The global economic downturn of the late 2000s and 2010s has not been limited to the United States by any means. Many economies in the European Union have been battling recessions or full-fledged depressions such as the ones in Greece and Spain (where youth unemployment is still a whopping 48%). But in the U.S., poverty can be an especially bitter pill to swallow psychologically because anti-poor attitudes are so widespread. No developed western country is as overtly contemptuous of its poor as the U.S.: demonizing the poor is a bloodsport on AM talk radio and Fox News (whose Andrea Tantaros loves to joke that poverty and food insecurity are excellent weight-loss programs).
And the Great Recession has certainly increased poverty in the U.S., where—according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—food insecurity presently stands at 14% compared to 11.1% in 2007. Millions of Americans are still struggling financially, and their suffering is increased not only by far-right wingnuts who mock their suffering (such as Tantaros), but also, by misguided individuals who might mean well but fail to grasp the economic realities of the U.S.
Below are ten things not to say to people who are struggling financially.
1. “I Don’t Understand Why You Haven’t Found Another Job By Now”
Anyone who tells the long-term unemployed, “I don’t understand why you haven’t found another job by now” is ignorant of how frighteningly common long-term unemployment has become. During the recessions that occurred in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, unemployment was most likely to be short-term: back then, one seldom heard about skilled workers being unable to find a job for two or three years. But during the Great Recession, long-term unemployment has reached historic levels: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about one-third of unemployed Americans have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer. Many employers are less likely to hire the long-term unemployed, and Republicans only add to the misery by slashing food stamps and unemployment benefits at every turn. So in light of all the agony the long-term unemployed are facing, the last thing they need is idiotic comments from people who fail to understand how badly they’ve been battered by the U.S.’ economic failings.
2. “It Must Be Wonderful to Have Some Time Off”
Those who tell the unemployed “it must be wonderful to have some time off” equate being out of work with an extended vacation, but there is nothing fun about wondering how much longer one will be able to pay the rent or have heat in the winter. The unemployed still have bills to pay; what they often lack is the means with which to pay them. And don’t assume that the unemployed have a lot of free time on their hands: in many cases, they are spending 12 or 13 hours a day unsuccessfully looking for work.
3. “There Are Plenty of Jobs Out There”
In a healthy economy, minimum-wage jobs are typically occupied by high school students and college freshmen. But these days, it is not uncommon to see people in their thirties and forties working in the fast food industry. And when someone tells the unemployed that “there are plenty of jobs out there,” it is an ignorant statement because official government figures on unemployment ignore the long-term unemployed and don’t take into account the fact that so many of the jobs being created in the U.S.’ so-called “economic recovery” do not pay a living wage.
4. “At Least You Have Your Health”
Telling the poor, the unemployed and the underemployed, “At least you have your health” might be well-intentioned, but it’s an empty-headed thing to say because poverty is conducive to poor health in many respects. Chronic stress can raise cortisol levels, thus increasing one’s risk for everything from high blood pressure and hypertension to weight gain—and economic suffering is certainly stressful. Poverty can also mean a premature death: for example, men in McDowell County, West Virginia are dying younger than men in Guatemala (the poorest country in Central America). Male life expectancy in McDowell County was only 64 in 2014 compared to 68 for Guatemalan males. So even if the American poor have their health for now, they are likely to lose it sooner rather than later if they remain poor.
5. “You Should Only Buy Healthy Organic Foods”
Shaming the poor for their dietary choices is not limited to far-right wingnuts: sometimes, well-meaning but misguided liberals and progressives will tell the poor how much better they would feel if they would only invest in pricy organic vegetables. But when people are surviving on $9 an hour, pointing them in the direction of Whole Foods, a.k.a. Whole Paycheck, is both insensitive and ignorant. If one is genuinely concerned about helping the poor eat healthier on a tight budget, find out some things. Do they live in a food desert, and if so, how easy or difficult is it for them to get to a place where fresh produce is sold at prices they can afford? There is a middle ground between Whole Paycheck and unhealthy processed foods at the dollar store, but the trick is to help the poor find it. And suggesting that the poor pay $10 a pound for organic vegetables—however well-intentioned—is pure insanity.
6. “Sometimes, You Need to Treat Yourself”
Americans who have fallen on hard times economically often receive a lot of bad financial advice, including the suggestion that they could relieve their stress by indulging in expensive fun. But when Americans’ savings accounts are dwindling and they went from making $25 an hour to making $10 an hour (assuming they’re even working at all), the last thing they need to do is spend money on luxuries they cannot afford. Instead of saying, “Sometimes, you need to treat yourself,” try suggesting inexpensive ways to have fun. Instead of suggesting they spend $60 in an overpriced restaurant, offer some useful advice and say, “Here’s how you can cook a great Indian meal at home for $2.”
7. “You Should Go Back to School”
There’s nothing wrong with adult education classes or developing a new skill, whether it’s learning to speak a foreign language or mastering a financial software program. But classes cost money, which is the very thing the unemployed and underemployed don’t have enough of. And for those who become unemployed in midlife, taking on the expense of additional education doesn’t necessarily translate into new job opportunities when there is so much competition for every job opening.
8. “Maybe You’re Just Being Too Picky”
It isn’t uncommon for the unemployed to, out of desperation, dumb down their résumés in the hope of finding some type of part-time income: they reason that they would rather be underemployed than be told they’re “overqualified” and starve. But as sad as that reality is, there is always some clueless individual who tells job hunters, “Maybe you’re being too picky”—which is often laughable in light of just how much job hunters can end up compromising. The fact that there are so many college graduates working in dollar stores shows how badly broken the U.S. economy is, but to hear some people tell it, the problem with the jobless is that they’re “too picky.”
9. “When I Was Your Age, I Was Always Working”
Ageism comes in a variety of forms in the U.S., from unemployed Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers who are facing age discrimination in the brutal job market to Boomers and X-ers who assume that if Millennials are hurting financially, it’s because they aren’t trying hard enough. And it isn’t uncommon to hear a 65-year-old Boomer tell an unemployed or underemployed 25-year-old, in a condescending way, “When I was your age, I was always working.” But much has changed economically since the 1960s and 1970s, when Boomers were young. Jobs (both white-collar and blue-collar) were more plentiful and easier to find, a college education practically guaranteed a good wage, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal had yet to be shredded by Reaganomics, union busting and the outsourcing of countless American jobs to developing countries. If a Millennial is having a hard time staying employed, don’t blame the victim—blame the abysmal economic conditions that Millennials have inherited.
10. “You Can Always Pay with Your Credit Card”
It’s important to understand the difference good debt and bad debt. Having a mortgage on a property that isn’t underwater and being able to comfortably make the payments is good debt; owing 20 grand in credit card debt and struggling to make the minimum payments every month is bad debt—and bad debt is increasing in the U.S., where a CardHub survey predicted that card credit debt would increase from $57.1 billion in 2014 to $60 billion in 2015. Understandably, many Americans are increasing their credit card debt out of desperation. But when people are hurting financially, casually encouraging them to make unnecessary purchases with a credit card is both insensitive and irresponsible.
Alex Henderson’s work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.