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The Stigma of Unemployment

I couple of days ago, I had an exchange with a mother and daughter which left me frustrated with the persistence of class stereotypes. These two women, whom I've promised not to name because of the very stigma in question, are dynamic, highly intelligent, well-educated, talented individuals with impressive resumes. Yet, like many American, they've recently lost their jobs. And, like many middle-class Americans living paycheck to paycheck, it didn't take much to pitch them into poverty.

Being smart, strong self-starters, they immediately made use of appropriate community services to try to regroup, gain more education, and expand their support network. Yet they informed me that whenever they tell people about taking part in such programs, they frequently experience reactions of rejection and disgust. Their lack of a job makes some people want to deny them a job. Their need for social services makes some people less inclined to lend a hand. Instead of saying, "There but for the grace of God go I," some people seem to think that these women did something to deserve their situation. The mother told me it seemed clear to her that the discrimination was not about her race, but about class distinction.

There is another recent trend I've seen that is less obviously egregious, but can also create this sense of blaming the victim: the idea that if we put out positive energy we will not draw negative events to ourselves. It's true, putting positive energy out there is more useful than putting negative energy out there, and, while we don't always have control of our circumstances, we can control our attitudes. However, suggesting that people with bad luck somehow chose their problems so they could work out a spiritual issue strikes me as cruel at worst, and beside the point at best. Sometimes bad things happen to good people with positive attitudes who do everything right.

I cannot offer any but the most obvious solution to this problem of class discrimination. I know that compassion is plentiful on this networking site, so I may be preaching to the choir. But I also know that I always appreciate a reminder not to make assumptions: just because someone doesn't wear nice clothes, live in a nice house, or drive a nice car to a nice job... doesn't mean they have less potential or ability than those who do. Here's a well-worn, but always useful notion: If we're fortunate enough to be working, we can offer support to someone who isn't: a resource, a reference, a job, a smile. Maybe you and I can simply tell this story the next time we hear someone make an assumption about someone they don't know.

We cannot fool ourselves that America is a society that always offers opportunity without regard to class. But we can remember that America is a society where such opportunities are possible, if we all work together to make it so. About that I am positive.


philo Ikonya Gacheri's picture

interesting reading

Thank you.
Interesting reading, and challenging! I agree with you but often I also think that we made a mistake in defining work in the world and what education is. We make education become an opportunity allright, but an opportunity that we can use to make others feel like lesser human beings. I know that if you are going to fly a plane or be an aeronautical engineer or architect or lawyer you need some learning but we down play what people without such learning and without titles have been able to do in the world.

I smiled reading the phrase that compassion is plentiful on Pulse. True. And now maybe we need also to ask how compassion can be translated into making people fit in somewhere, creating jobs, networking for life to be better for everyone.

Hope it does not surprise you that I wondered when you talked about these two falling into poverty. I have seen places where poverty means death, not the possibility of being discriminated for going into a wellfare program which I have learnt that people feel ashamed of also in some parts of Europe where wellfare societies are large! What is up with us always wanting to define ourselves by that car we drive, that house we live in... and so defining others...

Then there is a class all over the world of those who will never miss opportunities in life... and often, this class is also corrupt. I have tried to change things wherever I go but this is not easy. I have tried always to put out ideas and voice... sometimes when I said it was immoral to have people starve to death because a politician has allowed the sale of maize or allowed that the farmer be poor by not buying their products, I have been arrested. This is the world women are faced with and which we are supposed to change .... soon..

I cannot tag a photo for you here of the image I have of a suffering human being who will never even know what a university is but when I write about her, I will let you know. Meanwhile please keep posting and reminding Pulse Friends that we can do better commenting ... I have seen so many zero comments and that is not good! Maybe you would like to read my poem for Pulseans!

"Communication is the real work of leadership" Nitin Nohria

Cara Lopez Lee's picture

The many levels of poverty

Thank you for bringing up so many good reminders, Philo Ikonya. As you know, in a brief post sometimes it's easier to focus on one aspect of things, but I count on these discussions to draw the subject out in more depth. I, too, have seen the kind of poverty of which you speak, up close... in which people are starving, and small children suffer from the kind of malnourishment that leads to gas-filled distended bellies and stick-like arms. Fortunately that kind of starvation is rare in the United States. In that sense, the women I spoke of are lucky they live in this country.

The women I met don't have a working car, in a society where not having a car can mean not getting a job. And they live in a tiny apartment with few conveniences or clothes. I would be surprised if their nutrition is adequate, although it's unlikely they're starving. But all this is because of the safety net our society provides, and because of the compassion of others... and accepting such help seems to be stigmatizing them in the eyes of those with more.

I think it's shameful that people starve in a world where so many others have plenty. I also think it's wrong that people who ask for help should be made to feel ashamed.

Thanks for adding your wonderful points to the conversation. I deeply appreciate your words.

JaniceW's picture

Compassion vs empathy

I agree that there is compassion abound on PulseWire but what about empathy? Sympathy is defined as the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another. Empathy, however, is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without them being communicated directly by the individual.

For me, empathy is a much deeper sense of emotion and a sense that you can feel another's feelings along with feeling sympathetic to their issue. When one has empathy, judgment ceases to exist as you understand and appreciate what it is to be in that person's shoes. As you said, it is the "there by the grace of God.." perspective of viewing the situation. As a Red Cross Disaster Responder, we were taught the difference between sympathy and empathy, and our training emphasized the importance of the latter. It was clear to me that the clients we served noticed the difference too. If everyone practised a little more empathy, the world would be a much better place.

Cara Lopez Lee's picture

Striving for Empathy

You're so eloquent, Janice. And I'm so impressed that you're a Red Cross Disaster responder... what a generous way to give back to your community!

I'm glad to hear that people respond better to attitudes of empathy than sympathy. I always strive for empathy, but because I don't want to offend anyone with my clumsy attempts to put myself in their shoes, sometimes I fail to acknowledge the empathy I do feel. I've been taught to be careful not to use words like "I understand," because it is difficult to truly know what is inside another, and I've heard that sometimes people can resent this kind of statement. But, you offer a good reminder: even if I don't fully understand what they're going through because I haven't experienced it personally, that doesn't mean I can't acknowledge that I "get" where they're coming from.

You've given me a new impetus to put my empathy muscles to work with everyone I meet!

olutosin's picture

This is interesting

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Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
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