Unemployment benefits back on the agenda, but where's the 'Grapes of Wrath?'

To his credit, President Obama finally spoke out urging Congress to extend unemployment benefits to the millions who are still out of work. He gave a verbal poke in the ribs to the Republicans who checked out of town early over the July 4th weekend leaving this bit of business unfinished, and said some things that would have been nice to hear a few weeks ago.

Nice speech Mr. President, but Rome is still burning while the fiddlers play.

You can expect that at least 400,000 sets of jobless fingers will be crossed until tomorrow, when the Senate is expected to consider the measure again, seconds after the Democrats swear-in a replacement for the late-Sen. Robert Byrd and pick up the 60 votes they need to block a GOP filibuster. 400,000 people a week have lost their unemployment benefits while Congress diddles around on this -- but few seem to care.

And therein lies the problem. There is a dearth of compassion toward those who have suffered the most during the recession. Some think it's too expensive to help their fellow citizens, and don't want to offer to individuals the same considerations the government showed banks and automakers.

Still others think the unemployed are lazy sloths who if they really wanted work, would simply find it. I say this last group should return to the rock they live under, which must be where all the jobs are hiding too.

Come on, people. There are five applicants for every job opening according to the Dept. of Labor and other statistic keepers, so which jobs exactly are the unemployed turning their noses up at?

And yet the public attitude is: Another 1 million families are expected to lose their homes to foreclosure in 2010. Ho-hum. Some 14.6 million people officially remain out of work, but unofficially that number is closer to 25 million. What-ever.

There is only one family I know who has not been touched directly by this recession and they live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They're the ones who can afford to send their 12-year-old daughter to sleep-away camp for 4 weeks while you explain to your kids that the community pool had to reduce its hours and the park can't afford to hold a day camp. And while I don't expect our president to actually know what it feels like to lose a job (at least not yet), I wouldn't mind seeing a little more leadership in both jobs creation and in scolding Americans -- not just the GOP -- that it behooves them to act nicer.

Robert S. McElvaine, author and editor of five books on the Great Depression era and who served as editor-in-chief of the 2-volume "Encyclopedia of the Great Depression," says that period was marked with tremendous compassion on the neighbor-to-neighbor level.

"The less people had, the more they were willing to share," McElvaine said. It was the story told in the "Grapes of Wrath."

In the early part of the Depression, there was an attitude of "people got what they deserved," McElvaine said. But that faded and by 1933, with unemployment estimated at 25%-33%, everyone knew someone who had been put out of work. The polling from 1935 showed overwhelming support for old age pensions and money for the unemployed. One late 1930s poll showed 65% of the public favored simply taking money from the rich and giving it to those who needed it, McElvaine said.

Regressives, as McElvaine prefers to call conservatives, have managed to convince the lower and middle class that the real enemy today is not the rich above them, but rather the poor below them. In the Depression, the gap was between the rich and everyone else.

Could it be as simple as we don't have visual imagery to help shape our attitudes? Writer Bruce Watson notes that the grainy black and white photos during the Great Depression left an indelible mark on our psyches, one that lingers even 80 years later. The Great Recession, on the other hand, has yet to produce a single iconic image. The Depression photos are of faces, long lines for food, for jobs, at banks. You see the suffering and can't escape it into denial.

The Great Recession has been photographically represented by, at best, a flood of "for sale" signs lined up in a neighborhood. Missing are the people. Except in real life, they're painfully here.




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