Friday, February 25, 2011

Unemployed Need Not Apply

You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.

Deuteronomy 24:14-15

The Bible has a clear vision about work: it is a good thing. It is good to work and it is good to earn a living. And workers should be paid a fair wage.

Work is not just an economic necessity; it is a spiritual necessity.

And therefore unemployment is not just an economic problem; it is also a spiritual problem. In biblical terms, the purpose of work is not simply to provide for the worker and the family of the worker. Work knits the fabric of society together. Work adds to the common good and the commonwealth. Work builds community.

As the country (and the world) drags its way out of the great recession, we still face one of the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Around the country, the average unemployment rate is a little less than 10 percent. Some economists estimate that when we add those who are technically unemployed (out of work and actively looking for a job) to those who are significantly underemployed and those who have become so discouraged in the job search that they have given up, the real number is closer to 20 percent. In some neighborhoods and among some demographic groups, it is much worse.

Writing in the New York Times, Bob Herbert tells of a forty-six year-old teacher from Charlotte, Vermont, who wrote to his Senator, Bernie Sanders. “I am financially ruined,” he wrote. “I find myself depressed and demoralized and my confidence is shattered. Worst of all, as I hear more and more talk about deficit reduction and further layoffs, I have the agonizing feeling that the worst may not be behind us.”

Another writer, a woman with two teenagers wrote about her husband, a building contractor for many years, who cannot find work: “I see my husband, capable and experienced, now really struggling with depression and trying to reinvent his profession at age 51. I feel this recession is leaving us, once perhaps a middle-class couple, now suddenly thrust into the lower-middle-class world without loads of options except to try and find more and more smaller jobs to fill in some of the financial gaps we feel day to day.” And she concludes, “All we want to do is work hard and pay our bills. We’re just not sure even that part of the American Dream is still possible anymore.”

But the spiritual dimensions of the problem are most evident, not in the stories of the unemployed themselves, but in the attitude that some potential employers have taken toward them. If you Google the phrase, “unemployed need not apply,” you will get an avalanche of appalling stories. No one uses that precise phrase, but one manufacturer posted a job announcement with the declaration that “No Unemployed Candidate Will Be Considered At All,” and a Texas electronics company that announced online that it would “not consider/review anyone NOT currently employed regardless of the reason.”

Last year a research project at Rutgers University found that 70 percent of those responding to a national survey had either lost a job, or had a relative or close friend who had lost a job. What I want to know is, who are the other 30 percent? I thought everybody had a “close friend or relative who had lost a job."

In the current economic climate, blaming the unemployed for their unemployment is cruel, and discriminating against them is just plain wrong. It ought to be illegal.

Selfishness motivates those who “have” to separate themselves from those who “have not.” But one of the tragic lessons of this great recession is that the “haves” are often not that far from joining the “have nots.” The people who seem securely employed today may find themselves unemployed next year are next week.

Writing about the Christian community which came together in the Confessing Church in opposition to Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts the spiritual dimension of work in context:

“In a Christian community, everything depends upon whether each individual is an indispensable link in a chain. Only when even the smallest link is securely interlocked is the chain unbreakable. A community which allows unemployed members to exist within it will perish because of them. It will be well, therefore, if every member receives a definite task to perform for the community, that he may know in hours of doubt that he, too, is not useless and unusable. Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.”

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