Two weeks ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a record 4.8 million people were hired in the month of June. “Our economy is roaring back,” the president said at the time as CNBC marveled that the number “smashes expectations.” All of this was, for the kind of person who only cares about The Economy and not the ongoing public health crisis, welcome news: People were finally getting back to work! (They were also getting sick and dying in the process, but why let a thing like that get in the way of celebrating the Magical Happiness of the Markets?)
Even so, the numbers weren’t telling the full story: As CNN pointed out in the wake of that report, 3.7 million people have been permanently let go from their old jobs, another 5.4 million are reported to have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, and up to 33 million still depend on unemployment to keep them afloat.
And for those people, the ones who actually managed to successfully navigate our labyrinthine garbage unemployment system, the likes of Lockheed Martin, General Motors, and Walmart have an idea: What if you used this pandemic as a time for self reflection and personal improvement? What if—and hang with me here—you applied for a completely different, brand-new job? What if this wasn’t a global crisis so much as an opportunity to find the new you!
On Tuesday, Ivanka Trump unveiled that effort, the “Find Something New” campaign, complete with a website that instructs the jobless—those new to the labor market and those who got booted out of it because of Covid—to get on the “fast track to an in-demand career.” The site points users to various resources, such as community colleges and retraining programs, that will allow them to fulfill their sacred American duty of placing work above all else. Corporate partners include Home Depot and Visa. Joining them were politicians like Charlotte’s Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles and Republican governors Eric Holcomb and Kim Reynolds.
The website comes complete with links to an external “Career Predictor,” sponsored by Lockheed Martin, where one can figure out through a brief series of simplistic questions—Would you rather: “Save the planet” or “Save people”?—what their future STEM career should be. (I apparently am destined to become an ecologist.) It also comes with links to resumé builders and a page of testimonials from workers who have found new careers in everything from nursing to carpentry to software engineering.
In a vacuum the effort would be perfectly mundane, another public-facing task for Ivanka Trump, a person perfectly suited to tell people to just try something completely different. After all, going from modeling to lifestyle blogging to cosplaying as a real estate executive and White House adviser requires a certain something. (Wealth. Wealth is what it requires.)
But in the present moment, with multiple states regularly posting record high cases of Covid-19 and school systems across the country opting for remote learning due to worsening cases of community spread because President Trump has been solely devoted to business leaders before and throughout the pandemic, the campaign is nothing short of appalling. The message the group is pushing—that work equals dignity and that no worker should let something like a global pandemic get in the way of the senseless demand to always be productive—is not just a clumsy misstep, but a dangerous one, too. It is another form of reminding workers that even in the face of an extended hospitalization or death, their worth to this country extends only as far as their work does.
It’s also founded on the idea that education, training, and a little grit are the best available tools for people to pull themselves out of poverty. It does not grapple with the fact that the best way to help people out of poverty is not to shuffle them around from low-paying job to low-paying job or offer financially inaccessible higher education as a fix-all, but to give them the material resources they need to care for themselves. In a pandemic, that means a recurring wage in exchange for social distancing and not going back to work on top of making health care and education publicly funded basic rights.
The pandemic couldn’t have made capitalism’s general incompatibility with human life any clearer, but it was pretty obvious before that too: Last month, Sophie Madeline Dess wrote for The New Republic about the other-ing she experienced in her pre-pandemic job as a temp for corporate offices, writing that “I was, more or less, just another part of the one percent’s office space, like furniture except I could talk back.” On Tuesday morning, Bloomberg published a months-long series of conversations between reporter Max Abelson and an anonymous billionaire. The entire piece is a marvel, and an insightful look into the minds of the wealthy during the pandemic. Abelson’s billionaire interviewee bragged about being able to get a test back in the spring; they complained about their lucrative financial business being interrupted by the mass human death; they even laid their cards out on the table, saying at one point, “Do you want to end up losing your life savings so that the old person you don’t know can live?”
The answer, for millions of workers, is an unequivocal, “Yes.” The answer from the White House and the corporate dipshits doing its bidding is: Let’s get people dying already!
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