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Vox on the lost: by then it is too late.

Chronic unemployment and a life that degrades from something to nothing is a tragedy that is individual and social. It can be top down, as is being shown right now in Venezuela or it can be bottom up as seen in a series of personal essays in Vox Trending Topics. In thinking about these experiences, it is worth noticing the role of pride, humility, and embarrassment. In the U.S. there are safety nets and even the indigent can have a car, a pet, and somewhere to go if they can bring themselves to it.

Individual circumstances have much to do with personal decisions and choices but those are created in a social context that expresses expectations and values. It is the dissonance between personal experience and what you were led to expect the actual outcome should have been that leads to social change like the recent U.S. election. The U.S. experience, to date, has shown a corrective method. Many of the other changes people have tried (e.g. Venezuela) have been destructive.

9 million American men in prime working age can’t find jobs. I’m one of them. This is why those who know are worried about what national labor statistics don’t say than what some politicians are trying to push. If you’ve been there, done that you will recognize the depth in this essay.

After submitting what feels like hundreds of applications and going through multiple five-hour interviews only to be rejected, I am plagued every day with the fear that I’ll never find a full-time job again.

Every day I go without a job widens the looming gap of unemployment on my resume.

Sometimes, I feel like I want to give up completely. And I’ve gone through periods, months at a time, where I have.

I never thought I would one day be in my 40s and struggling to stay afloat.

The only work I could get became contracted, temporary or part-time, offered with vague promises of a full-time option down the line that never came to fruition.

Slipping into neurotic budgeting mode has become a well-rehearsed drill at this point. We cancel our retirement contributions, downgrade our cable, cell phones, internet packages, cancel our gym membership. We stop hanging out with more prosperous friends to avoid expensive dinners, awkward conversations, and the occasional glint of latent jealousy.

There have been times where I’ve wondered if I should just get a temporary service or manual labor job to help out with extra cash. But I’m worried about getting stuck in a position with even less room for growth than my previous jobs. And to be honest, I would be too humiliated. Our social circle, made up of mostly well-paid tech workers and professionals, has no idea how bad our situation has been.

After each rejection, I would spiral into negative thinking, wondering how long I could keep doing this dance. What did I do wrong? What was it they didn’t like about me?

Lately my thoughts have morphed into something resembling an existential crisis. What is the point of my being here on this earth?

A second essay in this Vox collection is A third of the homeless people in America are over 50. I’m one of them.

Not having a home is hard. Now imagine not having a home at the age of 66.

When I was younger, I never thought I’d spend my golden retirement years living out of my car. For most of my life I had a roof over my head, food on my table, and steady work as a journalist and writer. I grew up living a middle-class life. I was able to live and travel to many places close and far from my native state of New York. Most of my adult life has been in California and Nevada, but I also traveled around the world to Europe and India after graduating college.

Then in my mid-40s, my life slowly started to unravel.

The breaking point came after I moved in with my roommate, Jack. Unable to afford skyrocketing living costs, I had moved into a home in Monterey, California, with a virtual stranger under the promise of cheap rent and a cordial living environment. But Jack turned out to be a struggling alcoholic and a hoarder. He exhibited increasingly worse abusive behavior.

The first time the police found me, I had fallen asleep in a school parking lot. I knew it wasn’t the ideal place to park my car for the night, but I had gotten lost driving around town and couldn’t find a better spot before exhaustion set in.

Yet we face so much discrimination, even by law. In most cities, it is illegal to sleep in cars, in tents, and in most public places. For this reason, I call myself “unhoused” instead of homeless, as the term is loaded with derisive connotations.

I wake up each day and wonder if I’ll be able to survive the next crisis.

Other days, it’s the little things. The bureaucracy of social services, where a church social worker will spend three hours on the phone trying to find temporary shelter for me. The lack of privacy, where having to eat and use restrooms in public spaces feels like living in a fishbowl. I wander all over town, wondering where my dignity, privacy, and stability went. The empty days stretch out in front of me. How can I live my life with no job, no money, and no place to go home to?

It is interesting that both of these cases are stuck in California. Both the cost of living and the regulatory environment there are particularly hard on lifestyle maintenance. These two cases also provide some insight into solution as well. In the unemployed situation, it is family that provides a legacy for housing needs and a family that provides backup for meeting immediate needs and it is also family that provides for emotional needs although that last is perceived as under threat. In the homeless case, family can also be seen. The breaking point wasn’t in finding an abusive roommate but rather earlier when she ditched a husband and lost family members through death. 

The focus might be better placed on those in similar circumstances who have found more satisfying means to cope. This might mean moving to where better employment can be found, finding a less expensive place to live, or exploring a different lifestyle. It will mean planning and adjustment and learning. It will mean innovation and entrepreneurship whether in creating a comfortable life or in creating a business for extra income or for instigating social involvement for emotional health. 

What is perhaps most encouraging in both of the essays is that pride does remain. The circumstances are awful but they are not considered comfortable. Both the unemployed and the homeless realize there is something better that is possible and something worse that is intangible. That makes them immeasureably more wealthy than much of the poor in the world that cannot envision anything outside of their current condition. 

And that is a Christmas message as that hope for salvation is an artifact of Christ expressed in Western Cultures. Merry Christmas for all!