#Why don't you get a job?

 

# Why Don't You Get a Job?

By: J Benjamin

The simplest possible answer to this question has two parts: I can't, and even if I could most of the "opportunities" available to me today are completely unsustainable.

Let me elaborate.

## Part I

The logistics of getting a job - any job - for a person living on the streets are almost impossible. Forget about anything that someone might want to actually do with their life, let's talk about going to work at McDonald's or Walmart. Seeing as they've driven a ton of small employers out of business, they're pretty representative of the only game in town for a lot of people.

Bad employers, the main employers - giant restaurants and retailers (those who have not yet found a way to replace all of their employees with automation) - prefer to hire the demographics who are *already able* to afford to work for extremely low wages e.g. geriatrics, who want to supplement their meager government check, and high-schoolers, living at home. Both have some pre-existing support that will enable them to show up with clean clothes and not miss work when they get a flat tire (a fireable offense). The truth of that is plain to see. I'm in my thirties, with no family or social network to speak of, so that's a big strike one against me.

Now, if I was a good enough actor to muster enthusiasm for the kind of [soul-crushing job](https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/02/mac-mcclelland-free-online-shipping-warehouses-labor) these "job creators" have to offer, I would have already found work as a successful actor. So, strike two. But let's just take it as a given that I am, or that I've got a brand new attitude and am genuinely enthusiastic about running all day for six dollars an hour after taxes and travel time.

How am I going to physically manage the actions necessary to land one of these jobs? Nobody seems to get a job with a mega-retailer through personal connections. Everybody goes through the process.

That means I have to come up with the kind of resume they like to see. In my case, I have about two months of restaurant and retail experience spread over my entire life. I had a career which would be nothing but unhelpful for me in this context. But let's say I sidestep strike three and fabricate a more useful resume. I make friends with some other homeless people who have reliable phone service (hah!) and are willing to play the role of my former bosses at PetCo and Ace Hardware. That's a lot of effort. It's not a foolproof plan. But it's an idea. So let's just pretend that's dealt with and out of the way.

Next, I have to get appropriate interview attire, somehow. To get those clothes from a charity entails waking up at 4AM and traveling across town to stand in some extremely long line to pick over a bin of wrinkled clothes, hoping to luck out. From experience, I can expect to do that up to five seperate times before I find a decent set of slacks and a button shirt in my size. Forget about shoes; I'd just have to hope the interviewer didn't notice my rotting sneakers (also, my hair is ridiculous).

Now, to dry-clean the damn things, I've got to find money in my already-strained food budget, or I could stand by an off-ramp, selling my dignity for about three dollars per hour.
  
*** 

On the day of the interview, I have to line up the timing of the dry-clean pickup (business attire doesn't stay looking fresh for long when you crumple it into a backpack or leave it hanging on a tree in the woods).

I can only schedule interviews well into the afternoon, because first thing in the morning, I have to take a bus to the dry-cleaners to pick my stuff up, and then make it to a recreation center across town so I can take a shower and wash off the stink and grime I constantly and rapidly accumulate. Showering and getting dressed for an interview takes *you* about an hour. It takes *me* over half a day.

In the very best case, I have to somehow repeat the entire process two more times. Absolutely nobody is hiring after one interview. And every step in the process is another opportunity to strike out.

Was that tiring to consider? Because it is exhausting to live, and if a great many homeless people have one thing in common, it is that we are sleep deprived, worn down, and frustrated. We're bone-weary to begin with.
  
***

It is incredibly difficult for me to get one of these jobs in the first place, and I'm not even touching on the difficulty of *keeping* a job while homeless.

I would have to show up, on time, well rested, in decently clean clothes every single day. Hardly anybody is going to give me a security deposit, first and last month's rent, utilities and the budget for clothes and food on day one. With modern pay schedules, it could take up to four weeks before I got my first check, which means it could take months before I got a place to live. Two months, at the earliest, if I room with two or three random other people I don't know and have no reason to trust, none of whom are in a more stable financial situation than I am.

Realistically, as a single person in the sorts of densely populated regions where **any** jobs are available, you need a cash infusion *and* two of these low-level jobs to meet the base price for the worst place to live (image embed "McDonald's sample budget", linking to https://www.forbes.com/finance/#a04b4304840b ). So we're talking about repeating that entire process again, at least one more time, while sleeping outdoors and working a thirty-two hour week.

Obviously, getting a good job is even harder.

## Part II

> "I have found you can find happiness in slavery" - Trent Reznor

Let's say, due to some miracle of forebearance, I manage to get both jobs and keep them for a couple of months, long enough the get the resources I really needed to keep the job in the first place. That's circular, a real catch-22, but we're talking about a miracle here, so don't worry about it.

What did I fight so hard for, really? Why did I perform this miracle?

It's a lot easier to be poor if you're charming or good looking. I'll be the first to tell you that I'm neither. I'm not expecting to luck out with a sugar mama. Realistically, I'm not going to be raking in the promotions based on the force of my personality. Did I really expend all that effort for a *chance* to die alone in a crappy studio apartment, instead of on a pallet by the railroad tracks?

***

At this point, I have to pause and deliver an aside. I am not unaware of how this society thinks. I can hear all the standard objections building:

1. I'm a leech! Less than human. I owe it to society to work in these jobs, to give back.
2. I'm lazy and entitled! There are people who are happy to work for a dollar an hour, one hundred hours a week harvesting fucking brambles or whatever. Why can't I be more like them?
3. I'm pessimistic! I need to put in my time, so that I can realize the American dream of one day owning the company and having a bunch of underpayed employees of my own. If a person is lucky, and smart, and works hard, they can rise high.

Now, with minimal commentary on the humanity and political pursuasions of people who think this way, let me address these objections with another list:

### Objection \#1: I'm a leech

I'll admit, I have on occasion, made use of public goods and charity. A rare visit to the soup kitchen, a chair in the library, I've even flown a sign for a couple hours when things got really desperate.

There's this line of thinking that drives a lot of the hate and dehumanization that I see directed towards people like me. You could call it hyper-capitalisism. A lot of people seem to think that I owe a debt for my visits to the soup kitchen, for example, not the people willingly running it, but to *them*, somehow. Conciously or not, many people seem to believe that there *is*, and *should* be, a running tally somewhere, a real cost to living.

There are people who will argue, with great moral authority, that since every parcel of land on the continent, including the hard ground where I sleep by the railroad tracks, is owned by a person, or the government or some company - as if they *made* the dirt and manufactured the air - that I owe rent for that, that I should be jailed for needing to sleep while poor (and I should have to pay for that, too).

> "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." - Anatole France

I shouldn't be allowed to walk and sit freely, because I'm lowering the propery values. I should be charged for when people have to look at me on the steet, for the shame my situation makes them feel. I owe for emotional damages. They are the aggrieved party, and they deserve recompense.

Every breath, every moment of every day is getting me deeper into the red with these people, and they'll tell you I owe it to this society that hates me, I owe it to the Walton family and whoever the fuck owns McDonald's to work my life away, to sell every bit of joy I could ever feel, all just to break even.

These people owe me nothing, and somehow I owe them everything.

The fact is, the money I gave away and the taxes I paid in the first decade of my professional career more than cover whatever minimal costs I'm extracting now. I get zero help from the government, though I could use it productively (they would see exponential returns). I take very little of the minimal charity that is offered. I rarely beg (I haven't been that desperate in months, though I have had a few stretches with one meal a day), I never steal, and your police have driven me to hide away from your fancy houses. I suppose I should be paying for that too.

### Objection \#2: I'm lazy and entitled

I'm not lazy. I never have been. I worked twelve-day weeks during crunch times in my last job (assuming standard eight hour days). I worked my ass off, back when I felt like I was working for something.

For months before and after I lost my apartment, I scrambled to keep some version of my life intact. It took me a long time and a lot of disappoinment before I came to recognize that all my effort was leading nowhere. Hopelessness eventually manifests as [learned helplessness](https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness). To an uninformed observer, that may look a lot like laziness. It's not.

I'm using most of my energy and optimism on basic survival. I don't sleep well, I don't eat well, and you wouldn't be able to either. My life of "doing nothing" is more exhausting than I would have ever guessed it could be.

Now, let's talk about entitlement.

Implicit in the argument that I am entitled is the idea that I myself lack sympathy for people who work tiring, awful jobs. That I think that what they do, and by extension they as people are beneath me. That *I* am the one who is not affording them with dignity.

I'm aware that hard, unpleasant jobs may have to exist in this society. I would be perfectly willing to do one, even, if not for the fact that those very same jobs also pay very little, and offer people almost nothing in terms of stability. I already do, and am happy to, expend all kinds of time and effort for nothing, and I am willing to do unpleasant things that I find personally unfulfilling. I just won't do both at the same time.

In the past, I have been desperate enough to wake up several hours before dawn, well before the busses start running, to walk to a day labor center. After taxes, and counting time spent walking and waiting to go out, I ended up taking home about four dollars and eighty cents an hour for hard labor. If you count all the times I deprived myself of sleep to sit in the day labor center for half a day without going out to work at all, my effective average rate has been under one dollar per hour.

The last time I went, they told me I had three days to find a pair of work boots, or they wouldn't send me out again. I spent six months volunteering in a charity's clothes closet, and though we got plenty of requests for them, I never once saw a pair of work boots in any size. If I went back to day labor, my effective pay rate would be negative.

I won't do it. You can say I'm entitled. I say I'm tired of being exploited.

In many ways, I think of myself as being on a long-running strike against awful jobs in general. I'm fighting for the people working in depressed-wage jobs by refusing to participate in a race to the bottom. Desperate, intense competition for bad jobs is exactly what worsens working conditions and drives wages ever lower.

I would love to see more people losing their (understandable) fear of destitution and demanding meaningful improvements in conditions and wages, but I understand many have no choice. They have families who live in poorer regions or a spouse who is doing the same thing. It is a tough place to be. They are working to support those they love.

I don't have that problem. Low-end employers have disproportionate power over their employees, and I would be giving them even more if I joined in. Society has used every trick it has to coerce me into that market, and I'm still standing. I don't *have* to compete with working mothers and great-grandpas just trying to put food on the table or to rent a tiny room, so wouldn't it be wrong if I did?

> "...no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country" - Franklin D. Roosevelt

I hear a lot about "the dignity of work". It's an easy thing to talk about if your job is "successful politician", but I don't think that being strong-armed into putting on a paper hat to do something [you probably hate](http://news.gallup.com/opinion/chairman/212045/world-broken-workplace.aspx?g_source=position1&g_medium=related&g_campaign=tiles) for the majority of your waking hours is inherently more dignified than raising children, or pursuing an education, or traveling, or a million other random things that a third of this country never has the time or money to do.

Work - toil - in and of itself, is not an inherent good. Just ask a mother of two who has to work sixty-four hours a week, with the threat of destitution hanging over her head. Telling this woman that work is it's own reward (so she's luckier than average) is not helpful to her. The very real effect that attitude has on her life is what robs her of dignity.

> "The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forget the human argument, a strong social safety net better is [better for]( https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2014/03/31/86693/the-safety-net-is-good-economic-policy/) [the economy] (https://www.usnews.com/opinion/economic-intelligence/2015/05/08/new-data-show-social-safety-net-significantly-reduces-poverty).

In my case, if I didn't have to spend almost every cent I had buying canned foods, if I didn't have to live with the stress of sleeping under a small tarp during torrential rainstorms, if I had a place to store things, I would own the equipment I needed to do my old job. I'd be building my career, not watching it fall to pieces.

Rather than bouncing off the safety net and right back into making money for other people, people are bouncing off the rocks. It's a criminal waste, and a better society wouldn't let it happen. A society that didn't let it happen would be better for it.

It took me a long time, but I am over my fear of destitution, and so I now feel that trading extreme poverty for a life of wage-slavery is a lateral move at best. I won't have the time, money or energy to pursue what I really want to do in either case.

I make the decisions that I believe will bring me the most happiness, or - better framed - the least misery. I do this because I am a rational actor, just like you. I don't want to give away all of my time and energy to some effort I don't care about for hardly anything in return, just like you. And like you, I want to be working for a *better* life. The only difference is that I'm still waiting for the opportunity.

### Objection \#3: I'm pessimistic

We've all heard this before: if I'm lucky and I'm smart and I work hard, I'll have a chance to have a good life.

I'm not lucky, clearly, and it's not a good chance. The American dream is [largely a myth](https://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2017/09/inequality-opportunity); social mobility is higher in [Europe](http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2013/dec/19/steven-rattner/it-easier-obtain-american-dream-europe/) than it is here. Our perception of fairness in this economy bears [little relation to the reality](https://www.citylab.com/life/2015/02/americans-think-upward-mobility-is-far-more-common-than-it-really-is/385086/). A great many people living in povery are facing a stark future, in which their potential to benefit society is squandered. Wishful thinking (and loud, patriotic yelling) is not how we are going to make things better.
  
***

In the realistic best case, in which I pursue "just any job", if I am (contrary to past trends) nothing but lucky moving forward, in ten or twenty years I could quit one of my jobs and be making a decent, middle class salary as a manager at a Walmart. I would probably have to work past standard retirement age, but maybe I could travel, and even get around to enjoying life for a few years (assuming I haven't forgotten how) before I died of some [chronic-stress/poverty related illness](http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db203.pdf).

Find me a handful of middle managers at Walmart that wouldn't no-call, no-show the day they won the lottery, and *then* tell me this is the dream I should aspire to.

Of course, there's a good chance that I'll get the flu, or a flat tire, or some roomate will skip out with the rent instead, and I'll end up unable to weather that emergency (http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/12/pf/americans-lack-of-savings/index.html). Maybe, after years of effort, I'll end up right back where I started. And I know from experience that losing everything is harder than waking up with nothing.

So that's why I don't just get "a job".

Of course, I do sometimes have some excess energy, so let me tell you what I am doing with it.

Obviously, I am spending time online arguing about the notions of justice and fairness and kindness in this society, even though the impact - if any - could never be precisely measured, I can reasonably expect a backlash, and most would tell me it's pointless to even try. I'm reading as I always have, voraciously. Non-fiction, at the moment; I'm teaching myself linear algebra so that I can get a better handle on machine learning and graphics programming (though losing my laptop to a rainstorm a year ago wasn't helpful). I'm using the best economic opportunity I currently have, selling plasma for a pittance twice a week, to completely avoid standing in charity lines or on street corners begging for help from unsympathetic people. I'm running into friends on occasion, and I'm helping them when I can.

That's my routine. Maybe, in ways, it's like yours. It hurts no-one. It's a lot of quietly waiting, and quietly working for something better, during the slivers of time not spent worrying about basic survival. It's a lot of hoping and doubting that a better opportunity will some day arrive. It's a lot of frustration. It's a lot of people trying to beat me into submission, to force me to accept one bad deal or another, and for my part it's a lot of patience, and a deepening conviction that I am on the right side of history.

So, to those of you who still want to tell me to get a job, the best I can do is give you yet another two-part answer:
I'll need a living wage. When can I start?

J. Benjamin

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