Business Forum: Targeting jobless is out of line

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All of us have had times when we've needed help. Maybe we were hobbled by a broken leg or laid up after surgery. Maybe it was just a lousy flu, something that knocked us out and made us ask another to lend a hand.

That never feels good. We don't like to lean on people. It can make us feel weak, though it shouldn't.

Now imagine being one of the millions of people who spent Labor Day, a day dedicated to the contributions of American workers, unemployed. Imagine having to care for a family and stitch a life together on government assistance while you face repeated rejection from employers.

That doesn't feel good either. You know it, I know it and America's unemployed know it better than anyone.

Yet we have politicians who feel it appropriate to demean the unemployed, to use them as a political cudgel.

On Aug. 26, Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, told a group of conservative supporters in South Carolina that there are "more than 100 million Americans that are simply not in the workforce." He went on to compare them to children who refuse to do their chores.

Allow me to dissect these appalling statements.

First off, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- the government agency from which Mr. King claims he got these numbers -- there are about 11.5 million unemployed Americans. The bureau also lists nearly 1 million as "discouraged workers," individuals who believe there are no jobs available for them.

So where is this 100 million slackers figure coming from? Mr. King is presumably folding in the 88 million Americans who are not in the workforce, a number that, according to the National Employment Law Project, includes 40 million people who are retired and 13 million people who are disabled, along with students, stay-at-home parents and the sick.

"I certainly don't think the stay-at-home parents in Mr. King's district would appreciate being compared to children not doing their chores," said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the self-described nonpartisan law project. "And suggesting that our economy would be better if grandparents came out of retirement is absurd."

Yet here we are, listening to an echo of what has become a common refrain from some pundits and politicians: Blame the unemployed. It's akin to the "welfare queens" trope of the 1980s and '90s, an effort by advocates of austerity measures to stigmatize those who receive state and federal aid.

It's as distasteful as it is dishonest.

So aside from being deceptive, what are loudmouth politicians suggesting we do about unemployment and the economy? Here's what Mr. King said at the event where he chided the unemployed: "I want to restore the pillars of American exceptionalism. I want free enterprise to be back in place. I want to restore the rule of law. I want this country to understand and believe how we got here."

That's awesome, Steve! It doesn't have any meaning, but it sure sounds good.

I prefer not to make this too partisan, so let me say this: Regardless of the politics behind our economy, can we at least agree that casting aspersions on the unemployed is bad?

These are proud people, smart people, hardworking people who have fallen on hard times.

Do not disparage them. Do not try to use them to further a political agenda.

Find a way to help. That is the only task that matters.


Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune; or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.


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