Research Findings

Teaching thrift to the poor

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November 26, 2020

Job-readiness programs have become the predominant response to the joblessness and precariousness of the poor. These programs aim to instill within clients the cherished virtue of work. But, as we show in a recent article, they also promote the hallowed virtue of thrift.

We build upon Batya Weinbaum and Amy Bridges’s argument, in their 1976 piece in Monthly Review, that consumption is a form of labor deserving of greater attention. We show that job-readiness programs do not just condition participants to labor, but condition them to this labor of consumption, casting the latter as the most likely path toward mobility. They do not just encourage clients to enter the labor market, but pressure them to endure the daily indignities and insufficient earnings of low-wage work through an embrace of individual austerity.

Job readiness programs, we argue, thus focus on “both sides of the paycheck:” the earning of a paycheck as well as the spending, stretching, and even supplementing of that paycheck.

To develop this argument, we draw from extensive ethnographic fieldwork carried out in two job-readiness programs in Syracuse, New York: Choosing Success and Women of Work. We conceive of these programs as exemplary sites of neoliberal paternalist poverty governance and thus attend to not only the administrative practices through which the poor are managed, but the discourses used in the tutelary efforts to transform individuals’ self-understandings, desires and actions.

“Just what we need to survive”

Choosing Success is a local nonprofit organization with the aim of “ending the cycle of poverty and unemployment.” Steeped as it is in the deeply racialized discourse of the “culture of poverty,” the program focuses on transforming clients’ mindsets as a means of ending poverty.

Given this focus on mentality, it should come as little surprise that Choosing Success focuses on self-help and the power of positive thinking. And yet, when it comes to employment, Choosing Success advises participants to accept any wage offered and, if pressed during salary negotiations, to “go low.” Without latitude in wages, then, the program promotes curtailing consumption, careful budgeting, and petty “hustling” as the only means to “overcome the pressure of money” and make ends meet.

Participants, who are uniformly assumed to be impulsive and incapable of deferring gratification, are urged to focus on basic expenses and to cut out all the rest. “Remember,” the facilitator instructs, “essential is—just what we need to survive.” However incapable they might be of such ostentatious consumption, participants are derided for wearing Air Jordans and splurging on penthouse crab dinners.

Choosing Success thus posits that participants’ struggles with poverty, debt, and financial crisis reflect an incapacity—or, more so, unwillingness—to consume below their means. The program accepts inadequate wages as a given, acknowledging that the jobs its clients acquire are “dead end” ones that pay but a minimum wage. Participants are thus urged to conceive of themselves as not just dedicated workers, as the literature on such programs overwhelmingly suggests. They are also urged to think of themselves as thrifty consumers, encouraged to stretch their capacity for social reproduction to the breaking point.  

“Sometimes your job isn’t enough to afford your life”

Women of Work (WoW) is a local nonprofit organization for displaced homemakers. Displaced homemaker programs emerged in the 1970s out of the Wages for Housework movement. But once established, as Jennifer Stepp Breen has shown, they became “far less radical and more service-oriented” than their promoters had hoped, essentially offering workshops on self-esteem and job-readiness. Women of Work is no exception, offering little more than donated clothing and employability training to low-income women.

At first glance, WoW teaches an approach to budgeting and employment that is strikingly at odds with that taught in Choosing Success. Here, women are instructed to figure out what they need to “run” their lives so that they can then find a job that will pay enough to cover their expenses. The problem is that women are taught to just take what they’re given. Participants are thus instructed—in “lean in” fashion—to “act like men” and “be confident.” “But,” the facilitator adds, “you still gotta make sure your pantyhose are in a straight line and that you can deliver.” 

Despite this gesture towards women’s empowerment, which we frame in the context of neoliberal feminism, WoW likewise recommends individualized austerity. Participants are encouraged to view all spending as shortsighted extravagance. Small amounts of money, they are told, can amount to a fortune if properly squirreled away. This logic reframes any wage rate as reasonable, even generous. Participants are also instructed to draw upon their “multiple talents” as homemakers to operate a “side business”—as laundry-doer, wedding planner, garden starter, etc. “Because,” the facilitator puts it bluntly, “sometimes your job isn’t enough to afford your life.” Thrift and hustling, then, are necessary to adjunct poverty wages.   

Depoliticizing poverty

Despite these programs’ unique lineages, pedagogical rationales, racialized and gendered logics and target populations, both are dedicated to assimilating participants to the presumably immutable dictates of the neoliberal economic order: jobs are hard to find and, even if you get one, wages assuredly will not be enough.

In both programs, curtailing consumption—adhering to lean social reproduction—is promoted as the most immediate, tangible, and individualized medium of “getting ahead.”

A number of years ago, McDonald’s made headlines for offering similar lessons to its low-wage workforce.

These findings further confirm the profoundly depoliticizing effects of “job readiness” training and thus should be of considerable concern to those committed to politicizing poverty and advancing a more radical politics. In place of any critique levied against inadequate state support or a degraded labor market, which might encourage participants to see themselves as workers and political subjects, these programs assure participants that, ultimately, they are on their own.

Read More

Brian Hennigan and Gretchen Purser, “Both sides of the paycheck: Recommending Thrift to the Poor in Job Readiness Programs,” Critical Sociology, 2020. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.

Image: Ryan McFarland via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Cross-posted at Marxist sociology blog.

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