Stealing Diapers

Would you steal diapers from Wal-Mart for your newborn?  Or go back to punching a clock at the first job you ever had?  Would you clean motel rooms for a safe place to sleep?   Or use your grandmother’s credit card to put 5 gallons of gas in your car?  Ponder for a moment before you answer because the human impact of widespread unemployment is not in large numbers but in individual lives and sobering stories. 

Since the beginning of the Great Recession, 7.5 million Americans have lost their jobs.  Virtually all of them were proud, productive citizens before the pink slips arrived and all of them were brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, neighbors and friends.   How many of them do you and I know?

Last week, I interviewed applicants for real estate licenses who had convictions or disciplinary actions in their backgrounds.   A 32 year old mother explained why she left an abusive husband some 11 years ago with their newborn but without any money or a job.   Her husband was ultimately convicted of child abuse but she was penniless, homeless and unemployed.   She tried to smuggle diapers and baby formula from Wal-Mart but was apprehended and convicted of larceny.  

Three months ago, I interviewed another applicant who was cleaning motel rooms about 6 years ago in exchange for free lodging for her 2 children and herself when she knowingly charged less than $20 of gasoline on a credit card she had taken from her grandmother’s dresser a day earlier.   Grandmother was disgusted with her unemployed granddaughter and a conviction and suspended sentence was the result.

For more than a few minutes, I pondered what I would have done in their situations.

At best, being out of work is demoralizing and economically ruinous but it is also humiliating.  I recently realized a player on last year’s church softball team was missing this year.   People who have lost their jobs keep a low profile.   Instead of going to backyard cookouts, local festivals and Sunday school outings, they send out resumes and go to job interviews and wait for the phone to ring.   They feel ashamed but cannot quite explain why.

As Joe Queenan recently mentioned in The Rotarian, the unemployed do not wear signs announcing their status.   But young people do hang out at the gym … in the middle of the day … while others wait tables or substitute teach or park cars.   Former middle-aged salesmen report to work for the graveyard shift at UPS or Kinko’s or a local factory.   Still others just quietly list their homes with a local Realtor because at least one of the breadwinners was recently laid off and the mortgage payments are already delinquent.   What would you do if you were handed a pink slip this afternoon?

As the New York Times recently reported, July’s job-growth figure brings the monthly average tally for 2012 to 151,000, compared to a monthly average last year of 153,000.  At today’s tepid pace, it will take roughly 10 years to regain the jobs lost as a result of the Great Recession.   Tomorrow’s job market does not look good for my unemployed or underemployed friends.

The job market is stuck in neutral with no improvements in sight which, more importantly, means sluggish job growth, lackluster pay and weak demand truly may be America’s “new norm.”   If so, our brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends will face even more stressful, humiliating choices for their foreseeable futures and, for many of us, for the rest of our lives.

As new licenses were granted to both applicants, I was reminded that our fate is not always in our own hands.  Random, unintended and unpredictable events are everywhere.  And our missing ballplayer never committed the crime which he feels guilty of.   Simply put, all 3 of them were hard-working Americans who were loyal to companies which foundered during hard times.   It was not their fault the company closed its doors but it was life-changing and ever-lasting.

You and I have a job today.   Say a little prayer of thanks this evening and always treat others with kindness.