Well, okay, it may not be totally pointless all the time. But I think it is mostly pointless much of the time. You say you want me to elaborate on this Pearl of Wisdom? I’d be delighted.
The same agency (let’s call them Helping Hands Brooklyn) that sponsors the Food Pantry where I volunteer wants me to help them put together some job training workshops for their clients. I met with the Director (let’s call her Mary) who suggested a series of sessions on things like “Job Searching” and “Filling Out An Application” followed by “Interviewing Skills” and “Dressing For Success.” All this sounds good, right? Everybody who comes to HHB for services is unemployed. Now they can get some shitty pork patties in a can, sign up for welfare, and brush up on their job skills all at the same location! Hooray!
Except, it’s not that simple. Mary knows this and I know this; But I think we both know it in different ways. (My next post will be about how the folks at HHB reacted when they heard I had a PhD because academics are notoriously fascinated by how they are perceived outside academia, a world they typically know little about and care for even less.) For now, I’ll just say that Mary has been at HHB for almost two decades, and she knows a lot more than I ever will about what’s going on there.
She told me that many people who come to HHB for assistance are in a state of long-term crisis so severe that it would be hard for middle-class whites like me, for example, to even imagine it. These are not newly unemployed working-class folks suffering from the recent economic downturn. Nor are they really Marx’s “reserve army of the unemployed” that allows capital to do its business efficiently, cheaply, and on its own terms. What I came to understand, after meeting with Mary, is that HHB serves those living on the extreme margins of society. Many don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. They suffer from substance abuse problems and depression, and they are often overmedicated by a health care industry that just wants them to go away. Many HHB clients haven’t had a job, or considered getting one, in years, if not decades. In addition, Mary explained that many of these folks would be extremely intimidated by the prospect of filling out a job application, even if they knew where to find one.
Considering all this, where might a post-academic liberal do-gooder begin? Mary said “There are jobs out there if our clients just knew how to get them.” To that end, we’re going to start with the basics of searching for a job. I would do this online now. Most job searches are conducted this way these days. But Mary wants to start by encouraging folks to go into a store like Target and ask for a paper application. In other words, we’re going to start with “put your name in the first little box, followed by your address”-type stuff. What if the person at Target instructs the potential employee to “Go to our website to fill out an application” (which I think is highly likely)? I really don’t know. That’s where the story of our good deed as job training workshop organizers begins to break down. It is one small, concrete place where the mythology of a broken system begins to reveal itself.
The problem is not that these folks are their own worst enemies for getting themselves into this situation and not knowing how (or where) to use the internet. (It would be as reprehensible to blame them for their poverty as it would be for me to try to speak for them.) The problem is that Mary’s initial assessment (“there are jobs if they knew how to get them”) is wrong. Flat wrong.
I think it’s likely that HHB clients do not have jobs because they’re not supposed to. The economy just doesn’t work for them, and it’s not meant to. We’re living in an era with the highest rates of economic inequality since the 1920’s. Obscene riches seem to require obscene poverty. I’m not talking about some kind of natural equilibrium either. I’m talking about a system that serves a few people at the expense of most of the rest, with a substantial percentage completely cut off from mainstream sources of income. Of course, we’re supposed to chalk it all up to people’s lack of skills or education. (This common “access” theme is a bullshit argument favored by some academics who want to see themselves as saviors, as people on the leading edge of the fight for equality, even though they are not.) Of course working-class kids should have access to an affordable, quality, college education! Do we need to argue that point any further? I mean, Jesus.
But academics aren’t the only ones who think the reason people can’t find decent jobs is because they didn’t go to school. Policy makers also talk about sending people back to college so they can improve their skills (a version of the job training ethos at HHB.) In common parlance it’s “kicking the unemployment can down the road a piece.” It’s what sociologists Grubb and Lazerson called the “education gospel.” (You know I had to throw that reference in because I heart Grubb and Lazerson.) The Education Gospel is a myth because there’s overwhelming evidence that all the job training in the world won’t help if there aren’t enough jobs. Duh! And it certainly won’t help increase wages for workers in industries decimated by decades of outsourcing and union-busting by corporations.
Of course the New York Times doesn’t cover poverty that much, despite the fact that I just got all linky on your ass. They’re much more interested in stories about sad sack, middle class, white boys like this guy. They never tell you what these tales of middle-class woe mean for people on the extreme margins. And what about this article that includes this little nugget about a Labor Department study that “found that the benefits of the biggest federal job training program were ‘small or nonexistent’ for laid-off workers.” In fact, the article explains that such programs “showed little difference in earnings and the chances of being rehired between laid-off people who had been retrained and those who had not.” While I’m at it, I should mention that trade schools often take advantage of people desperate for a new start. Depressed enough yet?
So where does that leave me and my volunteer work as a post-academic and a job training workshop person? I am going to do the best job I can to help HHB clients look for jobs, of course! I’m going to go in there and BE ENCOURAGING! I believe they can do it. Who knows, maybe no one will show. Mary says most folks have given up. They gave up ten years ago. Or, maybe we will have a success story or two so people can say “See, job training really works! There are (shitty) jobs out there for people with the right skills!” And we can all pat ourselves on the back for living in a Beckettian universe where we end up propping up the myths we hoped to dismantle.