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Faces Behind the Unemployment Lines

Essayist Anne Taylor Fleming examines the sense of shame and anger that many who have lost their jobs feel as unemployment lines continue to grow.

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    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.


    … 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.