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.
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To protect participants’ confidentiality, all names have been changed.
We are certainly not saying that all FBOs reinforce neoliberal rationalities. Rather, we use our case study of one prominent FBO to extend our theoretical understanding of how the ideology of religious neoliberalism operates in the practices of poverty management and project of subjectification.
Jobs for Life website. http://www.jobsforlife.org/start-a-jfl-class Accessed 3 August, 2015.
Drawing from the existing literature, Hackworth (2012, 24-28) argues that FBOs can be positioned as extensions of the state, as enhancements of the state, as catalysts for change, or as alternatives to the state. His analysis of religious neoliberalism focuses entirely on that last category of FBOs, those positioned as alternatives to the failed state.
Jobs for Life 2012 Annual Report. http://www.jobsforlife.org/financial-accountability Accessed 3 August, 2015.
JFL began within a United Church of Christ congregation, but is now sponsored by an array of evangelical Protestant ministries and parachurch organizations. As Gerber (2009, 410) has noted, evangelicalism encompasses “thousands of churches” and a “wide range of denominations, theological perspectives, and spiritual practices.”
The organizers are interested in teaching a JFL course for women. But, in keeping with the doctrine of gender complementarianism common to conservative evangelicals (Gallagher 2003)—the essentialist notion that men and women are by divine design different from, and complementary to, one another—this would be a separate course, requiring female instructors/mentors who could handle women’s “personal stuff” and give the class a “different touch” so as to instill what it means to be “a wife or a sister,” even as the curriculum would remain the same.
According to Hackworth (2012), gospel rescue missions represent “arguably the most clear-cut form of religiously neoliberal welfare…venerated by religious neoliberals because they shun government money and oversight, because they are openly sectarian, and because they emphasize personal responsibility far more assertively than their secular or government counterparts” (87). Marvin Olasky, promoter of faith-based social services and advisor to President Bush, explicitly points to rescue missions as the “model upon which the welfare state should be rebuilt” (Hackworth 2012, 90).
One mentor and occasional instructor, Steve, explicitly likened his role to that of a parole officer. As he explained his relationship to his mentee, “So, I kinda walk with him, not just the job, but, how’s life goin’? How well are you adjusting? I’m sure they’re a lot the same questions that his parole officer asks him. Who you hangin’ out with? How you spendin’ your time? I’m there to try to help him, you know, just walk through it with ‘em.”
The quotations of biblical scripture used in JFL are drawn from the 1996 New Living Translation.
The “30-second commercial” refers to one’s short and scripted pitch to potential employers. The drafting and rehearsal of one’s “commercial” has become a commonplace activity within job-readiness programs. Smith (2001, 140-147) has a poignant analysis of the self-reconstruction necessitated by the scripting of one’s “30-second me.”
Jobs for Life 2012 Annual Report. http://www.jobsforlife.org/financial-accountability Accessed 3 August, 2015.
Though a thorough gendered analysis remains beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that considerable emphasis was placed by the facilitators on the role of the male breadwinner and heteronormative nuclear family.
Jobs for Life workbook, 73
Jobs for Life workbook, 72
Jobs for Life workbook, 157
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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.
Gretchen Purser and Brian Hennigan contributed equally to the research for and writing of this article.
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Purser, G., Hennigan, B. “Work as unto the Lord”: Enhancing Employability in an Evangelical Job-Readiness Program. Qual Sociol 40, 111–133 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-016-9347-2
- Poverty management
- Religious neoliberalism