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STEM Graduates Can’t Find Jobs Either

What STEM Shortage?

“Using the most common definition of STEM jobs, total STEM employment in 2012 was 5.3 million workers (immigrant and native), but there are 12.1 million STEM degree holders (immigrant and native).”

People who tell me I should have done a STEM major in spite of my interests and aptitudes don’t have a leg to stand on with this study.

My homelessness is entirely the fault of others.

My Personal Fight Against Slavery

I had originally intended to title this entry something like “New York Is Slave Country” (a nod to “New York Is Book Country”), “Slaves of New York,” “New York Is a Slave State,” but the more time that passed (getting computer time to write a blog entry is difficult unless I’m at Picture the Homeless or at library branch with more computers than users–the nearest to my current shelter is Hamilton Fish Park, which has four adult computers, and I have never been granted an extension at that location.  For obvious reasons, I will not say which branch I am at as I write this, but it is not one it is always convenient for me to get to) between now and April 2, when I lobbied against the WEP program in Albany, the less relevant the story seemed to be to anything that was going on.  With Steven Banks’s October 1 announcement that he was ending WEP in New York City, I seem to have a good window, although the entry is newly written.

Shortly before April 2, Ryan Hickey, the Housing Organizer at Picture the Homeless, told me that Community Voices Heard, an organization founded by low income black and Latino women that eventually incorporated men and poor and allied whites, was doing work against the “Work Experience Program,” and I contacted the appropriate person, Jennifer Hadlock, through CVH’s website. CVH is one of PTH’s allies, and at one point, they were in the same building on 116th Street, which is right next to where I was an audience member for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? last November.  (Nobody from NYC Brainiacs Meetup group passed the test to get on the show (only four people in total from that audience did), and we complained too much on it was pop culture.  I ended up next to someone who wasn’t from the group who thought that The Crucible is set during the Crusades, but he didn’t get on, either.)  This group, again, predominantly composed of people of color, freely describes the WEP program as slavery. (One Twitter cyberbully told me that he would sic the NAACP on me for calling WEP such, but I don’t think the NAACP has strong criticisms for CVH.)  I was to board a bus at Union Square that would take the entire group to Albany, where we would be joined by groups from other urban parts of New York, such at Poughkeepsie.

We were there to lobby in favor of two bills (the same bill, one in the Assembly, and the other in the Senate), A7119A and S6120A, titled Bill to Improve Opportunities for People on Public Assistance by Prohibiting Unpaid Labor of WEP.  The Assembly bill was introduced by Keith Wright (Harlem) and was also supported by Silver (Lower Manhattan), Titus (Queens), and Farrell (Harlem).  The Senate bill was introduced by Savino (Staten Island/Brooklyn [at one time she was my senator]), Stewart (Yonkers), Skelos (Long Island), Klein (Bronx), Avella (Queens), and DeFrancesco (Syracuse).  Although this is strong bipartisan support (Silver and Skelos are notoriously right-wing, and the previous time I went to Albany, Savino and her Independent Democratic Caucus, which consistently sided with the Republicans, was the enemy, as we (Occu-Evolve that time) tried to get a fair elections/money out of politics bill passed), all of the assemblers and senators we were targeting were Democrats.

Some of the problems with the WEP include that people on WEP clean city property, including offices, subways, and parks next to workers who are getting good pay and benefits while WEP workers get nothing more than their public assistance money, which is far below the minimum wage.  WEP hurts all workers because it provides free labor and destroys jobs and raises.  It pushes people to take minimum wage jobs.  It increases poverty.  It is humiliating and undignified, and workers are ineligible for Earned Income Tax Credit, Social Security credits, or unemployment.  It is also in violation of federal workfare law, which specifically states that work program hours must be based on the prevailing minimum wage, which New York State does not do.  The bill specifically says “Prohibit WEP in NY State,” removes the work experience program as an option, and defines community service to be work at a location chosen by the person receiving the assistance.  It would end unpaid (slave) labor, keep all other “work activity” options, and give the public assistance recipient a choice in what work activity would best help them personally.  these include subsidized employment (transitional jobs), ubsubsidized employment, on-he-job training, job search and job readiness, community service programs, vocational education, and job skills related directly to employment.  WEP workers are most often victims of age discrimination, lacking a GED, veterans, formerly incarcerated, waiting to get approved for Social Security Disability, and people who have timed off unemployment (emphasis mine).  The idea that people who have timed off unemployment now need basic work experience is utterly absurd and should offend most ethical people.  Most are women and people of color.  The bill would give 25,000 people an opportunity to earn a paycheck instead of being forced to work for free (and $45 per month, which is my gross public assistance monthly, prior to penalties (for an alleged overpayment) that reduce my monthly benefit to $41.50).  It would bring more money to low income communities, and the money would go directly to families instead of the job search vendors like FEGS that profit on the backs of the poor.  It would stop the forced (and it is most definitely forced if you live in a homeless shelter–you are not allowed to stay in a homeless shelter without some form of income, even though you don’t pay out of pocket) unpaid labor of WEP.  It would create fewer program sanctions and be a boost for the low wage worker fight.  The bill would replace WEP with subsidized employment, on-the-job training, community service programs, vocational education, job skills training related directly to employment, education directly related to employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities.  This sounds a bit redundant, but this is for clarification purposes.  There are separate bills that would allow 4-year education and allow parents to provide child care themselves until their child is one year old.

We broke into groups of around six people (mine had seven), each of whom had appointments with two legislators.  My group was assigned Joan L. Millman of Brooklyn and Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor.  We were to meet with their staff, because cold introductions are best with staff, hence why we picked a time when the legislators themselves would not be in.  That way, their staff would introduce them to the concepts from a (hopefully) sympathetic perspective.  My group included Cynthia, Calvin, Sheila (Jennifer’s partner), Jarvis, Penn, and Stacy.  Cynthia was to introduce CVH; Calvin, Shelia, and Penn were to introduce WEP; Jarvis was to discuss the bill, Stacy and I were to share stories, and Jarvis would make the formal asks.

None of the staffers to whom we spoke had ever heard of WEP.  It was completely new to them, although we were informed that different counties know the program under different names.  Still, none of them knew that people on public assistance were subjected to ungodly hours of slave labor.  Although I was the only white person in our group, I was the one who shared my personal story of the slave experience, describing being forced to work for 35 hours a week filing for 32¢ an hour when I first went on public assistance in 2005-6, filing paperwork in the case management files at Project Hospitality, one of the few homeless outreach programs on Staten Island.  I wasn’t there very long before they transferred me.  I was allowed to partake of the soup kitchen food, but I felt kind of weird about it, and they usually served pork, which I was unwilling to eat and still avoid if at all possible.  I toiled away doing filing for Housing Works’ administrative offices, both on 13th Street and 34th Street (or thereabouts) with two different supervisors.  The FEGS people kept saying “If they like you, they’ll hire you.”  They said that they did like me, but as a non-profit, their budget extended only enough to pay the people we already had, but they were happy to have me as long as I was available to them.  None of them even accepted my LinkedIn adds, but everyone I knew in the program had the very same feedback.  They were soft-spoken about it, but extremely brazen in their willingness to accept slave labor at their establishment, because, as non-profit charities, they are used to working with a large contingency of volunteers.  It cannot honestly be described as volunteer work, however, when it is coerced.  My father insisted that he would not help me with my rent unless I did whatever public assistance required me to do to get some supplementary income other than what he sent me.  When I was experiencing penalty weeks on my unemployment insurance, I was doing the homeless shelter intake at Bellevue.  I was told that until the unemployment insurance benefits were actually paid out, I would have to go on public assistance or I would be sanctioned from the shelter system.  This I did, and it took multiple requests and a fair hearing to get taken off public assistance, which also meant paying for my storage out of pocket, although it also meant freedom from WEP and more time to network in lieu of Internet job searches that most “experts” (including FEGS instructors) say are not a good use of your time.  I was on WEP very briefly in February 2013, working in the computer lab at a senior shelter called Moravian Open Door.  I didn’t mind this one.  I wasn’t required to stay for the full time, but usually did because of the free computer access.  The computers at the Manhattan FEGS (I currently go to one in the Bronx, in spite of my recent move to Alphabet City) are very slow, and there are not enough for everyone to be on one for the duration of the session, causing us to waste our time in holding rooms.  I used the printer sometimes, but didn’t abuse this privilege.  The longest document I printed was eight pages (a fresh version of my comic book want list in 8 point font and three columns, since I can still read text that small pretty easily even though I’m getting close to forty).  I paid out of pocket to print a hard copy of Misused Minds, for example.

My story was hardly the most horrific, and I was not the only one in the group who had been on WEP, but they thought the humiliation of someone who had recently earned a master’s degree but had had a medical emergency was significantly poignant.  The staffers for both Millman and Thiele seemed won over.  I was probably the most skeptical in the group that they had been, but I didn’t see a lot of phoniness in their reactions to the program (certainly less than when Zephyr Teachout, for whom I voted for governor in the Democratic primary, campaigned before the Alternative Banking working group of Occupy Wall Street).  Readers of my blog know that I am an activist, and have been making myself aware of the systemic issues that enforce poverty and homelessness, but many people enter the WEP program naïvely.  One horror story involved someone who did janitorial work for the same company for almost two years.  He (if I remember correctly) believed FEGS or whoever was on his case that if he kept at his WEP assignment, he would eventually be hired as a paid worker.  When he was close to his two year anniversary, he called in sick for the very first time.  He was FTC’d (found in “Failure To Comply”) and temporarily expelled from public assistance.  He eventually won his fair hearing, but received a new WEP assignment at a different company, and eventually came to realize that there was, at least now, no realistic hope of being employed by the previous company.  This was one of the worst systemic examples of why the WEP is an inherently bad program, catering to the desires of the wealthy for free labor at the expense of the poor, but there were also stories of cases that didn’t go by the book.  For example, WEP workers were forced to work alongside paid workers doing hard, dangerous physical labor, and were denied the safety gear provided for the paid employees.  Other incidents that were de facto rather than systemic included the paid employees sitting around and forcing the WEP workers to do all the work, and numerous incidents of quid pro quo sexual harassment.

Most people seemed to think that overall the day had gone well, and that each group’s respective staffers were mostly open to the bill, although no one was expecting the bill to get passed in the current cycle, which it didn’t.  Steven Banks has the power to end WEP in New York City, but not throughout the State of New York.  While workfare programs are extremely dubious in a society in which there is not enough work available, the fight is not over, because New York State still does not calculate the hours based on the federal minimum wage as per the workfare law that was passed by Bill Clinton.  Clinton was one of the worst presidents for the poor between Workfare and NAFTA.  That “giant sucking sound of jobs to Mexico,” as Ross Perot described it, was a silly metaphor but absolutely true.  It also resulted in the spread of swine flu because of Smithfield’s unregulated operations there.  Now Obama wants to push the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) through Congress (as well as the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement), and mainstream liberals wonder why those actively on the left don’t want to vote for the Democratic Party for the sake of winning.  The answer is because we don’t want to vote for what we are against, which would make us culpable for the results.

All Souls Unitarian Church’s soup kitchen social worker John Sheehan was very cynical when I told him about Banks’s plan to phase out WEP, saying that Banks simply realized that they were spending more money on the bureaucracy to administer WEP than they would if they just put the people on public assistance into real paying jobs.  Lynn Lewis at Picture the Homeless said to me that that’s actually a good thing of itself and nothing to be cynical about, and I kind of agree with her.  She has also read Piven and Cloward and she knows that this is all a game in which the rich exploit the poor, and Banks’s solution, as well as his work when he was head of the Legal Aid Society.  He has not said with what he intends to replace WEP to comply with the federal workfare requirement that came in with Clinton. (My right-wing friend once referred to him to me as “your man Clinton,” when I didn’t like Clinton back in the days when I was a Rush Limbaugh fan, and I still don’t know. I believe strongly that my then-like of Limbaugh was rooted in my dislike of Clinton, because I started disliking Limbaugh pretty much as soon as Bush got elected.)  I may be among the first to know this.  My case went into conciliation because the staff misplaced the paperwork from Picture the Homeless requesting that I be excused from the Back to Work Program last Friday in order to meet with Lorraine Stevens of the Department of Homeless Services.  Because my case is in conciliation, I won’t need another of these notes for the meeting with Steven Banks a week from today, for which I have already attended the preparatory session.  It would be great if I could be paid by the government to work at Picture the Homeless.  They need grants in order to pay staff and don’t currently have anything for which they can hire me (I also don’t want to push Sam, whose job description best matches my skill set, out of his job, although I would love to be considered for it were he to want to move on), but that would be my first choice of a non-profit organization for me to do work, and the staff already likes me.

I have no issues with working.  I have issues with working for free for a company or organization that I have not chosen myself.  I have issues with working for a low wage when I need a place to live and have student loans to pay.  I have issues with working in ways that will exacerbate my medical condition.  I have no issue with working.  Some might consider writing this blog work.  It certainly takes quite a bit of time and mental effort to do.  I was a brainiac in school and went to college and graduate school expecting any job put before me to be about mental effort, but I graduated into an economy with few jobs.  It has never been my choice to experience long periods of unemployment.  that choice was thrust upon me by the ruling class, and it did not come allied with a perception of greatness on their part.  That pretty much disappeared after I graduated with an undergraduate degree.  Once that was done, the ruling class has seen me as an unruly thorn in their side (much as I loathe the use of such clichés) if they have seen me at all.  Perhaps if I had been treated properly by the ruling class once I completed my degrees, they would still have me as one of their useful idiot “dittoheads.”

Laundry Rights

A struggling young woman with the Twitter handle @SweetLilTracy is a sad case of brainwashing.  She doesn’t realize that while she is a nuisance to a leftist like me (telling me to flip burgers in spite of my medical condition, and to move to Seattle to do it because their minimum wage is $15, although I’ve heard horror stories about people who went there, took minimum wage customer service jobs, and ended up back in NYC because the cost of living was so high and there is far less poor relief), she is a useful idiot to those on the right, defending others’ abuse and exploitation of her. John Sheehan, the social worker at All Souls Unitarian church, agreed wholeheartedly when I told him about this.  Monday before last, he recommended Regulating the Poor:  The Functions of Public Welfare by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, a classic sociology text from 1971.  He told me that this is the book that made him want to get into social work, and also noted that Piven is in her eighties and still speaks at events.  Their agent for the book was Frances Goldin, whom I interviewed for a documentary by Joshua Barndt (Frances is in her nineties and has reduced her personal clientele to Mumia Abu-Jamal and Barbara Kingsolver, and told me to apply through her agency, which I’ve done).  Piven is also credited in the acknowledgments as one of the readers of an early manuscript version of Bait and Switch.  Their basic premise is that the explosion of welfare cases in the sixties is because the Great Society motivated the poor and organizations supporting them to put pressure on welfare providers to provide services to those who were eligible under the law, rather than the frequent arbitrary and capricious denials that had previously been implemented.  In other words, the number of people eligible for assistance did not grow much, but the number actually granted assistance rose.  Business fought back, extremely hard during the eighties, because poor relief has always been about quelling the masses and preventing riots while having a steady workforce of unpaid and underpaid labor available for the capitalists, who shame those who do not work even though they are the ones who create massive fluctuations in job availability.  Piven and Cloward’s revised edition of the book came out in 1993, and mentions soaring income inequality under Ronald Reagan (361), long before it became a buzzword thanks to Occupy Wall Street.  In the 1990s, when I was in high school, I naïvely believed Rush Limbaugh’s lies about how under Reagan, “the rich got richer, and the poor got richer, too,” but that is only true in terms of actual dollars.  When adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of the poor plummeted, and the value of their benefits plummeted as well.  When on public assistance, I was forced to work 35 hours a week for a grand total of $45 a month.  I’m currently receiving $20.75 every two weeks from public assistance, plus $30 each week to pay for a Metrocard to get to and from the back to work program.  The idea of the welfare queen is a complete myth put forward by the right.  Statistics even prove that welfare recipients are actually intimidated into having fewer children, but to be a right-winger is to be a shill for the ruling class, parroting whatever falsehoods they want promulgated, which brings us back to @SweetLilTracy, who thought it was whiny for me to address something as supposedly trivial as the laundry issue in this blog.

One of the groups that put pressure on welfare providers to obey the letter of the law was Mobilization for Youth (MFY).  Picture the Homeless has put me in contact with Daniela Robles of MFY Legal Services, and she has worked with me a number of times, particularly with HRA foolishness.  I contacted her about the laundry issue, and she left me the following on voice mail:

The shelter is supposed to allow you to do your laundry.  It shouldn’t be a pillowcase policy.  You should be able to do your laundry as much as you want, but regarding what you have told me about their one-pillowcase policy, and they seem very adamant about enforcing it, we don’t actually deal with that here, but you need to contact Coalition for the Homeless, and they will help you with that.

I’m not quite sure about the last line, because I wasn’t able to write it all down before my phone deleted it.  I haven’t gone to Coalition for the Homeless yet, because they make you go early in the morning, regardless of the issue, and there isn’t much help provided.  Tony Taylor is still in charge, and all he had me do was fill out a grievance.  One guy at Eddie Harris complained about Tony Taylor all the time and said that any grievance you submit through him ends up in the circular file.  I do not know if this is true.  One of our regulars at Picture the Homeless said that Tony Taylor is the best person there, but that that is not saying much.

The point of this entry is not whether Coalition for the Homeless is a useful entity.  The point is that the shelter is contracted with the city to provide certain services for a certain amount of money.  If anyone is a welfare queen, it’s a shelter that does not provide the required services, which is a violation under the law.  It makes no sense to describe calling for obedience of the law “whiny.” After all, NYPD enjoys dealing with supposed violations of the law by strangling suspects who are not even committing the violation in question.  I am not asking for any of the shelter staff to be strangled, and as annoying as one particular case manager (who doesn’t work directly with me) is, I would not want it, either.  I just want them to comply with the law, and so far, none of my shelters have been in full compliance with the law, while still making a fortune off my presence that could have been used to put me in decent housing and get my belongings out of storage.  This is to what I am objecting.  I am being extremely reasonable.  It is the right-wingers, who want me to torture myself doing physical labor for a pittance, who are being unreasonable and whiny. My not working costs the average taxpayer a whopping $0.00000010286 each year (math done based on info at http://www.whitehouse.gov/2012-taxreceipt).  Anyone who would rather me be in excruciating pain, going against the advice of doctors, and at an abnormally high probability of injury (relative to a non-disabled person at a similar job) to save themselves that amount of money, is more miserly than Ebeneezer Scrooge was before his encounter with the Ghosts of Christmas.

Shelters Should Be Sanitary

Thank You For Filling Out This Form

Shown below is your submission to NYC.gov on Friday, October 10, 2014 at 12:48:54

This form resides at http://www.nyc.gov/html/mail/html/maildhs.html


NAME of FIELDS DATA
Message Type: Complaint
Topic: Other
Contact Info: Yes
M/M: Mr.
First Name: Scott
Middle Name: A
Last Name: Hutchins
Company: The Bowery Mission
Street Address: 45-51 Ave D
Address Number: 306
City: New York
State: NY
Postal Code: 10019
Country: United States
Work Phone #:
Email Address: scottandrewhutchins@yahoo.com
Message: When I arrived at this shelter on August 4, there was no soap in the east restroom on the third floor. A few weeks later, I heard another resident complain to the janitor, and the empty soap bag was removed, leaving only the empty shell of the dispenser. Its been like that up to today. I dont like to use that restroom, anyway, because you have to straddle the toilet to give the door enough clearance so you can exit, but the other two bathrooms on the floor are now out of soap, too, and Im wondering if it will ever be replaced. One of these is often not usable because the seat will not stay up, causing some residents to urinate on it. I normally avoid that bathroom, (the last to run out of soap), too, for this reason, but hold the seat up when I do, although it makes it harder to get my clothes out of the way. All three restrooms are missing bulbs in one of the two fixtures. Having the bulb in the mirror fixture is more useful when shaving than the one on the ceiling.

 

Use the link to return to the Form

When I arrived at this shelter on August 4, there was no soap in the east restroom on the third floor. A few weeks later, I heard another resident complain to the janitor, and the empty soap bag was removed, leaving only the empty shell of the dispenser. It’s been like that up to today. I don’t like to use that restroom, anyway, because you have to straddle the toilet to give the door enough clearance so you can exit, but the other two bathrooms on the floor are now out of soap, too, and I’m wondering if it will ever be replaced. One of these is often not usable because the seat will not stay up, causing some residents to urinate on it. I normally avoid that bathroom, (the last to run out of soap), too, for this reason, but hold the seat up when I do, although it makes it harder to get my clothes out of the way. All three restrooms are missing bulbs in one of the two fixtures. Having the bulb in the mirror fixture is more useful when shaving than the one on the ceiling.

Breaking News: New York City Abolishes Slavery

Press release from the VOCAL website (http://www.vocal-ny.org/press-release/pr-hra-announces-historic-overhaul-of-clinton-era-welfare-policies/):

Commentary on my fight against the slave labor that was WEP to follow.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 1, 2014

Contact: Alyssa Aguilera, 917-200-1446, alyssa@vocal-ny.org or Jennifer Hadlock, 347-454-4842,jennifer@cvhaction.org

Human Resources Administration (HRA) Announces Historic Overhaul of Clinton-Era Welfare Policies

HRA TO PHASE OUT MANDATED UNPAID WORK PROGRAM FOR WELFARE RECIPIENTS;

ENDS PUNITIVE POLICIES AND “ONE-SIZE FITS ALL” PROCEDURES.

New York – Today, the Human Resources Administration (HRA) announced a historic overhaul of the agency’s employment plan. Under the leadership of Commissioner Steve Banks, HRA has moved forward a bold vison for supporting welfare recipients as they look for employment and break the cycle of poverty.

Major reforms include the phasing out of the demeaning, unpaid Work Experience Program (WEP) which mandates that welfare recipients work for no compensation in jobs that provide little to no job training or valuable work experience. The end to punitive policies and procedures that unfairly penalize welfare recipients and terminate benefits to the detriment of poor New Yorkers and their families. The embracing of harm reduction programs, so that people who misuse drugs or alcohol are supported and not penalized for substance use. Expanded access to appropriate education, job training and employment services for welfare recipients.

These policy reforms represent a culture shift at HRA. There is now a recognition that welfare recipients are not a monolith and their needs cannot be met wholesale. There are some people who are job-ready and need a light-touch from HRA, some who need education and training so they can be better prepared to enter the workforce and others who are unable to work because of chronic health issues or other types of employment limitations. All should be supported by HRA and we applaud the effort to move away from a failed “one-size-fits-all” approach.

The modifications to HRA policies announced today fit well with the De Blasio Administration’s other efforts to tackle income inequality and uplift poor New Yorkers. Polices like an expanded living wage, universal Pre-K, paid sick days, etc. are exactly the types of policy shifts that our city needs to unrelentingly combat the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

“After two decades of work to overturn callous welfare policies, I was moved to tears with the announcement of HRA reforms today. Under Mayor Guiliani, New York enacted some of the worst welfare policies ever created, that were then reproduced across the country, and eventually adopted by the federal government under President Clinton. Today, Commissioner Banks, along with the support of Mayor de Blasio, has refuted those policies and embraced an approach that will both combat poverty & income inequality, all while supporting the dignity of those in need.” Jennifer Flynn, Executive Director, VOCAL-NY

“My oldest son was in diapers when I started the journey with other mothers to end WEP, he is now almost 22 years old. I am excited about this historic moment in the City of New York. Thank you Commissioner Banks for having the courage to return humanity and dignity to people living in poverty receiving social services.” Sandra Killett, Community Voices Heard Member-Leader and Former Welfare Recipient

“As someone who is on Public Assistance, I was glad to review the Proposed Employment Plan by HRA to be submitted by Commissioner Steve Banks. I was very pleased to read extensive changes being proposed in the areas of obtaining Education and Paid Training. This along with finally replacing unpaid the Work Experience Program (WEP) with Training Vouchers, Internships and Apprenticeships will definitely improve the broken cycle of poverty that exists in New York City.  The former policies against low-income people of color and the extremely poor of New York City has been too long destructive and dehumanizing, increasing the gap between the Rich and Poor. Finally, we have a New York City Mayor De Blasio and HRA Commissioner Steve Banks restoring the rich history of New York as a beacon of hope for all working families, immigrants and extremely poor to once again be part of a united metropolis. New York City was once the place of dreams for the world, let us begin to make this happen,” John Medina, a Board Member with Community Voices Heard and Welfare Recipient

###

Press Release

On Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch

Bait and Switch : The (Futile) Pursuit of the American DreamBait and Switch : The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is another book to add to the mountain of evidence that my homelessness is absolutely and entirely the fault of others. I graduated from college in 1999 and earned my master’s in 2005. Ehrenreich began this book in 2001 and published it in 2005. Every single person she profiled in the book was older at the time than I am now (38) and had higher salaries than I’ve ever earned ($50-60,000 range–the only time I got even close to the equivalent hourly rate my hours were in the single digits), and every single one of them ended up either doing a low-to-minimum wage job that I can’t do (I am medically limited to a desk job on account of scoliosis that went undiagnosed until 2005 when I was 29, L4-L5-S1 herniated discs, neurogenic bladder, sciatica in both legs, and plantar fasciitis in both feet, and have difficulty standing for more than very short periods, and use a cane if I expect to stand for more than an hour, and spasms that make the cane absolutely necessary–Social Security says someone with my age, education, and experience is not disabled by their standards because I can work a desk job, and Binder and Binder was no help, saying that the only way they could help me get SSD is if I got a doctor to write a note explaining why I can’t do a desk job, either, which isn’t true) or they have moved back in with their parents–my father passed away. As of September 2014, I have been homeless for 28 months after I was betrayed by a graduate school colleague who had me relocate for an $18,000 probationary salary and then let me go after three months, knowing at the time that he hired me I had been in housing court because I had lost the entirety of my savings to rent as I unsuccessfully searched for jobs that have seemingly all been exported to his native India.

Some of the critics of this book assert that Ehrenreich used false credentials that undermine her hirability, and while that is true (although her actual credentials are certainly the transferable skills they tell us are so important), she never really even got to the interview phase, and that doesn’t say anything in regard to the other people she met and discussed along the way. Another critic on here attacked her for complaining about religion at the faith-based groups. She mostly restricted this to those that were religious but did not explicitly advertise themselves as such (one used the word “fellowship” as the only clue for an event in the banquet hall of a Shoney’s, and proved itself to be racist and anti-Semitic as well as religious (128-131)), although she does criticize the way the majority of them send extremely contradictory messages.

I did find it laughable when she said the number of applications that she’d done being over a hundred. I have been tracking my job applications in an Excel file since the month prior to losing my job and becoming homeless. As of yesterday’s applications, I am on line 2,799. I have had 24 interviews in that time, ten of which were with staffing services, and many of the others were scams that had me wanting to bolt to the door but waiting for a socially acceptable moment without agreeing to anything.

Like Ehrenreich, at the time I was in housing court, I was presented with the AFLAC scam (train to work at AFLAC entirely at your own expense and working from your home office) at a similarly-decorated office in the Bronx. State Farm has been trying the same thing lately, as has Liberty Tax Service.

As someone without Ehrenreich’s money, but whose experience and ability is entirely in white collar work, I have experienced a lot of what she describes in this book, much of it foisted on me by the Department of Labor while I was on unemployment or various government subcontractors such as FEGS, Arbor WeCare, Project Renewal, etc. On my own, I went to a Career Clout meetup group (which is also an advertising ploy, hammered home when I attended a second meeting), which obviously had impact on her, because she mentions the career coach having her develop PAR statements (92). This system was developed by a guy named Lloyd Feinstein (sounds too much like Lloyd Blankfein for my liking) and stands for problem/action/response. The Career Clout style is intended to gear your resume toward hiring managers and to go above the heads of HR, but 99% of people don’t have the clout to reach over the heads of HR straight to the hiring manager. Even addressing the hiring manager by name in the cover letter is ineffective. I was doing that in every cover letter during my first year of homelessness (2012), and I got shot down a lot, not to mention all the people who kept telling me that the PAR setup is too negative to work, in spite of Career Clout’s very logical assertion that the employer hires people to solve problems.

The first part of the book deals with Barbara Alexander’s (she went job searching under her maiden name) dealings with three embarrassing career coaches, the incredibly upbeat and vapid Kimberly who is obsessed with MBTI, the validity of which Ehrenreich does an excellent job at skewering as no more valid than astrology (32-34, 227) via Annie Murphy Paul‘s The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children Mismanage Our Companies and Misunderstand Ourselves; Morton, who uses Enneagrams and very bad Wizard of Oz analogies (and I write this review as the L. Frank Baum (not that the MGM Wizard of Oz movie that is best known to the general public is anywhere close to Baum’s vision and themes) expert that Ehrenreich professes that she is not, and an allusion to the origin of the Tin Woodman on page 19 seems to epitomize one of the themes taken up in the book. Often, Nick Chopper would say that he was “careless” in having cut himself apart, knowing full well at the time of the telling that his ax was under a spell), and Joanne, who seems relatively reasonable (who is more a resume expert than a job developer, but says that lying on the resume is par for the course, but is in fact someone just trying to eke a living after her husband got–you guessed it–downsized.

Eventually she makes her way to the self-proclaimed inventor of Career Coaching, Patrick Knowles, and her portrayal of him as a pathetic failure is even more palpable than Patrick Swayze’s performance as the mad and pedophilic guru Jim Cunningham in Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Knowles’s behavior with Cynthia, while not pedophilic, is almost as disturbing (78). This is probably the best part of the book, and where Ehrenreich displays incredible gifts as a writer, more than her uses of words that I, an English major (Ehrenreich states that hers was chemistry), had to look up in the dictionary — “moue” (114) and “koan” (153). She then follows another bit of advice that I have never been able to do successfully, and at which Barbara Alexander also failed–turning the tables on someone and making their meeting with you into an episode in which you aggressively prove to them that they need your services. I have never heard of this sort of aggression working in real life actually working, and the Guerrilla Marketing gurus that keep e-mailing me can provide only one definitive example–a guy who worked on a construction site uninvited. Given my physical condition, were I to try this, all it would do is result in a lot of insurance headaches for the employer I had chosen as my victim. I asked for white collar examples of something like this (I’ve heard the story more than once, and believe it is probably apocryphal), and so far, none have been forthcoming. In 2013, I alerted Marvel Comics that the previous year I had applied to an assistant editor position for which proofreading was a major component of the job, but that an early issue of Morbius, the Living Vampire (a title on which I would have loved to have worked, though it was canceled after only nine issues) that somehow “bare with me” had made it into the dialogue, which makes no sense in a scene between two straight men. It was in a word balloon and not a message, so the error can’t be attributed to a character. This didn’t get any more of a response than my three attempts to get permission to move forward with my opera based on The Man-Thing, which thus far exists only in sheet music notebooks until I can find singers unafraid to sing texts that are, legally speaking, plagiarized, albeit with credit. She likens the career coaching field to Eric Fromm’s novel, Escape from Freedom, “which was an attempt to understand the appeal of fascism” (89).

Her assault on networking is merciless:

Why, when job searching could be totally rationalized by the Internet through a simple matching of job seeker’s skills to company needs, does everything seem to depend on this old-fashioned, face-to-face networking? After all, there’s going to be an interview anyway, right?

“It’s about trust,” Ron answers opaquely, not to mention “likability.” “The higher up you get in the executive ranks the more things depend on being likable. You’ve got to fit in.”

…It’s distracting to think that our major economic enterprises, on which the livelihoods and well-being of millions depend, rest so heavily on the thin goo of “likability.”

Getting up in the executive ranks as a result of “likability” is our society in self destruct mode, since, as Cathy O’Neill points out, that’s what got Tim Geithner into position to destroy the global economy to begin with. And Ehreinreich even has Jim Lukaszewski admit on page 159, that CEOs are out of touch, isolated, and “idle,” that is, lazy. The highest-paid people in white collar employment are the laziest. Those of us scrambling unsuccessfully to find employment are dubbed lazy by our now-Orwellian society, while those on the right, who do the most name calling, love CEOs and generally refuse to admit that they do little or no actual work.

The Gap gets capitalized both when she mentions her clothing from said store and when dealing with what she finds to be insurmountable in terms of the resume. I’ve covered mine by describing myself as a freelancer with clients (all real, unlike Ehrenreich’s), to no avail. She discusses invisibility and futility (171) in spite of her ENTJ MBTI result (mine is INTJ, which is supposedly only 1% of the population, which ought to make me extremely desirable as an employee, except that the “diversity” that employers claim that they want is illusory, as Ehrenreich details on page 229), which went from being desirable to “like all those fairy-tale characters who are unfortunate to get what they wished for from an overly literal-minded wish granter” (my favorite example of this is the DC horror story in which a guy gives his soul to Satan for a copy of every comic book ever published and a house big enough to hold them all, only to be suffocated by the delivery down the chimney of every comic book ever published throughout the entire universe). One guy tries to hobnob at the Capital Grille (spelled Capitol Grill), an upscale restaurant, as a waiter, also unsuccessfully (172). I went into one of these places with Monica Hunken and others on September 17, 2012, singing about getting money out of politics and was forced to leave by the staff. The New York Times shows that this businesses is doing extremely well because it caters to the wealthy, while businesses that cater to the middle class are failing.

Then she gets into the complete uselessness of job fairs, which are strictly for sales jobs (198). No matter what industry they claim to be about, it’s always for sales within that industry. Nobody believes me when I tell them this, but here it is in a published book. I hate sales and have never been successful at it, even with things I believe in, like my own works of fiction and drama. I went to one for media jobs, and it was mostly door-to-door sales trying to get people to change their cable company. A 58-year-old out-of-work machinist who was one of my roommates in my previous shelter went to one of these job fairs, told me it was all sales, and said that the line was wrapped entirely around the block such that they kept it open long past the 3 PM stated ending time to be fair to everyone that arrived, though no employer was really equipped to recruit more than twenty people, and, as with every job fair I’ve attended, they tell you to apply through the website. They say that they’ll flag it because they met you, but given the number of applications these jobs get, I seriously doubt if that is true, nor did any of them actually respond when I applied, even the ones who gave me their e-mail address and told me to write to them when I had finished the online application.

The conclusion of the book, in which she talks about the people she met along the way in jobs standing all day at Home Depot or in heavily physical blue collar jobs for which no intelligent employer would hire me as an insurance liability (204-211), has Ehrenreich looking forward to the Occupy movement and its revolt against capitalism that was forced underground and declared dead by the right-wing controlled media. The messages she receives throughout the book are contradictory, and she ties these bits together (221). The abusiveness of a Patrick Knowles, with his EST-like (her comparison) method of blaming the victim (this portion really rang home with me–I am “Bill” in David Friedman‘s The Thought Exchange–David has been through EST, and it seems to be a definite influence on his continued teachings), who blames the victim with the circular reasoning that because “you” are the common denominator in everything that happens to you, it must therefore be “your” fault, a logic that they would conveniently ignore if someone as physically bullying as they are psychologically were to punch them in the face and insist it was their own fault. A friend who wants to get on Dr. Phil to expose the abusive nature of her family suggested that I do the same, but from what I know of Dr. Phil, it’s easy to construct a fantasy in which he tells me I’m the only one to blame for my circumstances, hitting him, then as I’m dragged off by security or the police, telling him how it’s entirely his fault he got punched and his hypocrisy at having me removed. Ehrenreich expresses a similar fantasy about “pummeling” Mike Hernacki, Bruce I. Doyle, and Patrick Knowles (85). This she contrasts with the churches’ more positive methods about alliance with God (Ehrenreich states her atheism (134); I have been in the Unity church since age 4, and both Unity and the Thought Exchange have been called “Buddhism for westerners,” and the term “metaphysical malpractice” is often used when EST-like blame is distributed by Unity congregants, especially among those who are new, or pick and choose scraps from various metaphysical sources, such as Rhonda Byrne. My minister, Paul Tenaglia, thought Nickel and Dimed was brilliant but decried Bright-Sided, which appeared four years after this and seems like it may have been inspired by Barbara Alexander’s experiences with Kimberly. She describes both, ultimately, as fantasies of omnipotence that insidiously, if not deliberately, work to prevent people from confronting the social and economic forces shaping their lives.

Ehrenreich reaches the conclusion that I, as an Occupier, reached early on in the book, the need for collective action against the system (237), even citing Marx on the instability of capitalism on page 217, after an earlier reference to Marxism on page 162. “When skilled and experienced people routinely find their skills unwanted and their experience discounted,” Ehrenreich says, “then something has happened that cuts deep into the very social contract that holds us together.” Indeed, if you notice my 2014 reading challenge, you’ll see a lot of collected editions of Golden Age comic books. The notions of democracy reflected in these bitterly anti-fascist tracts makes me as a contemporary reader incredibly cynical of how much our society has taken a turn for the worse. Right-wingers point out that the United States is not a democracy, but a Representative Republic. More accurately, it is a Non-Representative Republic based in corporatism, which Mussolini said was the same as fascism. On page 223, Ehrenreich notes that “the job-generating function ranked higher among corporate imperatives. CEOs were more likely to stand up to the board of directors and insist on retaining employees rather than boosting dividends in the short-term by laying people off.” She even cites Claire Giannini, the daughter of the founder of Bank of America, saying that in her father’s day, executives took pay cuts to avoid laying off staff. I’ve heard only of non-profits like my church doing such things. In 1960s comics, many a villain (such as Calvin Zabo/Mr. Hyde and Klaus Vorhees/The Cobra in Stan Lee‘s Thor) gets started because they are offered a plum job that they don’t deserve. Usually their employer has doubts but thinks that they can afford to be generous, and it usually results in their deaths. This sort of thing happens metaphorically every day with the Geithners of the world, but I find it astonishing how easily these overtly unqualified people get white collar jobs walking in off the street and wonder if it was equally implausible when the stories were first published. I’ve never been able to get past security with my resume, and when I was still living at home after college, my mother demanded that I use a literal pavement-pounding technique, and when it failed after weeks and weeks, it led to her aggression against me that made living with her not an option in either of our opinions. She could stand to read about these 45 year-olds in 2005 being forced to move back in with their parents. The economy hasn’t improved any since then. It’s been whitewashed with the numbers game, but the alternative media that is actually progressive has noted that all growth has been in minimum wage service sector jobs on an income that is not livable in even the poorest parts of Mississippi. I heartily endorse Ehrenreich’s conclusion, conservatively presented (“work for change”) as it is. I work with Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking, Occu-Evolve, Picture the Homeless, and the New York City Community Land Initiative, so I cannot honestly be accused of being lazy, feckless, or not working, even though I remain unpaid and cannot afford to move out of a homeless shelter, even if I did do work that is abnormally excruciatingly painful for me. There are yahoos out there who think I should be forced to “contribute” in such a manner. In Germany, it’s illegal to fly the flag that represents their beliefs.

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Real Affordability for All, Where “All” Means 10% of the U.S. Population

I learned from Lynn Lewis, director of Picture the Homeless, that the “Real Affordability for All” coalition was unhappy that members of Picture the Homeless, such as myself, were shouting things like “Define affordable!” and “Income-targeted housing” at a press conference at City Hall a few months back. Lynn said that she doesn’t share their concern and did not disapprove of my actions. RAFA ignored all PTH recommendations the one time when PTH was brought to the table. In the room at the time I was told this were two Picture the Homeless staffers, another member of Picture the Homeless who is also living in a shelter in spite of a master’s degree, a staff member of an elected official, and a CUNY professor, who went to a more recent RAFA rally in Harlem. I don’t know about the staffers, one of them too young to have finished college, but everyone else in the room holds a master’s degree or higher, and the professor said that the only reason he could afford to live in RAFA’s idea of “affordable housing,” which is the same as Andrew Cuomo’s, is by virtue that his wife is a physician.

Why does Real Affordability for All fight for housing that is affordable to people who have physician’s incomes? If more people understood that that is what “Affordable” means based on federal definitions, RAFA would get no support. They don’t like that the fact that the one time they invited PTH to the table, that PTH members have refused to endorse anything they’ve done because RAFA has refused to strike “temporary” from their housing subsidy requests on the grounds that it’s “winnable.” Picture the Homeless’s position has consistently been that temporary rental subsidies don’t work. Maria Walles (who needs special thanks, because she is the one who actually made the ask before Gilbert Taylor and the Department of Homeless services to give people more than a day’s notice of shelter transfer–she was very pleased to find out that I had gotten such) had the Work Advantage subsidy, and her family is back in a shelter because the jobs she and her husband had were not enough to pay rent on their own, and thus, were a revolving door back into the shelter system. That seems to be their approach when it comes to so-called “affordable housing,” which is catering toward the middle class, which is now down to only 10% of the U.S. population. Based on Cuomo’s definitions, two homeless people with master’s degrees, a staff member of an elected official (with a master’s degree), and a college professor (with a Ph.D.), do not qualify as middle class, but the physician does. The definition of affordable housing is based on the Area Median Income (AMI) which was invented by Andrew Cuomo when he was director of Housing and Urban Development at the federal level. The area median income for a family of four for the New York City area is $80,000, while the average income of a family of four in Manhattan is $53,000. When the government says “affordable housing,” 90% of it is affordable to people making $60,000 or more, which excludes highly educated people in respectable positions, or qualified for respectable positions. (The other homeless person with a master’s degree at the table was Arvernetta Henry, a retired schoolteacher, while yesterday, I was interviewed for a $25 an hour position as a copywriter for CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System).) Affordable housing is not built for people like us because Cuomo intentionally skewed the averages by including Rockland and Westchester Counties, while those counties get exemptions from being figured into their affordable housing, yet they still impact us for some perverse reason. Most people who consider themselves “middle class” are really “moderate income” by official definitions, while “middle class” is defined as people making above $120,000 a year, a figure most of us would consider to be “upper class” and not even “upper middle class.”

Those of you in New York, please vote for Zephyr Teachout in the primary election. She is the only one with enough of a base to defeat Cuomo in the primary election. If you vote for Cuomo, the lame duck will unquestionably remove bans from fracking and make sure there is no housing that anyone making below a physician’s income can afford. A vote for Cuomo is a vote for hydrofracking, so as far as I’m concerned, if you care about these things, and you vote for Cuomo in either the primary or general election, you are part of the problem and have waived your right to complain. If Zephyr Teachout does not win the Democratic primary, I will be voting for Howie Hawkins (Green Party) in the fall. I may be homeless, but I am a registered voter, and the Board of Elections has my new address–I got my transfer notice last week and I vote. The only year I didn’t vote since becoming old enough was 2003, and only because I had been in the city only two months and didn’t know enough about local politics to vote in any particular way.

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