We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s seventh annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue of Election 2012. We received close to 1,000 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Tess Saperstein of Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Boca Raton, Florida, and Andrew Giambrone of Yale University. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.—The Editors
The shivering mass of blankets sat silently on the sidewalk as taxis and private cars passed by on Park Avenue. It was the winter of my senior year of high school and I was rushing to get out of the cold. A small piece of cardboard next to him read: “Lost house, construction job, family. Any winter provisions greatly appreciated.” When I absorbed the content of the homeless man’s message, my heart sank; two months earlier, my father—also a construction worker—had been laid off.
In my younger days, my father used to say not having a job sometimes was “part of working construction.” This contradiction puzzled me. How could a man who worked so hard to support his family not have a job to go to some mornings? And was I the only person among my friends whose Dad stayed home during the day?
Now, two and a half years later, I still find myself asking these same questions. Though my father has returned to work on and off again since my senior year, the majority of his jobs have been temporary and have lasted little more than a few weeks. His chronic unemployment has caused my family some financial difficulties, including paying the bills on time, keeping up with the mortgage and financing my college education. There is also the added insecurity of not knowing how our situation will change—for better or for worse—in the coming months.
Yet I know we are not alone: Since the beginning of the recession, millions of Americans have been disconnected from the work force. In 2010, for example, long-term unemployment—which is defined as looking for work for more than six months—accounted for 4.2 percent of the entire labor force, compared to just 0.8 percent in 2007. According to a May 2012 article in The New York Times, these statistics also disproportionately affect the young, the old, the less educated and minority workers. If these individuals are not reconnected to the work force soon, the costs to them and to society will be grim.
This is why I believe the unemployment is the most important issue of the 2012 presidential election.
As a student at Yale College, I am constantly surrounded by privilege. The university boasts the second-largest endowment of any school in the world, worth $19.4 billion as of 2011. In addition, many of my friends have parents who occupy high positions in law, government, and business. I do not mean to generalize, but many of my peers spend money like it’s going out of style, often on things my family would never dream of buying. It’s no wonder, then, that some of my friends are a little surprised when I tell them my father is a construction worker, not to mention laid-off. They simply cannot relate.
Though we are fortunate to receive generous financial aid from Yale, paying for college each semester has not been easy; my family has had to make countless personal and financial sacrifices to make my education possible. Still, I wonder how they will be able to afford sending my younger brother to college once he graduates from high school in a year’s time.
I am eminently aware of these matters this year—the first in my life that I will be able to vote in a national election. With the Republican candidates continuously attacking President Obama and his administration for failing on the economy, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of his successes: reforming healthcare, beginning the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, getting Osama bin Laden killed and repairing our image abroad, just to name a few. But unless the president can reassure middle-class Americans like my family that he has done and will continue to do his best to combat long-term unemployment, I believe he will be hard-pressed to win a second election.
Every day my father goes without work, I am reminded of both the economic and human costs of unemployment. Indeed, for my father and for many others, occupation constitutes identity.
Growing up in our house, almost everything was about work. Dinner conversations always related to work—what building Dad was working on, when his next union meeting would be and how his long day at work was. I didn’t realize it then but I gradually learned that what one does for a living forms a large part of who one is.
More than a matter of money, I now fear that joblessness is causing my father to lose his personal identity. This is why unemployment in the United States is not just an economic crisis—it is also an existential one. Any sensible candidate in today’s presidential race should recognize and seek to address this.
I guarantee that voters like me will be watching. Closely.
The author would like to express his gratitude and indebtedness to his father, mother and younger brother, without whom this piece would not be possible.