnancy leading up to the delivery of my new career. Somebody throw me a shower, please.

And for ex-military people — people like the men in the photo will soon be — the situation is even worse. The unemployment rate for military people who have served since 9/11 is 12.1 percent, compared to 9 percent overall. (http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2011-11-10/veterans-face-tough-job-market/51159930/1)

It is for these reasons that I fundamentally disagree with you when you said that we just disagree, but that neither of us are wrong. I very much think you are wrong. I don’t think you have a grasp on what it is like to be unemployed at this point of time, and how being unemployed now is different than being unemployed at any other time in recent decades.

The despair out here is thick. More than a million homes were lost in foreclosure in 2010, and even more are expected to be lost to the bank before this year is through (http://www.csmonitor.com/Business/Latest-News-Wires/2011/0114/Home-foreclosures-reach-1-million). Hundreds of people fight over the same few jobs. And now, just when the need is greatest, many state governments are yanking back assistance programs for the unemployed and needy.

I qualified for a whopping $16 in food assistance, until the state of Michigan required people to prove they don’t have $5,000 in order to keep getting aid. To come up with the documentation required would have cost me about $15, and since I only had $100 in the bank at the time and needed to live on that for more than a week, I couldn’t afford to do it. Stephanie lost her food assistance because another new state law took away food help from students. Because apparently every student has a mom or dad who can foot the bill. Never mind that it was the state in the first place that encouraged her to go back to school to get retraining.

So if you think you heard some anger in my replies today, you weren’t wrong. I’m beyond angry. I’m beyond furious. I’m scared and I’m hurting. I’m wondering how I’m going to keep us warm in the winter ahead, and hoping that the stockpiles of canned food I’ve gathered will be enough if we have to give up groceries for the heating bill.

I’m angry already, and then I hear choruses of “get a job.” It’s not just you, so please don’t feel I’ve singled you out. It’s people like Newt Gingrich (http://youtu.be/wPJDGeoeIFU) and Herman Cain (http://youtu.be/SHMEC8Xk9cg) leading the chorus. I’m angry that so many others have lent their voices to that song.

I could take that anger and internalize it, which would lead me to do just as Herman wants me to do and blame myself. That road leads to depression, helplessness and despair. It’s the easier road to go down, but I’d rather not go there.

Or, I could turn that anger outward, and hold people accountable when they say things like that. That path is much harder to follow, but it’s the only one I can let myself take.

You bristled at being called indifferent, callous and clueless for singing the same tune as the Gingriches and Cains of our country. Please understand that saying these things didn’t come easily. I don’t particularly relish the idea that my best friend from grade school and middle school, the one that so bravely stood up against the bully, is now singing a bully song herself. I just don’t know how else to characterize this undercurrent of contempt for people who are suffering.

I’m done being that scared kid in school who wanted to run and hide from the bully. I’m done internalizing that malice and blaming myself. I have found my voice, and I am using it to speak up for people who have so little and are in real fear of losing it all. And if that means I have to take you to task for kicking people when they’re down, then without apology, that’s what I have to do.

It does sadden me, though. I have so many good memories of our childhood together, and I do value hearing your opinions. I need to hear yours, just as I think you need to hear mine. But I cannot abide the cruelty that is “Get a job” anymore.

People who are struggling deserve more than that.


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