Monday, November 16, 2009

Good Morning, Friend-Citizen. Welcome to the Informal Economy.

Boy, I really do have a lot of catching up to do here, don't I? *pffff* It was nice to finally get back over here to write--quite cathartic--and I got lots of encouragement to keep doing it. And heck, my last post got picked up by Sharon Fricking Astyk (HOLYCRAPOMGWTFBBQ), so I'm feeling pretty good about myself right now. Believe it or not, I have been getting a lot done. Not so much things done on that list you see over on the right side of the page (ah well), but plenty of other things. As I said way back in my early posts, I feel that I am trying to prepare my family for two different basic events: a long emergency, and short-term emergencies. I'd thought there wasn't really any middle ground between those; if you're prepared for both, you've got the middle ground covered, right? Well, as it happens.... yes, that's right. Go me.

The middle ground emergency I'd not been figuring on (why I can't imagine, since I knew it was coming) is long term unemployment. By "long term" I pretty much mean over 1-3 months. I have no idea if that's the proper definition, or if there is a proper definition (of course there is). Who cares--my blog, my definition, over 1-3 months. There. Anyway. Both my husband and I are out of work, and received our last paycheck at the end of July (and had our medical benefits cut off at the end of August). My husband, thankfully, does qualify for a decent size unemployment benefit, and I'm working on it for myself. ($143/week, before taxes! Katy bar the door!) We do have savings, but without unemployment, we'd be drinking it through a straw right now. Blessedly, my children qualify for state medical coverage, so I no longer have to have panic attacks if they want to go roller skating or climb a tree. Overall, the process hasn't been too bad, although the unemployment process was designed by tripping bureaucrats who like to fondle their slide rulers. There's still a big, red "STOP! YOU MUST FILL OUT ALL INFORMATION ON THIS LINK!" sign on my unemployment homepage. I've followed that link at least 100 times, have filled out every blank I can find on it, and it won't go away. I've even called the office, and they said to ignore it (which I am just positive is the wrong thing to do). Fortunately, I've got a friend on the inside--er, rather, she's on the outside now but knows folks on the inside--and she might be able to help me out. Can you believe, she was laid off from the unemployment office? How's that for irony?

But I digress--quelle surprise. I've got plenty to say about what prep-work I'd done for us before unemployment hit, and how much good it's done us (read: one helluva lot!), but I wanna discuss something different. You see, today, or perhaps yesterday if you trust my Facebook posts, I officially entered the Informal Economy. Back in your dad's day it was probably called "under the table work", but that's so old fashioned, and has such interesting resonances now that we have more inventive porn movies, that I prefer the new moniker. You must admit, it sounds impressive, yes? The Informal Economy. And in fairness, it's also much broader of a thing than being paid under the table, or "off books", though that can certainly play a role.

The Informal Economy as I understand it (and do recall the discussion above about my blog, my definition--it's good to be the Queen) is basically the economy that doesn't show up on our GDP. It's a loose confederation of people, goods, and services, and their relative worth to each other, all chugging along blithely ignoring things like the DOW, or the Core Consumer Price Index, or reputable business attire. It's my baked goods that someone else wants, and who has lots of yarn and is willing to work a deal. It's my dairy class, that I can run in exchange for cash or services. Its my friend's hand-knit socks, which she is currently valuing at one week of cat-sitting. In college it was one hour of backrubs per double-A battery. Or, and this is the one where I've really taken the plunge, it's the eco-cleaning service you run because you have the time and flexibility (unemployment does confer some benefits) and need money.

You have friends, and they need something--a loaf of bread, a clean living room for the holidays, a hand-knit dead fish hat (of course I'm not making that up), some firewood. You have one or more of those things, and you need your computer devirused, or your car tuned up, or some cash, or your cats sat on. The informal economy exists in the space where all of these things meet. Slowly things bleed out, so that you're not just dealing with friends anymore, and that's fine. It maintains its own boundary conditions, just because if whatever you're up to gets too big, it becomes unwieldy and unmanageable, and you scale back (or, in some cases, politely dressed gentlemen from an acronymed government agency start asking hard questions about the street value of bread). So you keep it small.

It is both a delightful and a precarious place to be. It's liberating in its way--no doubt about that. Of course, it has nothing that looks like job security, either. And unless you are a very rare person indeed, you probably can't make ends meet just in the informal economy right now. Plus, the IE (I'm tired of typing it out over and over) puts its own demands on you, and you can lose out quickly. Didn't get that bread done in time? You just lost your 1-out of-5 bread customers, and more importantly, you lost their recommendation. Got a paying job that's putting constraints on you? Which one gives? If you're like most sane people, its the IE that takes a back seat.

BUT, for all that, it also offers jobs where there aren't any. Businesses don't have the margin to hire anyone, but their employees could sure use their living rooms cleaned while they're at work. Don't have the money to start a bakery? Of course you don't, who does? So you start a "bread share" with a limited number of folks, and add that to your minimum wage job and get by.

The IE is the natural response to a job market strained beyond the breaking point--it's water flowing over, around and under the dam. It's paradoxical in that it provides evidence for the libertarian notion of "the market will provide" but it does so by going outside of the Market because the Market is NOT providing. And it by no means covers all bases. I've yet to meet a doctor that is willing to barter open heart surgery for bread and a car tune-up (although I suspect "off book" surgeries are going to start happening soon). If The Economy does go pear shaped, there are probably a lot of goods and services that are just gonna go bye-bye. But even if it doesn't--and the Fed & Treasury are currently running neck and neck with biblical literalists in their willingness to do backflips to maintain their system--the IE is still there to take the strain off of the main economy.

So, as you can see, I'm just doing my part as a patriotic American to help our economy limp along until... um... something happens. So, anyone need their living room cleaned?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Just shut up and obey.

Ah, long time, no post. Sorry for the radio silence over here. We're in the middle of a rough patch right now--same rough patch that either 9.6% or 17% (depending on your source) is in, so nothing unusual. We're jobless right now, which is both making it difficult to work on Adapting in Place, and at the same time making me very grateful that I have been working on Adapting in Place. More on that later, though. Right now, snark!

Currently, myself and many of my friends are on varying forms of state aid. Taking public assistance is a daunting thing to do, generally incredibly depressing, and just all around no fun. Many perfect strangers are happy to criticize you for your dependence, regardless of the fact that they have no idea what your actual situation is.

With this in mind, I've compiled a simple list of rules (or perhaps, "guidelines") to help minimize the embarrassment and discomfort of taking public assistance. This list has been created based on my own experience and the experience of friends. Please note that contravening any rule in any way does grant legal rights for every person who sees you to judge you (out loud or, if desired, in print) on any or all of the following: your lifestyle choices, your parenting, your personal hygiene, your laziness, your education, your intellect, your lack of patriotism/apparent Frenchness, your very existence as signaling the certain decline and fall of our entire civilization, or any other topic of choice. So please do be careful out there!

The Rules:

1. Don't be dirty. Present yourself in as hygenically-perfect a condition as possible. You should have no visible dirt on your person (including fingernails), clean and well-kept hair, freshly-laundered clothes, no rumples, etc. This goes double-extra mega for children. Any signs of uncleanliness in your children could be considered grounds for busybody supermarket shoppers to call DFS on you.
2. Don't be clean. But remember, you are poor. You shouldn't be able to afford things like shampoo, or fresh laundry, etc. If you're too clean, you are obviously wasting the taxpayers money on frivolities. Do nothing to breach the carefully-maintained prejudices of the public who believe that people on assistance are dirty, lazy slackers who really enjoy living on $250 per week.
3. Never engage in any luxury activity at all, ever. Remember, you are currently taking public aid, which means of course that you must never, ever, find any way to enjoy your life that costs any amount of money at all. Do not ever do any of the following: go to movies, rent movies, go to the theatre, go to a restaurant, take your children to amusement/skating/other fun activities, or anything else that might cost money. You are poor--you don't deserve a moment's enjoyment of life. If you did deserve it, you wouldn't be poor, right?
3a. In addition to money-costing activities, also remember that free activities that you might enjoy are also forbidden. Every moment you are enjoying yourself is a moment you are not spending trying to find a job, keep a job, find another job, or find a third/fourth job. Obviously this must be your only focus. As such, all of the following activities are also forbidden: walks in the park, taking children to the playground, having a picnic, sitting on your porch with friends, visiting family, going to parties, etc.
4. Never possess any item which could be construed as you spending money. This rule is a bit confusing, so examples might serve well here: do not let your SIL give you a manicure for your birthday, or fix your hair in any fancy way. Do not dress in business clothes, even purchased secondhand. Do not borrow your parents/in-laws nice car to go to run errands. Never dress your children in the expensive clothing purchased for them as gifts by loving relatives. Do not use public aid to buy your child a birthday cake and soda, which was the only thing they asked for for their birthday. Obviously, if an upstanding, tax-paying citizen sees you in a grocery store with nicely done nails & hair, driving a nice car, and buying a cake and soda, they are entitled to decry loudly (and post everywhere possible online) how abusive you are being of the system. Just because they have no idea how or why you have these things is no excuse--it is your responsibility as a poor person to never make taxpayers have to think about, well, much of anything.
4a. To maintain the personal moral indignation of the taxpayer to our situations, it is acceptable to on occasion breach rule #4 in limited fashion. This allows the taxpayer to continue with their prejudices, which is crucial for our status quo.
5. Only purchase things deemed appropriate by the surrounding consumers. Again, the guiding principle here is that you are poor, and obviously incapable of making educated decisions (otherwise, again, you wouldn't be poor now, would you?). You must only buy products that other tax-paying people think are appropriate. As this can vary somewhat sharply by area, it is often helpful to pass out a brief questionnaire to other shoppers before attempting to shop yourself.
6. Maintain an acceptable number of children. This number will vary between zero and 4, depending on your location--please find out what is appropriate for your own area. But the core here is that, as a poor person, and a person on public assistance, it is inappropriate for you to make childbearing decisions on your own. Poor people attempting to actually bear and raise children is considered an unconscionable affront in many places. It is immaterial that poor people are just as capable as taxpayers of raising happy, well-mannered, well-educated children. In our society, poverty is a sign of moral failing--if you can't buy your child a PS3, what business do you have raising children at all? If you need help paying the cost of children, no matter how loving and wonderful parent you might be, and no matter how unlikely it will ever be that you'll be in "an appropriate financial position" to have children, you must not do so. If you already have children, use various methods for hiding them while in public.

If you follow these simple rules, you should lead exactly the joyless, grinding, depressing life you are meant to lead, while simultaneously having any sense of self-worth or pride expunged from you forever. Remember, if you work very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very hard, you may be able to get a job that will allow you to pay taxes, and then you can decry all the other people on public assistance for not "taking every opportunity to get yourself out of that mess like I did!" If you work even harder than that, you might someday be able to afford your own health insurance!