Friday, February 04, 2011

How to Help the Jobless? Do the Math

John (not his real name) worked in construction all his adult life, making plenty of money to support himself. But when the recession hit, like many others in his field, he was laid off. For months, he looked for work in construction. Nothing. So he took a job in the poultry industry.

“I’ve never done work like this,” he said. His paycheck is not enough to cover his living expenses.

Our church co-hosted the Harrisonburg and Rockingham Thermal Shelter (HARTS) the week our jobless benefits expired. Was that ever sobering. The stories of the people seeking shelter made me realize that homelessness can happen to any of us.

Some expressed shock that this was happening to them. Them.

We knew the unemployment checks would stop in the middle of January. The husband had been through Tiers I, II and III, and extended benefits. Still, it was jarring to get the Notice of Exhaustion: Your final benefit on your State Extended Benefits (EB) claim has been processed.

For 18 months, every Wednesday this money materialized in our checking account. The week after it expired, I looked online at our statement. The husband had filed anyway. After all, he was still unemployed. But there was no deposit. I checked again on Thursday. And Friday.

Dudes, I was in denial.

In the meantime, I’m doing math. Even though I’ve always excelled at English, history and philosophy, I can also actually do math. And let me tell you, this is no time for algebra, geometry or trigonometry. What we all need is simple addition and subtraction. If only our elected representatives and corporate billionaires would pay attention to simple adding and subtracting, like me.

(Note: If you read my column every week, you know in the fall I hired a cleaning woman. I did that in anticipation of a job that was to start within weeks. Because of the economy, the job itself ceased to exist and I subsequently let the cleaning woman go. Simple subtraction.)

The week our check stopped, I walked over to the bookstore during my lunch break to buy a book, “Five Acres and Independence,” for the husband. He spent most of his adult life working in manufacturing supervision. Now in his late 50s, he does not think he’ll work in that field again. After all, he’s been looking for nearly two years now.

Just last night he talked about how well the stock market is doing. The rich are getting richer and the manufacturing is all overseas.

However, the husband’s first love is the land. Since losing his job, he’s been happily planting and growing stuff, fixing and building things. Because of this, we have food in the freezer, in the cabinets, in the cold storage. In a day or two, we’ll order seeds for this spring’s planting. When he finishes building the greenhouse, that will assure fresh vegetables next winter.

He’s not a bit worried.

So when someone recommended this inexpensive, practical little book, I figured it was right up his alley.

While in the bookstore, I spotted the New Yorker calendar, on sale for half-price. This daily tear-off calendar is often pretty funny and I need to laugh, I thought, justifying the small expense. What sold me was the sample page on the back.

A man dressed in a suit carrying a briefcase opens the front door of his house and shouts to his wife, “Honey! We’re homeless!”

The 2011 daily planners were also half price. I picked up a tooled leather one, just my style. I turned it over. “Made in China.” I set it down and picked up one with a black-and-tan plaid cover for the same price. “Handcrafted in Maine.”

I thought about some of the towns I visited in Maine as a child. I envisioned a roomful of people in Maine cutting the fabric, inserting the pages, gluing these planners together.

I bought the planner with the belief that I was helping someone in Maine keep their job. It was an investment in an American company.

I may not have much to spend these days, but the money I do spend—as long as it’s in my power and even if it costs a few dollars more—will be an investment for America, for Virginia, for Harrisonburg.

Please multiply.

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