How do we know the economy is in bad shape? Unemployed white male hotshots are back in the news. “This man used to make $300,000 a year,” reads the New York Times Magazine‘s cover. “Now he’s selling khakis.” The grim black-and-white cover photo shows a resentful-looking bald man with a clipboard and Gap tag, sporting a Silicon Alley hipster’s five-day-old beard. He’s “interactive industry pioneer” Jeff Einstein, one of three men profiled in “Commute to Nowhere” by Jonathan Mahler who lost their high-paying jobs when the New Economy tanked and have had trouble resigning themselves to the kinds of jobs that are left: selling pants for Jeff; substitute teaching in the public schools for Lou Casagrande, a former information-technology consultant (at $100,000 a year); and volunteering as a “networking” coordinator for Tom Pyle, who’d left the stressful life of banking ($200,000) for the calmer waters of the nonprofit sector ($100,000), only to be laid off within six months.
After more than a year holding out for the next big thing, their wallets are thin, their cars are falling apart, their self-esteem is wilted and their marriages aren’t in such great shape either: jeff takes the Gap job only because his wife finally threatens to evict him if he doesn’t start helping out with the rent. (Just between you and me, I suspect he could have done better but took the Gap job just to spite her.) It’s all about masculinity, Mahler informs us. Women have been as likely to lose their jobs as men in the current climate, but “for most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job.” I like that “simply.” No cover story there.
But wait. Those $10-an-hour jobs, the ones we’re supposed to pity the men for having lowered their masculine dignity to take, look kind of familiar, don’t they? They’re the “good jobs” women on welfare are encouraged to get, the ones that are supposed to transform them from mooching layabouts to respectable, economically self-sufficient, upright and orderly citizens. (Of course, both Tom and his stay-at-home wife recoil at the possibility that she may have to get a job. I guess this is because, unlike poor single mothers, she’s a “homemaker.”)
What happened to all those homilies about personal responsibility and the dignity of a job–any job–that were trotted out to justify forcing welfare mothers to work off their checks at subminimum wage by cleaning toilets in public parks or scraping chewing gum off subway platforms? Somehow, those sermons don’t apply to Mahler’s guys, but only to those single mothers of small children who get up at dawn for long bus rides to jobs as waitresses or hotel maids or fast-food workers–jobs that one calls “menial” at the risk of being tarred as an elitist snob by welfare-reform enthusiasts. The point is not so much work–the exchange of labor for pay and benefits–but work experience: work as behavior modification. For Mahler’s subjects, work is about masculine identity, so a low-status job is worse than none. Poor women apparently have no dignity to be affronted.
Take the first job you can get and be glad you have it is the philosophy of welfare today. If you are poor and had the bad judgment to become a single mother, well, no education and training for you. The welfare reauthorization bill, approved by the House and soon to be voted on by the Senate, raises the percentage of welfare clients who must work from 50 to 70 percent and ups work requirements for single parents from twenty to forty hours a week. This is much more even than the norm for working mothers, which is thirty-one to thirty-five hours. A proposal by House Democrat Ben Cardin that education and training count toward that total was rejected along party lines. In New York City, where unemployment is 8.6 percent, and half of welfare clients didn’t graduate high school, Mayor Bloomberg vetoed a similar set of modifications from the City Council. (The Council overrode his veto, and he has threatened a legal challenge.)
Is there a middle-class person in America who doesn’t understand the relation of education and skills to self-support in the twenty-first century? You’d almost think the people who write the welfare laws don’t want poor women to earn a middle-class income–just to adopt the imaginary middle-class sexual values embodied in abstinence classes and marriage promotion schemes, which welfare reauthorization funds to the tune of $50 million and $300 million a year, respectively.
Maybe I lack sufficient regard for the male ego, but I found it hard to shed a tear for the men in Mahler’s profile. They may have lost their dreams of financial glory, but this is not exactly King Lear. By the standards of normal life they’re not doing so badly: They live in safe suburban neighborhoods, with food on the table and good schools for the kids. Indeed, Jeff’s wife earns $80,000 a year, which puts the family in the top third of US household incomes before he’s sold a single pair of jeans. At the end of the piece, we learn that Lou and Tom have come to terms with reality and are planning to become public school teachers. This is hardly a tragedy. In fact, it will likely be the first really useful and important work either has ever done.
Zora Neale Hurston, a great writer who made quite a bit of money in her time, ended her days as a cleaning lady. That’s what I call tragic. All over America, single mothers with nothing like the advantages or prospects of Jeff, Lou and Tom are being told to sink or swim, and their children along with them. That’s tragic too.
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Once again, the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German human rights group, is providing “vacations from war” for displaced children and teens of all Bosnian ethnicities. Through their generous donations over the years, Nation readers have become a mainstay of this wonderful project, which last year provided two weeks of summer camp on the Croatian seacoast for an astonishing 1,500 children. (This year, for the second time, the group hopes to bring a hundred Israeli and Palestinian kids together as well.) It takes $130 to give one child respite from war and its aftermath, but donations of any size are appreciated. Checks made out to Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt can be mailed to me at The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003, and I will forward them.