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Monica Yant Kinney: No sympathy for the better-offs

The economy has drained our savings and fried our nerves. But I never imagined Sunday's column about an unemployed Yardley businessman's futile search for work would elicit scorn, not sympathy.

The economy has drained our savings and fried our nerves. But I never imagined Sunday's column about an unemployed Yardley businessman's futile search for work would elicit scorn, not sympathy.

When a high-level executive is striking out like everyone else, unemployment has become a cruel unifier. I thought writing about Byron Wilson's nine-month job search - 2,396 letters to recruiters and CEOs, 1,656 networking e-mails - would be illuminating.

Ginny Somers thought otherwise.

The column, the Limerick woman wrote in a letter to the editor, "served as a collective smack in the face to the countless unemployed who struggle to make ends meet."

Why? Because Wilson wasn't an assembly-line worker, cop, or teacher before he was laid off in August? The 52-year-old Yardley man has an MBA. Before his crushing fall, he'd scaled corporate heights.

"Holding him up as an example of the harshness of the current economy is shameful," Somers wrote. "Instead of demonstrating empathy for the middle-class unemployed, the article borders on mocking them."

Target practice

Many readers offered encouragement and job leads, but in e-mails and on the phone, some tightly wound strangers insisted that Wilson couldn't possibly be suffering.

His last job was at Smith Barney. His wife is a physician. Their kids attend private school. That, plus a suburban zip code, contributed to the notion that this unemployed man, as opposed to millions of other frustrated and furious souls like him, is unworthy of compassion.

"I was sympathetic toward this guy until you said his wife was a doctor," one critic sniffed. "C'mon."

"I think," e-mailed another, "you chose to profile the wrong person."

Some of the finger-waving may have been caused by Wilson's pride and my own assumptions.

Wilson told me he had saved for his children's education, but he was wary of sharing how much his job loss has affected his family.

I wrote that Wilson had leads on underwriting positions that didn't match his skills or experience, but I thought I was clear when I said he had yet to land a single interview.

"People have the impression that I turned down job offers," Wilson told me. "That is incorrect."

When job loss is everywhere

Sharon Dietrich works with the poor in her job at Community Legal Services, so to her Wilson's story was both refreshing and depressing.

The column, she wrote in a letter to the editor, "shows that the rigors of unemployment are not confined to people without resources" and "demonstrates both the depth and breadth of unemployment today."

But given the harsh tenor of the response, I asked a job counselor if we are at risk of class war. Cheryl Spaulding runs Joseph's People, a faith-based organization in Chester County that has helped 4,000 unemployed people since 1995.

"I'm not so sure the anger is as much from class division," she said, as from the hurt "people feel at being unemployed at all."

"From their perspective, America broke its promise to them."

Interestingly, from Spaulding's perch, former executives like Wilson often express the most outrage.

"The people who were at the top of the food chain, the managers and business owners . . . find this particularly stressful," she explained. "Not only did they follow the path very successfully, they thought they controlled their lives . . . and the lives of the people who worked for them. Now they find themselves in the same sad rowboat as regular working people."

But with jobs so scarce, couldn't that rowboat be more welcoming? In the choppy water any of us could be forced to navigate with a pink slip, doesn't community count?

To Wilson, and the men and women like him in any tax bracket, Spaulding has some helpful advice.

"Unemployment is a deeply hurtful, deeply personal experience, but it is a burden that can be lifted and shared with the help of others," she said. "The greatest threat you face is not the loss of your job, it is a loss of hope."