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Bird's Blog

Poetry, musings, observations, commentary, rants, confessions...and who knows what else!

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Location: San Francisco Bay Area

Teacher, writer, poet, grandmother, lover, wine-drinker, chocolate eater, beach comber, hiker, traveler, Giants fan, San Franciscan. All work on this blog is copyrighted material.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Jobs Americans Won't Do

I was talking with a woman out on parole for a felony crime the other day. She was the recipient of the first-place prize in a journal writing contest I coordinated at the community college at which I work. Her writing is powerful (check out her blog - especially her post "Killing Me Slowly") and speaks of her experience in prison. She has turned her life around immensely - she is a poster child for rehabilitation - has paid her debt to society, abides by the regulations of her parole, and has retrained for a biotech job. She has recommendation letter after recommendation letter (from teachers, the county sheriff, politicians, etc.), yet she cannot find a job - that felony conviction keeps getting in her way. She tells me it's harder for women with felony convictions than for men with felony convictions to find work. Why? Because more manual labor jobs are available to men than women - and often those are the only kinds of jobs (regardless of qualifications) parolees can find.

Yet in contrast to this woman's situation, we have an abundance of "jobs Americans don't want to do." Apparently, we've had a cultural shift from one generation to another - Americans (or rather, to be precise, white males, according to this LA Times article) don't see manual labor as something they wish to do - even if that labor is well paid (unless of course, the white males have felony convictions or are extremely down on their luck).

I can understand the disdain of manual labor to a certain extent - physical labor is hard and hurts your body over the long haul. And my generation, the baby boom generation, was encouraged to reach further than our parents. In fact, coming off the heels of WWII, flush with victory and a sense of "we can do it" and the promise of a new age and new opportunities, our parents strove to provide better for us - to provide us a springboard from which we could achieve more than they had. The American Dream kicked into high gear: Education and a white-collar job. Home-ownership. A big car (and perhaps a second) in the garage. A color tv and hi-fi stereo. And with all of that, the American Dream turned definitively middle class and white collar.

But I did my share of manual labor as a teen and young adult: Worked as a gardner, a housecleaner, and as an untrained nurse's aid, helping old ladies in and out of bed, the bath, the shower, running breakfast trays up and down stairs, emptying and cleaning commodes. My brother spent a summer digging ditches though he was well-paid for his labor and treated kindly by his boss.

Most young people today would not work such jobs; they are above such lowly work.

My son, however, is working as a day laborer now - he is unskilled, under-educated - following a wandering path that worries me. He lives in Arizona (truly the Wild West he tells me, where quite a few of the young people he knows routinely carry guns). He gets up at 4:00AM, goes to the day laborer spot and competes with dozens of men (and boys) for a long, hard day's work at $5.25 an hour. His last job was digging ditches. He, along with four others, was selected by 5:00AM, loaded into a truck and driven for an hour to the job site, out in the Arizona desert, which is quite cold early in the morning. He and his coworkers stood about until 9:00 AM, warming themselves by a makeshift fire, until the boss showed up with equipment. Then the work began. They worked steadily through the morning as temperatures rose to the 90s, got an hour off for lunch, and worked again until 4PM, when the boss collected the equipment. The laborers stood around until 5PM, when the truck came to transport them back to the pick-up spot. The boss deducted $2 from each worker's pay (transportation costs). No one complained as this is all under the table and if you complain, you won't get work again. Kid got home at 7PM. Though his day was about 15 hours long, he worked only 6, making $31.50 that day (before transportation fees). This is no way to make a living.

Seems as though we have "jobs Americans won't do" because these jobs pay so poorly and have appalling work conditions as well. But as the LA Times article points out, we won't do them even if we are well-paid for such work. And why is that? Because we view them as making us "less than," regardless of the pay. We attach a stigma to these jobs - they are only fit for parolees and illegals, for the uneducated, the losers, the disenfranchised among us.

But why should anyone receive such little pay and work under such harsh conditions? Except of course, it provides the "boss" with an advantage - cheap labor and larger profits. And except of course, sometimes such harsh, low-paying jobs, are the ony ones some folks can get.

Something's wrong with this picture in a variety of ways.


Blogger Jack K. said...

bird, your acceptance of your son's choices are to be commended. You have discovered that only he can live his life. I know the feeling of concern well.

As you well know, we are each on our own path to enlightenment and must pass through many situations.

When your son has completed whatever mission or lesson(s) he has mapped out for himself, he will move on to the next lesson(s). At least he is working and maintaining his self respect.

Give him my regards and let him know that there is at least one stranger out here who is lauding his efforts.

I laud yours too.

May 21, 2006 1:06 PM  
Blogger talkytalk said...

You are a beautiful writer.
Your expression of care and interest and understanding are breath-taking.

May 21, 2006 11:43 PM  
Blogger native said...

what a wonderful wonderful post. i live in rural north georgia. the population is white. period. the county is a weird mix of rich second home people and poor agrarians and or service workers. the rest are developers.

here is an observation: the folks that are still working land are someof the sturdiest, full, joyful people ive ever encountered. i see them at the feed and seed where i get the supplies for the chicks. Some of these folks are in their 70s and they are super fit -im talking wirey bodies and muscles....strong -still lifting big bags and stuff. my point is that their work is physical.

and all of us used to be this way...when we did our own chores, and worked in the good earth. I think we were mentally healthier then too. we were connected to the seasons, we knew and grew our food, we depended on our animals and when we ate them we were aware of the sacrifice. we lived fully and we went to bed dog ass tired from being physical.

contrast that with the vacation home people. i mean no disrespect with this observation. their wealth has brought a sedentary life, they have great cars and nice clothes, alot of stuff. but, frequently in poor health, out of shape, demanding, impatient at the slow pace at which things are done here. in fact, the stress between the two mountain peoples is about the way it is in the city and the desire to import those very citified stresses to this place -this place that is ancient and verdant and wise.

i guess my whole point is far from seeing labor as beneath me i hope that i can do well enough in illustration to earn my way into being a mini-farmer. i want to do physical labor. i want to be dirty with my own soil and bring forth some gooness by my own hand. I want to be as the old southern agrarians lived: working physically all day and filling my eyes and mind with the good stuff -art and literature, or an earned soak in the cool creek.it is anything but "less than" I am happy for your son, and i might bet that he is well adjusted and living fully and of the moment.

i think much of our modern ideals are bastardized to the point it will be our demise -weak, sick, spoiled, bored and demanding.

thanks for visiting my blog and looking at the native plants bird. im glad you liked the lady slipper. theyve all returned to the leaf litter and now we enter the season of copperheads and ticks.

May 22, 2006 9:19 AM  
Blogger disguised said...


my feeling is that the guest worker program will only exacerbate this problem. The working conditions aren't good for your son, nor are they good for those who are separated from their families and land. Until we, as a culture, begin to respect all types of labor again, this problem isn't going to be solved. To me, anyway, it's not about immigrant vs. native labor, but rather about treating all labor fairly and with respect.

May 22, 2006 11:57 AM  
Blogger Jack K. said...

tt, I agree.

gn, you are so right on. In an effort to protect our progeny from making mistakes, we have made them weak, whiney spoiled, sick, bored, demanding and believing the world owes them a living. How gross is that?

d, our culture needs to emphasize self-respect. How can we respect others until we do?

bird, I still love you writing style and the ideas you present.

May 22, 2006 12:29 PM  

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