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Faces Behind the Unemployment Lines

April 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Anne Taylor Fleming on the faces behind those unemployment numbers.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour essayist: The lines are getting longer: at the unemployment offices around the country, at the job fairs, at the soup kitchens and food banks.

Lines and lines and more lines of Americans slipping downward, losing jobs, losing houses, trying to hang on.

Those lines, absent not so long ago, are now part of the daily landscape. Yet if you look at them, at the faces, the people often turn away. They don’t want to be seen standing there. They are embarrassed, as if they themselves were to blame for their misfortune.

In my car, driving around, listening to people talk, certainly more freely on the radio than they do when they’re being shown, I hear fear, of course, fear that they won’t be able to hang on, fear that they’ll lose their health insurance or have to pull a kid out of college.

I hear, too, anger…

MAN: Those guys are lucky they have a job.

WOMAN: I am completely outraged.

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: … at the Wall Street guys, with their private jets and corporate retreats and huge bailouts.

But even that anger takes second place often to the underlying refrain of shame. Their voices get low. There is a quaver as they say things like, “I feel bad about myself. I can’t support my family. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

How easy to say, “Oh, no, it isn’t your fault. Look around. The whole economy is tanking; you are not alone.” But what becomes apparent is how deep in that shame is, lurking there all the time, how tied to not being a winner in a competitive country that loves its winners.

The very word “breadwinner” is such a giveaway. It is not “bread-earner” or “bread-maker,” but “breadwinner.” In such an atmosphere, to need a hand up or a hand out from the government, from your own kids, from your own wife, is internalized as a sign of personal failure, personal and moral failure, a sign that you are a loser.

Tension among family members

Yes, this shame is often expressed by men. They have taken the brunt of the recent job losses. A full 82 percent of jobs lost have been held by men, particularly in industries like construction and manufacturing.

In fact, for the first time in the country's history, there are about to be more women employed than men. They still don't make as much, often working less hours and in lower-paying jobs, but a lot of wives right now are keeping afloat their family ships.

No doubt there are gender tensions and gender realignments in any number of those families. Though it should be said that women, too, are suffering from the shame factor, if they had lost houses or jobs, not to mention the fear single moms must have of not being able to feed their children.

One could simply wish it away that shame, wish that people weren't carrying it, along with their fears and angers as they wait in all those lines.

But that would no doubt be as unrealistic as thinking there will be a quick end to the economic turmoil in which we find ourselves.

I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.