Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Time to Shake Hands With the Unemployed*

When I was in the military, I was periodically reminded of the difference between "leave" and "liberty". Leave was something I earned - thirty days for every years of service. If there was any leave left at the end of my enlistment that I hadn't used, I could cash it in at the rate of whatever my "daily norm" was - the amount of pay that I earned every day times the number of days of leave. Liberty, however, is the time away from work, after close of business or on weekends. This was not a right like leave but a privilege - one that could be taken away at a moment's notice.

Years later when I was out of the service, I applied for unemployment insurance for the first time in my life. Because I am a disabled veteran, I was assured front-of-the-line consideration. But because I had been fired from my last job, which is determined to be entirely my fault (despite the "hire & fire at will" employment policy of the company that fired me), my case worker required that I jump through so many stupid hoops - including being scolded by the case worker - that I was relieved when I managed to find another, albeit lower-paying, job just a few days before my first paltry unemployment check was issued.

I realize that the government shouldn't make it all that easy for just anyone to draw these so-called "benefits", but have they ever considered how hard it is for some people to even ask for them? Why has it become so galling for so many Americans, as it was for me, to apply for unemployment or food stamps or welfare when such programs were put there for a purpose - to spare people who are in need of assistance from destitution? It seems to me that the risk of abuse of the system is an unacceptable excuse for making it inaccessible to people who genuinely need it.

So from whence does this offensive word "entitlement" come? Here is Merriam-Webster's definition of the noun entitlement:

1 a) : the state or condition of being entitled : right
b) : a right to benefits specified especially by law or contract
2 : a government program providing benefits to members of a specified group; also : funds supporting or distributed by such a program
3 : belief that one is deserving of or entitled to certain privileges

I think there is a confusion in some people's minds that the 3rd definition belongs in the place of the 1st - that a right is some kind of privilege. The politicians in Washington who seem so determined to reform "entitlements" have made it into a dirty word, particularly since the people who are most in need of such entitlements are unlikely to ever vote for them.

I think that Americans have a right - are entitled - to live without being overwhelmed by the nightmares of unemployment, homelessness, and putting their children to bed hungry. The people who object to this social philosophy never have to worry that they or anyone they know will ever be in the position of having to apply for them, so what is their objection to them. Is it one more puritanical desire to deprive others of something we can't enjoy?

*The title of this piece is a line I first heard an older gentleman from New Zealand use when he got up from his bar stool to use the rest room.

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