Sunday, May 24, 2009

Unemployment: Who's to Blame? (1980s)


The problems began in the auto industry. The Big Three automakers -- Ford, Chrysler and General Motors -- built 9.3 million vehicles in 1978. Three years later they built only 6.2 million. Their losses were the worst in the industry's history. There were two culprits: a severe nationwide recession and cheaper imports from Japan. Between 1978 and 1981, 300,000 auto jobs were lost. With fewer cars sold, fewer parts and less steel was required. By the end of 1981, Michigan's unemployment rate stood at nearly 13%, while the national average was 8%. Business and personal bankruptcies tripled. Mortgages went unpaid, medical bills mounted, soup kitchens proliferated. Laid-off workers were hard-pressed to find any kind of employment. Living in the Rust Belt proved impossible for many, who packed up their families and migrated to the Sunbelt. At times there seemed to be as many Michigan license plates as Texas ones on the streets of Houston, only one of several southwestern cities that boomed in the first half of the decade. (Living in the Rust Belt)


This is a piece I wrote in 1982. Ronald Reagan was president, interest rates and oil prices were high, outsourcing had begun, and nearly the entire country was in a recession. But in Michigan it was an all-out depression. We were one of the Rust Belt states and thousands of our auto workers were leaving the state looking for work, mainly in the Texas oil country. Our State Joke was "Will the last one out of Michigan please turn out the lights?" Others took it up as their own, but I remember it starting in beautiful, devastated Michigan:

Unemployed: Who's to Blame?

I didn't catch all of "Donahue" the other day, and maybe it was a good thing, because what I did catch really threw me.

His entire audience was made up of unemployed workers. His entire panel, likewise. As near as I could tell, Donahue was the only person in the group who had a job. But that wasn't what threw me.

What threw me was where those out-of-work auto and steel workers laid the blame. They didn't blame management for greed and stupidity. They didn't blame the government for greed and stupidity. They didn't even blame the Japanese--much.

They blamed welfare cheats.

They could barely control their rage as they talked about them: The so-called "men" who would rather be on welfare than do an honest day's work; the mothers who kept having babies so they could make more money off of the taxpayer; young people getting married and starting families without a thought to where the money was coming from.

They went on and on--the gist of it, if I got it right, being that the entire economic breakdown of this country came about because of welfare cheats.

The men talked about their lives now. About what it felt like to stand for hours in an unemployment lines. What it felt like to sit around and do nothing. What it felt like to watch their wives go off to work for a half or even a third of what the men could make if they could only get their jobs back. Some of them, as they talked, were close to tears.

Nobody could take away their right to be mad. Nobody wanted to. But what sat me upright was the direction it took. They weren't mad, for instance, at the heads of the corporations for whom they had formerly worked. They saw no problem with the fact that, though they were out of a job--due, supposedly, to declining profits--those same corporations still showed colossal end-of-year profits, and the corporation heads--the very same who had decided the out-of-workers' fates--still wined and dined in splendor and had no intention of giving up even one little country club membership.

They saw no problem with the fact that out-and-out greed kept the interest rates so criminally high that, even with a job, they couldn't afford a house or a car or any big-ticket item.

They placed no blame on the powers-that-be who decided on a staggering $10,000 as a nice round figure for a brand-new, no-frills, no-nothing standard mode of transportation. (Remember, this is the 1980s!)

None of that, even though it was discussed, was important. What was important to them was that there were people out there getting money from the government who didn't deserve it.

If it weren't for them taking money that wasn't rightfully theirs, one man said, therw would be more money to go around for the people who really need it.

"Why don't they go out and work?" the unemployed-man-with-no-prospect-for-a-job wanted to know.

Did those unemployed workers feel that, unless they made it clear, we would think they were one of them? Did they somehow think that, even though the money they were collecting while being out of work was money earned and due them, they were still "cheating" in some way? Or did they honestly think the poorest of the poor were really the bad guys in all of this?

Is that the American way of life now? The rich get richer and the poor get the blame?

1 comment:

btchakir said...

I just got to read this one (which, btw, you posted on my birthday last May) and wa fascinated with the attitudes of the unemployed in the Reagan era. When I compare the crowds that invaded Washington DC yesterday accusing Obama of Socialism and Fascism and Communism, etc etc, with the Reaganite workers who blamed their economy's misfortunes on welfare recipients, I don't see a whole lot of difference.

Why people BELIEVE the crap that comes from Conservative Pols and greedy Corporate Rightists is beyond me. And it never seems to change.

Bill at Under The LobsterScope