THE INVISIBLE UNEMPLOYED
The jobless families of 1960 still look like everybody else—trapped on a high plateau of living standards, but desperate for means to keep themselves there. Here's an intimate report on the real distress of the unemployment that looks like prosperity
JOHN LAFLECHE, a thirty-year-old father of three children and soon to be the father of a fourth, was on his annual vacation and preparing to move to a new $105-a-month apartment when he became one of the three hundred and twenty-seven thousand Canadians who are now unemployed.
John was one of five hundred workers caught in a layoff at a Vancouver plywood manufacturing plant w'here, until this summer, fifteen hundred men had been employed, and where he had worked for two years. There was. he says, no warning. One day in July, four days before the end of his holidays, a woman office worker telephoned from the plant and told him he had been laid off temporarily. No one. least of all John, knows how' long temporarily may be.
Like the rest of the New Unemployed. LaFleche doesn’t look at all-like the bread-liner who has become the symbol of the Great Depression. His clothes are not ragged, his pretty wife is still neatly dressed and his children still look well fed. and they still live in the fairly handsome new apartment (they moved in anyway, having nowhere else to go). He and his fellow jobseekers have not changed the appearance of Canada at all. even in cities like Vancouver where unemployment is double the national average. This has led some people to wonder whether there is a real unemployment problem at all in Canada today, whether the unemployed are actually suffering hardship.
To find out, 1 have spent the last four weeks visiting unemployed families in Vancouver. 1 found them extremely proud and shy. in some cases so ashamed of their status (or lack of it) that I had to promise 1 wouldn’t use their real names. Not one is starving, or likely to starve; a few have family incomes that to some Canadians — the fishermen of Newfoundland or the farmers of northern New Brunswick, for instance — may sound fairly adequate. But anyone w'ho thinks that 1960-style unemployment isn't real, and its victims are in no serious distress, ought to go and talk to a man who has no job. Most of the jobless families I am reporting on I visited in their homes, so that I might
see as well as hear what unemployment in a day of general prosperity means to them.
A plumber, a man more articulate than most, told me, “You get a terrible feeling of being alone, outside of things. You go downtowm and everything is as busy as it's always been. There are as many cars on the streets as ever. As many people in the stores. But you don't feel you're part of it. It's passing you by. For you life's at a standstill. And so. eventually, you go home, depressed, and at home you feel trapped.”
When I repeated this description to another man, a carpenter who is about to lose his home, and asked what he thought of it, he snapped. "To hell with that! I'll tell you how it makes me feel: fighting mad! Let them try to put me on the street!”
A young mother, who for months has known the frustration of trying to keep house and feed herself, her husband. and tw'o children on thirty-three dollars a week from unemployment insurance, exclaimed: “Boy, by the time I’m through this, if 1 ever see another piece of hamburger I'll cry!”
Men in their fifties and sixties 1 found to be hurt and bitter. "Today the boss wants a twenty-year-old man wfith forty years' experience.” was a common saying among them. A fifty-three-year-old steamfitter suggested, "Why don't they shoot us old men? Digging graves for us would make jobs for the younger men.” A house painter, a highly cultured man who at one time played the violin in the Vancouver symphony and whose hobby is archaeology, said, “The government should see there is work and if a man w'on't work let him starve.”
Those with some experience of poverty seemed best able to roll with the punches. At least this was so with one young father of two children who told me, "My dad was a terrible alcoholic. When 1 was twelve I sold papers from three to six and 1 set pins in a bowling alley from seven till midnight. I learned long ago not to worry. But my wife, she’s from a respectable family
and she can’t stop worrying. When I was a kid. I’d get dog bones from the butcher for nothing. My mother would throw them in a saucepan of water, toss in an onion, and we’d have soup. That’s one trick I taught my wife. But dog bones cost a dime now.”
Then, cynically, he added, “It costs more to be poor nowadays.”
John LaFleche, the unemployed plywood worker, neither protests nor complains about what has happened to him. In spite of his own considerable problems, he recently answered a plea for volunteers to work with children afflicted by cerebral palsy. “There’s lots of people worse off than us,” he said. “Those poor kids — some of them can’t even walk.”
A dark, slightly built and obviously gentle man, John deferred most of my questions to his wife. Marie LaFleche is a petite, attractive, and forceful woman of thirty. She and John were married in 1952, shortly after he returned from army service in the Korean War. They have three boys, aged seven, six, and fourteen months, and their fourth child is expected toward the end of November.
Until he was taken on at the plywood plant in August 1958, John had worked in industries that are highly susceptible to seasonal or economic shutdowns — a common experience in British Columbia where so large a part of the labor force is engaged either in construction or in logging, fishing, or mining. One unemployed logger told me he had lost one job in February when the camp closed because of snow, landed another one in June, and lost it in July because of the fire season.
"Whatever we made in the summer, we lost in the winter. We could never get a penny ahead,” said Mrs. LaFleche. "When we got the plywood job, we thought we had a sure thing, at last.”
The job paid $1.96 an hour for day work and $2.02 for afternoon shift. John showed me w'hat he said was a fairly typical pay cheque for two weeks’ work, including some overtime: $172 gross, $142 take-home. The deductions
included a fifty-cent donation to charity and fourteen dollars in savings.
The savings deduction was something new and was intended to go toward a down payment on a house. “We were looking forward to the spring when the furniture would be paid for,” Mrs. LaFleche explained. “1 hen we planned to increase our savings. We counted on an incometax refund, too. By fall we might have had enough to put down on a house.”
These plans fell apart four days before the end of John’s vacation and four days before the family was to move into a new apartment. When John got the telephone call telling him he had been laid off, he tried to soften the blow for Marie by telling her the layoff was to last only three weeks.
“But when he couldn’t sleep at nights I knew something was fishy,” she recalled. "I hated to do it but I finally phoned the plant and got the truth.”
The rent of $105 a month now seemed astronomical when matched against their income of thirty-three dollars a week from unemployment insurance. But they had paid a month’s rent, so they moved in. It is a small apartment, with two bedrooms, but it is brand new and Marie LaFleche describes it as “the nicest place we’ve lived in.”
Quickly the family fell into debt. “By the time school started,” said Mrs. LaFleche, “1 was desperate. I didn’t know where to turn. At night I nearly went out of my mind. I began to wonder, ‘Will I have to put my children in a foster home?’ ”
She turned eventually to a Catholic welfare agency and was told the family could claim social assistance from the city. Within two days they received their first cheque.
They are paid $25.60 a month in social assistance, plus a prenatal grant of five dollars. (The usual payment to a family of five is $168.60, but unemployment insurance — in LaFieche’s case, $143 — is deducted from this.) In addition, they receive eighteen dollars a month in federal family allowances. Thus their total monthly income is $186.60. This leaves them with only $81.60 after the rent is paid
They’re unemployed, but there’s still enough money for essentials. The family at the far left can afford bread and even sliced ham, but they rarely have a roast. The man rolling his own is preparing for the moment when his tailor-mades (on the table at right) runout. And the jobless man below, as quick to check the help-wanted ads as men out of work have always been, can still afford to have the paper delivered to his door.
— if they pay it. They were, in fact, facing their first crisis over the rent at the time of. my visit.
“I know $105 seems a high rent,” Mrs. LaFleche said, “but we’ll have to stay here at least until the baby’s born. Then where will we go — with four children? I’m not fussy but the places you get for seventy-five or eighty aren't livable. 1 just won’t be driven into a slum. Not with my children.”
The payments of twenty-one dollars a month on their furniture are simply beyond them. Already they arc two months in arrears. “John did go to see about getting them cut,” Mrs. LaFleche said, “but he felt so humiliated he was flustered and agreed to pay twenty a month. He’s going to go back.”
The milkman no longer calls at the LaFleche apartment. “He cut us off when we owed five dollars,” Marie LaFleche said quietly. “Now we’re using powdered milk. It's cheaper.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked, and it struck me as a fatuous question. John and Marie LaFleche both shrugged. Then John said, “1 look for work every day. Maybe I'll find a job. Maybe the plywood plant will call me back. That’s what I’m really counting on. But I don't know. I really don't know.”
A few nights later I sat before an open fire in the mahogany-lined living room of a fifteen-thousand-dollar house with Carl Anderson,an unemployed carpenter, and his wife, Esther, reading a letter, which said: “Please be advised that unless payments are brought up-to-date on this matter at once we will commence a foreclosure action within thirty days. ...”
“That,” said Carl, “is from the people who hold the second mortgage. The people with the first mortgage sent the sheriff with a summons.”
Carl, who is twenty-nine, and Esther, twenty-three, have three girls, the eldest four. They bought their home in August 1959, paying $1,500 down and assuming mortgage payments of $98 and $ 15 a month,
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“When Carl was working I canned a lot of chicken and I bought a pig. That’s saved us money’’
Carl, a small, wiry man who seethes with energy and is inclined to vehemence, has, as he put it. left his mark all over the province, on everything from pulp mills to supermarkets. But this year he has had only fifteen weeks’ work, on three different jobs, and has earned about $1,100. (His wages as a carpenter are $2.92 an hour but one job, as a millwright, paid only $1.70.) The rest of the time he has drawn $36 a week in unemployment insurance.
"I was three months behind on the first mortgage,” Carl told me, "when I got the summons to pay up or else." This he took to his union and the union’s lawyers began to negotiate for him. The mortgage company suggested he borrow money to pay them. (“Stupid!" Carl snorted, as he told the story.) Then he got a few weeks’ work, made one payment, and action was postponed. At the time of my visit, he was again three months in arrears.
"We’ve tried to sell the house, but no takers,” said Carl. “I guess we're going to lose it. but I'm going to go down fighting. If they move to evict us. I'll try to rally the union to throw a picket line around the place."
How, I wondered, had they kept going on thirty-six dollars a week?
"Well, we really don't keep going,” Esther Anderson replied. "We're behind on ail our bills. One month we pay something on the phone bill, the next month something on the light bill. One day it's all going to come crashing down around
us.” Their benefits under a medical insurance plan have been canceled because of non-payment of premiums and since then Mrs. Anderson and her youngest child have been in hospital. They anticipate a doctor’s bill of two hundred dollars.
"We eat well enough.” Mrs. Anderson went on. "When Carl was working I can-
ned a lot of chicken and fruit and I bought a pig. That’s saved us money.”
I asked Carl if he had looked for work. “I'm not home one day. Never!" he replied and. rather wistfully, he added. "I like to work. I like to work with wood.” Albert Morgan, a pipefitter, introduced me to a new expression when I visited him. "I’m TLOed," he said.
"What’s that mean?" I asked.
"TLO.— temporary layoff,” he answered and his wife. Betty, pointing toward
the living-room window, chipped in: "Like my drapes. They’re temporary, too. They’ve been up there for two years now."
Morgan worked at a shipyard for four years and "never lost an hour's time” until a year ago. "I came home one day,” he recalled, "and said, 'Betty, I've been laid off.’ and she said, 'My God, Bert, you haven’t!’ ”
Since then he has remained on call to the yard, sometimes working for a week, sometimes for a day. At times he collects unemployment insurance, amounting to thirty-six dollars a week. Over the year his income has averaged about forty dollars a week. "That’s a big drop,” he said, “from the hundred and four I used to make.”
One job at the yard, from four in the afternoon till eight the next morning, paid him thirty - eight dollars. “That knocked me off unemployment insurance," he said, "and so that week I wound up just two bucks ahead of the game.”
The Morgans, who are in their early forties and have two school-aged children, are barely able to keep up the $80-amonth payments on their $9,000 home. The current taxes. $180, are not paid and they owe $50 on the 1959 taxes. Often they fail to meet the $36 monthly payments on their furniture and instead pay only the interest and service charges. (Most of the families I visited who were buying furniture on time had made similar arrangements. None of them had had
their furniture seized.) In his spare time. Morgan has converted a basement recreation room into a suite, which is rented for $50 a month. "It’s been our lifesaver,” he said.
As I was about to leave. Morgan said. "Don't write a sob story about us. There’s lots of people worse off than us. We know an Irish family up the street with eight kids and the father hasn't worked in six months or more. My wife and her church circle have been taking hampers of food and clothing for the kids. We're well off compared to them. '
In the case of Ben and Alice Taylor, a couple in their thirties, unemployment caused a reversal in the roles traditionally assumed by man and wife: she went out to work while he stayed home to do the housework and mind their three children. It almost wrecked their marriage.
A staff reduction wiped out Ben's $240 - a - month job as a warehouseman almost two years ago. at a time when Alice was expecting her third child. Seven weeks after the baby was born she became the family breadwinner, earning sixty dollars a week as a bookkeeper. Meanwhile, Ben looked for work.
"1 turned this town upside down,” he told me. "Upside down!"
"Once.” he said. "I applied for a job as a hotel desk clerk but they wanted an experienced man. I offered to work for nothing for two weeks to get experience. No dice.”
When they could no longer afford to
lire a woman to keep house and look liter the children. Ben reluctantly assumed the role of homemaker.
"Things were all backward, me at lome. Alice out at work,” he said. "Life s not supposed to be that way. My pride :ook an awful beating. My nerves were in edge. I'm not a drinking man. thank God. or I don't know what would have Happened."
Eventually, they sought help from a social agency, one dealing in family reasons. and succeeded in rescuing their marriage. In fact, the Taylors' story has t completely happy ending for. shortly nfter our meeting. Ben found a steady job. driving a delivery truck for a drycleaning firm.
I spoke to Ben after he'd been on the job a few days. "It's like a holiday." he said. “I tell you. it's like a holiday."
Unemployment is forcing Peter Marshall. a sixty-one-year-old carpenter, into premature retirement and is diminishing the savings he and his wife, Elizabeth, had hoped would cushion their old age.
In the last two years Marshall, a tall, raw-boned man who scarcely looks his age. has had only four months’ work. In the last thirteen months he has worked three and a half days and earned exactly $84.09. His unemployment insurance benefits expired in May.
His sole income is an annual pension of $340 — for wounds he suffered while serving with the British Army in World War I. "Thanks to a grateful country," he says, sardonically. In the last war he again served overseas, for four years with the Canadian Army.
“Anyway, a man wants to work”
The Marshalls are not in want. They own their home, they have no debts, and they have “a few thousand tucked away.” But to have to eat into these savings, which were earmarked for their retirement. embitters them.
Everything about their home — its freshly painted exterior, the well-kept garden, the meticulously clean and tidy rooms, even the smell of bread baking in the oven — seems to attest to the careful and orderly life they have lived. They have never owned a car ("felt we shouldn't spend the money"), have never bought things on time. They have no television set. Neither smokes or drinks.
"They've always said that if you worked hard and were thrifty you'd never have to worry," Marshall remarked. "Well, that's the way we've lived. Raised two children into the bargain — the girl s a teacher. So we have a house and some savings. We're not going to starve. But what will we have left by the time we're old enough for the pension?'
Refiectively, he added. "Anyway, a man wants to work. You get down in the neck not working. Last winter I dug my garden over seven times because I couldn t stand doing nothing."
There are no unemployed shoemakers in Vancouver — or so Ralph Ferguson, a truck driver, was told — and that is why. after a futile five-month search for a job. he enrolled in a shoemaking course at a vocational school.
For four years, Ferguson, who is twenty-six. worked for a trucking firm at $250 a month. He and his twenty-twoyear-old wife. Helen, have two children and were merely getting by. In May he was fired in an economy drive.
By next spring, if all goes well, he'll be a shoemaker — an employed one. In the meantime, the family’s income is limited to thirty-three dollars a week unemployment insurance. Out of this must come fifteen dollars a month to pay for his course.
"If it weren t lor my folks we couldn't live," his wife told me. "Our house belongs to them. We used to pay them sixty a month rent but now we get it rent free. My mother washes dishes in a restaurant to pay the taxes."
One obligation the Fergusons have not been able to meet is the $41 monthly payment on their 1953 Ford. So far they have kept the finance company at bay by paying five dollars a month. In the meantime. they are trying to sell the car. Five of the families I visited had sold their cars and used the money to pay other
bills. The others who had cars ownsd them outright.
One family — a butcher, his wife, and five children — 1 found living in poverty.
For twenty years Jack Robertson worked in the food section of a department store. In January 1958 the store turned this part of its operation over to a national supermarket chain and discharged the entire staff. Later some of the former employees were hired by the new management. but Robertson was not one of them.
He was given $1.900 severance pay and
$1.500 from his pension fund. He was fifty-two at the time.
Since then he has had only five months' work. His age and a physical handicap work against him. His money is gone and the family lives on $211.80 from social assistance. They pay eighty dollars a month rent for an old. dilapidated house that appears ready to collapse.
Robertson is a despairing, defeated man. "What do they expect a man to do after lie's forty and after lie's slaved his guts out for twenty years." he asks, "crawl into a hole and die?" ★