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Grace Ross: Young Adults Having A Harder Time Making a Living

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


The divisive issue of trying to regulate panhandling in Worcester has once again reared its ugly head. Some folks this time have said it’s about safety based on a couple of stories of how aggressive panhandlers are for asking for money. In the past it was supposedly because of the look of the city – that people out panhandling looks bad.

Quite honestly the underlying problem is much more profound. I think it runs much deeper: what are the feelings that people panhandling to survive brings up in people. My guess? Many of us just keep wishing that nobody was out of work and looking for money that way.

We don’t want to admit the seriousness of the crisis that has increased the number of panhandlers on our streets. We certainly don’t want to imagine that could ever be us or a family member in that much financial desperation.

But making laws against panhandling is a little bit like trying to dam a river instead of dealing with what’s feeding the increasing flow of people into our streets. It’s not going to work.

The real problem? Joblessness. And the real rate of joblessness is being alarmingly under-reported by our supposedly official statistics. Like many of our other government statistics, unemployment statistics have been chopped and diced and edited in ways that bear little resemblance to real joblessness.

Councilor Lukes particularly raised the concern about the increase in number of able bodied young people she had seen panhandling. I wasn’t there to measure her tone but perhaps that image is most disturbing because somehow we assume that if you’re young and able bodied it should be possible to get a job to survive on. Problem is that assumption is simply historically inaccurate; for many years the official unemployment rate among young adults has been 15% worse than the rate of the workforce as whole.

Right now real unemployment rates for the working age population in our country are continuing to climb; without the government spin where they subtract “discouraged workers” and the longer term unemployed, it may be up around 23%.

When you look at younger joblessness it’s even worse. If they real unemployment is more than double the “official” unemployment rate, then maybe the 15 percentage points greater unemployment among young adults is also too low. If it’s at 23% right now for the general public, for young people it’s easily close to 50%. 

The just released report from the Pew Charitable Trust backs that up saying that just 54% of Americans aged 18-24 currently have jobs – the lowest percentage since the government started keeping statistics in 1948.

Looking beyond unemployment, there is the reality of the decreasing number of jobs that are paying enough for people to be able to support themselves (even living in their parents' homes and too many of those homes as we know are on the foreclosure chopping block).

The additional bad news about the young people on the street is that there aren’t jobs and that those young adults who are part of the present cohort are projected to experience 10-15% lower pay rates than their peers who had graduated just a couple of years earlier but didn’t come into this economy when they graduated. That’s on top of losses in wages across our entire society which is cutting into our local economies and cutting into why we’re not seeing real job recovery no matter what the supposed “official” unemployment rate is.

The real danger with focusing on fear of panhandling is that we somehow turn what is a society wide problem into some sort of end of the line ordinance. Just getting folks off the streets if they don’t have a way to survive isn’t going to solve anything.

We need to address real joblessness. We need to be honest about the percentage figures. We need to get past our prejudice and assumptions and remember that during the last depression (yes, this is an economic depression), people recognized that it was not ok for their neighbors and folks in their community to starve. Although it’s not a story that’s told often these days, people started putting out a white cloth to show that theirs was a house where you could come get food without being asked questions; those households provided a critically important as a survival mechanism. We may have gotten used to socialized programs like food pantries and meal programs (which are all continuing to be further and further over extended), but the reality is that at some point we have to face the reality and the responsibility as a community for reweaving the fabric of our lives.

My personal kicker? I was driving down the street the other day and saw a woman who was pregnant, looking for money. My stomach dropped out. Now we’re not only going to have a generation of young adults who’ve not had the experience of decent jobs when they started needing money to survive, but now we’re going to even have what? A new generation that aren’t even fed enough in utero? The implications of that in terms of life-time health and economic well-being in our society in the future are pretty daunting.

When I looked at her and I thought “…why aren’t you getting welfare…?” Then I looked at her and tried to figure out how many months pregnant she was. Then I decided that the entire conversation in my head was an immoral one. I remembered that welfare benefits no longer cover you from once you know you’re pregnant – even though pre-natal health is the best predictor of lifetime health; because we are supposed to be human beings capable of love and because we are not supposed to be societal idiots, we want children born healthy.

And I remembered that if she is eligible for welfare benefits they pay less than 50% of the bare minimum of what you might need to live on: called the poverty level. That won’t pay for pre-natal care, food and the roof over this mother and her child. We have in recent years forgotten that ill-health and the destruction of our humanity towards each other is something we all pay for eventually. Instead we have supported public policies that spent trillions on the wealthiest and cut a few million to help families get through financial bad patches.

At this low point in our development as a society, we have some choices to make. Either we are going to step up to the plate and acknowledge that we have a societal responsibility to each other and that we better turn our economy around (and stop waiting for the big banks that aren’t interested in not only writing mortgages for people but are not interested in loaning to our small businesses that create the jobs) and start by reaching out to and creating mutual support first among our neighbors; we will have to stop blaming the people who are the worst and most visible victims of destructive activities by those with the most wealth. Or we can let what is left of our humanity get whittled away arguing over wrong-headed little ordinances that will not address the social dissolution continuing around us.

And then, at some point, we have to deal with those forces dissolving our civil society themselves after we have gotten ourselves reconnected to each other.


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