Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

I was thinking about the American work ethnic. The economically well off like to blame the poor for not working hard enough. They seem to be suggesting that any person willing to work can do just as well as they did. The implication is that, therefore, all poor people are inferior and deserve what they get (or don’t get).

If the poor person can’t find a job, it’s there fault that so many jobs have disappeared in this country. If they are working several jobs just to pay the bills, it’s there fault for not getting a college education to get a better job. If they get a college education and still are unemployed but now also in debt, it’s because kids are lazy these days and they should have gotten a practical skill like plumbing. And on and on.

God forbid we look at larger environmental causes that are putting many Americans in impossible positions.

Just work harder. That is just the worst thing to tell most people. The one thing Americans don’t lack is a love of work. I see homeless guys working harder than the average employed person. They walk around non-stop all day, every day collecting cans or looking for stuff thrown out in dumpsters that can be sold at consignment store. Even the guy standing with a sign asking for money for endless hours year round, rain or shine, cold or hot, hardly can be called lazy.

Maybe we should ask why there are so many unemployed. Maybe we should ask why the permanently unemployed aren’t counted as part of the unemployment rates. Maybe we should ask why there are so many poor and homeless in a country with so much wealth, land, resources, and housing.

I had another thought about what we should be asking. With the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on prostitution, the war on the poor, we have created a large criminalized underclass that works in a massive black market. Many of the people called unemployed and those never even counted are actually working jobs, but it isn’t official taxed employment.

In some countries, the black market might be larger than the legal market. Realizing the significance of the black market, a few countries have begun to include the black market in their calculations of GDP. It’s an interesting thing to do. Everyone knows the black market exists, but it is something one isn’t supposed to talk about in polite company, especially not in mainstream media and politics.

To talk about the black market would mean we would also have to talk about all the problems related to the black market. That is where the resistance comes in. That is what someone like Bill Cosby can’t mention when speaking of blacks needing to work harder. My guess is that as jobs in the legal market have disappeared jobs in the black market have increased. Whole markets such as for drugs have grown into profitable businesses because of illegalization. Even the police stations have been raking in the money through confiscations because of the illegal drug business.

The government knows about all this, either choosing to do nothing about it or lacking the political will to take action. Another example is that of illegal gun sales, which shows how the legal markets overlap with the illegal markets. In some cases, the government knows which gun dealers are selling guns illegally, but the government doesn’t at present have the regulatory power to enforce the law.

It’s not just the ghettos where the black market operates. The majority white rural communities have become major markets for the manufacture and use of meth. In poverty-stricken Appalachia, along with meth labs, marijuana crops are one of the major sources of income of the mostly white residents. Heck, it isn’t even just poor people. Lot of big businesses and big banks are involved in illegal activities that are rarely investigated or prosecuted.

The black market is massive beyond imagination and it is global. There probably is no way to separate the legal and illegal markets for how closely they are intertwined. There are many business owners who simultaneously operate legal and illegal businesses. That is how the Mafia operated.

The problem obviously isn’t a lack of people working, not in any simple sense. Yes, there are some people genuinely unemployed, either they can’t find work or they choose to not do illegal work. What if your only choice was to sell drugs, be a prostitute, work for an organized crime group, or not work at all? Sometimes refusing to work can be a stance of moral principle. As legal jobs disappear, this maybe a decision more Americans have to make.

Should we respect someone for working hard, no matter what kind of work they are doing? What is it that we want to value and promote as a society? Just hard work at any cost for any purpose?

The complaint someone like Bill Cosby has about poor blacks isn’t really that they aren’t working hard, but that they aren’t working hard in the way and for the purpose he thinks they should. But what other choice do they have? Not every poor black guy can become the next wealthy Cosby. Our entire system is built on the necessity of there being a vast impoverished underclass of surplus labor. Working harder doesn’t change that. Working harder doesn’t make racism and classism go away.

So, whose work counts? What kind of work counts? Why? And to what end?

To ask which work we are to count is related to asking which people we will count. It is related as well to those who don’t get counted, i.e., those who don’t count, those who don’t matter. Who we value is inseparable from what we value, and what we value determines how we treat others.

Whose country is this? Is it the country of all citizens or only some? It is interesting to note that the Americans that often don’t get counted also get targeted by the criminal system and, as ex-cons, they also don’t get to vote. Talk about not being counted, not even politically as a citizen. When a large part of the population is economically and politically disenfranchized, when we criminalize so much of daily life, why are we surprised that social problems arise among the people most negatively impacted by such an oppressive system?

Work harder, really?