What Can America Teach Us About Unemployment?

Tue, 14/02/2012 - 17:45 -- nick

7:30AM BST 24 Jul 2010 – The Telegraph
“After spending the last two years out of work, 23-year-old Mark Wheeldon was fed up with living on benefits and concocted a plan to get him noticed on the job market.
He decided to stand on one of the busiest roundabouts in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffs, and advertise himself to passing motorists during the morning rush hour.
But he could not believe his luck when, within three hours, a passing businessman pulled over and offered him a job on the spot.
Vince Champion, director of a timber factory, spotted the former mechanic, on his way to work and returned to collect him, giving him an interview straightaway and offering him a position just 20 minutes later.
After a shower, Mr Wheeldon found himself making frames at the Smart Timber Frame Company by midday on Thursday.
‘I wasn't put off by the rain in the slightest. When you are desperate for work you will do anything to find a job.’
The employer, Vince Champion, said ‘There are not many unemployed people who would have done that and I thought that anyone who wanted a job that much deserved a chance... I wish more people could show the same kind of determination to find work as he did’.”
This story caught my eye because it talks about an issue that has been bugging me for years. In America, the only developed Western nation without comprehensive health care for all, with time-limited benefits and a system that is greatly dependent on personal charity rather than government action, stories like the one above are celebrated widely. The land of the free really wants its citizens to work.
Will Smith appeared in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happiness, in which he portrayed a single father who was so poor that he resorted to sleeping in public toilets with his young son. Redemption came when he managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps and get a lucrative stock broker traineeship in a big firm, despite being shabbily dressed and giving off a strong aura of desperation.
In this country we might think it more appropriate to get social services involved to ensure his child had a reasonable upbringing in reasonable conditions. But the USA celebrates independence and self-reliance above everything.
The film was a huge hit and much of its appeal was based on the ‘fact’ that it was a true story, or as close to true as Hollywood is capable of. The events in the film take place over months rather than years as in real life, and Will Smith looks the picture of well-fed (and employable) health even when his clothing is shabby.
This may all seem trivial but there is an importance to these stories in America which is developing here too. The American Dream has it that anyone can succeed as long as they are willing to work hard, take risks and be morally upstanding. Stories like these help to confirm that the country works for everyone decent, and therefore that those who do not succeed must be deficient in some way. The result is a country which has some laws which most European countries would find draconian, like the 99-week limit for receiving unemployment benefit. In America this has led to wide scale homelessness and even the establishment of tent cities in some areas.
It also provides a moral case for voting against extensions of help to the very poorest, and it looks like some of the same tricks are being used here for the same reasons. When the British government talks about the proposed £26,000 benefits cap for a family in terms of fairness, the ground work for the judgement on what is fair is laid by those politicians who make negative judgements about unemployed people and our perceived laziness, lack of commitment and stupidity. We are being led to believe that many benefit recipients are bad and therefore deserve harsh treatment.
Media have a role to play in this too. When TV companies produce documentaries as one-sided as The Day The Immigrants Left (BBC, 2010), in which unemployed people are portrayed as workshy drunken layabouts, it influences the debate. When newspapers demonise unemployed people (our campaign on this subject gives many examples of this – click here for details) they also contribute; do the majority of people understand the reality of the kind of life you can live on £67.50 per week (for a single person), or are they just believing what they read?
There would at least be some consistency to these views if there were enough jobs for all unemployed people to do. However, since 2007 more than one million more people have become unemployed, and there are currently six people chasing each vacancy. It doesn’t matter how hard the experience of unemployment is, if there aren’t enough jobs for everyone who needs one some will be left behind. To believe that they should be punished because they are personally deficient rather than victims of economic circumstances they can’t control is wrong.
The story at the top of this blog seems like a good example of a man who will work hard to better himself and take his place in productive society. ‘If only all unemployed people were willing to do so much to find work’, we are being invited to think. But what if they did? A man standing with a sign by the side of the road looks like commitment. All unemployed people standing by the sides of roads looks like a chaotic hangover from the 1930s Depression in America (although it can still be seen there today, with manual workers congregating in pre-arranged places each morning hoping that some of them will be picked up for one day’s work and no benefits).
There are many things we can learn from America with relevance to unemployment – how to promote business start-ups for one – but how to deal with the most excluded people in society isn’t one of them.