How often have we heard it said by conservative pundits and talk radio personalities that unemployed Americans are inclined to refuse menial work, apparently content to accept government handouts? The list of supposed “shall nots” are numerous: Americans won’t bus tables, clean hotel rooms, harvest crops and, in general, bust our chops. On the flip side, how many times have liberals argued that undocumented labor has little to no adverse impact on American job prospects?
In one key respect, the two sides seemingly agree: American-born workers won’t take “those jobs” anyhow, whereas the undocumented workforce contributes to cheaper goods and services — such are the hands that infuse America with entrepreneurial spirit, after all.
A phenomena of “enforced roles” may help explain why socioeconomic groups become occupationally stratified.
“Jim’s” story provides a window into things present — and trends to come. It began when a middle-aged man and his parents began sharing a roof. The Great Recession had not been kind, having hit the state of California particularly hard. For Jim, the eldest son of retired healthcare professionals, the economic downturn entailed prolonged underemployment — in spite of experience in a supposedly in-demand field. Having hit his late 40s with a résumé that reads like a who’s-who of defunct employers, things weren’t looking up. For Jim’s parents, likewise, failure to pay off their primary residence before retirement forced a difficult choice: upend their son, or live under the same roof.
Like any earnest job-seeker, Jim sought to do “whatever it takes” to get by while searching for full-time work. Imagine, then, his surprise when his parents turned down his offer to do yard work — lawn and garden care for the very home he occupied as his parents’ renter for nearly 20 years.
Why deny one’s own son a mundane job, an offer that if accepted would have netted a savings for a couple who themselves depend upon a fixed income — an offer that, if little more, would have helped a demoralized Jim feel useful? Their objection, Jim says, centered around the difficulty of finding a “good gardener”. And who might a good gardener be?
Stereotypically, the illegal variety.
Too add insult to injury, Jim’s parents spend upwards of 10 hours per day watching FOX News. If anyone were to be opposed to undocumented labor, it would be them — right?
To add yet another layer of irony, it wasn’t the first time Jim had lost out on work he was more than willing to take. When a neighbor passed away before the recession, Jim kept up the vacant home’s yard while the trustees weighed their options. Upon noting Jim’s neighborly actions, the inheritors of the property began to pay him a small sum — fortuitously for by this time Jim’s employer had succumbed to the recession. The owners compensated Jim, that is until they inexplicably apologized for “taking advantage” of him, opting instead for — you guessed it — a gardening service run by those whom society has apparently come to regard as legitimate partakers of such labor.
Jim’s experience is hardly isolated. During the Great Recession, employment prospects for the very rich and the very poor were not as heavily hit as those of the middle class. Under-the-table workers in the underground economy, for instance, suffered less unemployment than blacks and teens. The Great Recession, more accurately portrayed, consisted of the bottom dropping out of the middle class. Some four years into this so-called recovery, three-quarters of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, 80 percent of us will at some point in our working lives grapple with “economic insecurity”, and most have endured wage loss in the face of increased costs of living.
Jim’s reality is a poor fit for conservative critics’ allegations of pervasive, American lassitude and laziness, nor does it jive with the liberal romanticism our nation of immigrants reserves for the newly arrived. More telling, it begs the question: Is there a double standard in society — a racist typecasting of sorts — that keeps ethnic minorities behind a barrier of subordinate or low-wage occupations and majority “whites” entrenched in roles of a different but no less rigid type?
Maybe it’s time to ask.
* The title for this blog entry is a take off the film “White Men Can’t Jump”.