Take the Money and Learn

Employment Matters column, i711.com

It used to be said that when America catches a cold, the rest of the world gets the flu. That was a common understanding at a time when American wealth and power were at its peak. When the American economy weakened, the rest of the world was hit hard.

That has changed. American factories have moved to other countries, the American dollar is not as strong as it once was, and the national debt has knocked the budget far out of balance. We’re feeling the effects now at the gas pump and the grocery store.

It’s clear the U.S. economy has entered a recession, with major banks and corporations failing or in trouble. Applications for unemployment benefits are rising. Unemployment numbers are considered “lagging indicators” – that is, when there’s a parade of bad news, unemployment numbers are at the back of the parade. Unemployment is a reaction to other things happening first, and we can realistically expect these numbers will become worse before they get better.

When the hearing world catches a cold, the deaf community gets the flu. The recession among hearing workers now amounts to a depression for deaf workers. Those who already have jobs are the lucky ones.

We’re going through a period when some of us will lose our jobs, and those who are looking for work will have a much harder time finding it. We’re in for a tough time, and it could get ugly.

We can’t predict how long it might last. We can predict that applications for SSI and SSDI will rise. That safety net is available for deaf workers. But there’s a stigma attached to SSI and SSDI benefits, because we all know someone who has abused the system. We all know some deaf people who could work, but have gotten too comfortable collecting free money and staying at home.

It’s reasonable to scorn this behavior– anyone who CAN work, SHOULD work. But there are times when perfectly capable people are unable to get work, and this happens to deaf workers even in the best of times. Now, as we enter an era of uncertainty, some of you are starting to wonder if SSI or SSDI is an option, but worry about what your friends and family will think.

I know how it feels– been there. Years ago I faced a situation where I was single, unemployed, and responsible for two young children. I had no car and no home. That was a pretty deep hole to climb out of.

I applied and received SSDI benefits, then slowly, painfully, began gathering things I needed to get back to work. I knew computers, but I didn’t have one. I found one for sale cheap – not fast, not powerful, but it worked. Then I began writing for some extra income. That meant we could meet basic expenses, but certainly didn’t leave enough to consider getting a car or go to school. So – again, slowly – I taught myself how to develop websites. It took awhile, but I worked up to doing them professionally, and earned a pretty good living doing that for the next five years. I didn’t need SSDI anymore, and I easily paid enough in income taxes in later years to cover what I’d received in benefits.

I’m sharing this not to boast, but to point out the value of using the time you’re out of work productively. The single most important thing you can do while not working is to learn. The more skills you acquire, the more knowledge you have, the more confidence you gain. And that really matters when you’re down and out of the workforce. Keep your spirits up, keep feeding your feelings of self-worth. That’s just as important as breathing and eating well. When the economic winter is over and springtime returns, you’ll be ready to take advantage of new opportunities.

If SSI or SSDI benefits make it possible for you to learn during times of unemployment, then don’t be shy about signing up for benefits. Just remember that you’ve still got a job to do – learn – and think of your benefits as payment for your work. Then work your way up to a better deal, with more income, so you don’t need SSI or SSDI anymore.

It’s nice to have a safety net, but success is even better.