“Work as unto the Lord”: Enhancing Employability in an Evangelical Job-Readiness Program
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The 1996 passage of welfare reform radically reshaped the principles and practices of poverty management in the U.S. On the one hand, it brought about an end to welfare as an entitlement and imposed rigid time limits, work requirements, and a programmatic supply-sided focus on “job-readiness.” On the other hand, it permitted and promoted the expansion of faith-based organizations in the provision of social services. This ethnographic case study of a prominent faith-based job-readiness program--Jobs for Life--is situated at the underexplored nexus of these two trends. Drawing upon participant observation in a Jobs for Life class, in-depth interviews with class instructors and participants, and content analysis of organizational materials, this article documents the program’s use of biblical principles and teachings to expound on the moral irreproachability of work and to fabricate “employable” subjects who submit themselves to both God and the employer. At play is a project that we call the “righteous responsibilization” of the poor, a responsibilization achieved through religious salvation. The case of Jobs for Life, we argue, not only extends our understanding of “religious neoliberalism” (Hackworth 2012), revealing how it shapes the process of subjectification and practices of poverty management. It also remediates a tension at the heart of neoliberal ideology between its emphasis on individualistic entrepreneurialism and its demand for submission to the abstract, alien decrees of the market. In the religious neoliberal framework exemplified by Jobs for Life, deference to capital is recast as the first step toward the entrepreneurial achievement of individual salvation.
KeywordsEmployability Job-readiness Homelessness Poverty management Religious neoliberalism
We would like to thank all of the participants in JFL for their openness and willingness to participate in this project. This article greatly benefited from the thoughtful engagement and critical feedback of Lynne Gerber, Greggor Mattson, Lisa Stampnitzky, and the audiences at the 2016 meetings of both the American Association of Geographers and the International Sociological Association. We are especially grateful to Qualitative Sociology editor, David Smilde, and the anonymous reviewers for their tremendously helpful suggestions. This research was supported by a Summer Project Assistantship award from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
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