Evangelizing employability: Inside a faith-based job-readiness program

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by Gretchen Purser and Brian Hennigan

The passage of welfare reform in 1996 reshaped the principles and practices of poverty management in the U.S. Most notably, it brought about an end to welfare as an entitlement and imposed rigid time limits, work requirements, and a programmatic focus on “job-readiness.”

Less well known is the fact that welfare reform also decentralized and privatized welfare delivery, opening the door for faith-based organizations to play a more formal and zealous role in the delivery of social services as well as the moral tutelage of the poor.

This two-fisted overhaul of social policy was not a happenstance conjuncture. Rather, it reflects the ascendance of what Jason Hackworth, in his 2012 book Faith-Based, calls religious neoliberalism: the “ideological fusion” between conservative evangelicals and neoliberal politicians that calls for the shrinking and privatization of the welfare state while promoting the faith-based sector as its ideal replacement.

Jobs for Life

In a recently published study, we examine how religious neoliberalism has inflected the everyday practices of poverty management.

We studied a prominent evangelical job-readiness program called Jobs for Life (JFL). Founded in 1996 in North Carolina, JFL courses are offered annually to roughly 5,000 jobless and/or chronically poor individuals throughout the US and beyond. We conducted participant observation and in-depth interviews in a JFL course offered to homeless men in a deeply impoverished northeast city.

Jobs for Life uses biblical principles and teachings to expound the moral irreproachability of work and to mold “employable” subjects. It is what Hackworth would call a “faith-saturated” program, integrating faith into all of its activities and fusing proselytization and service provision. Understanding poverty and joblessness as symptoms of an individuals’ attitudinal, moral, and/or spiritual deficiencies, JFL aims to instill within participants a “Christ-like” character and biblical perspective towards work.

“Cleaning the toilet for Jesus”

As a JFL instructor we interviewed named Steve explained:

The Bible clearly talks about the fact that it’s man’s responsibility to work. And if he doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. That’s Old Testament principles. You can’t just sit and expect others to take care of you and get a handout…

Steve’s comments exemplify the ideational fusion of neoliberal and religious “work first” prescriptions.

But in JFL, work is not simply a biblical mandate. It is also regarded as the basis of dignity and means for glorifying God. Participants are thus assured fulfillment at and empowerment through work, no matter how degraded and degrading that work may be.

Indeed, much of the JFL course we observed was geared towards accommodating participants to low-wage work at the bottom of the labor market.

Instructors used a wide array of biblical passages and parables—combined with secular lessons and motivational lectures—to underscore the import of work, to convey norms of workplace behavior, and to discourage workplace organizing and dissent.

In one class, for instance, an instructor named Walter urged the following:

Like the Bible says, work as unto the Lord. You know, when my [boss] wants me to do somethin’—Im not talkin’ ‘bout immoral, Im just talkin’ ‘bout somethin’ I don’t wanna do. I dont really want to clean the toilet. Well, Im not cleaninthe toilet for the boss. According to scripture, I need to work as unto the Lord. Im cleaninit for Jesus.

Here we see the employable worker recast as the faithful disciple and submission to the employer (“cleaning the toilet for the boss”) recast as submission to the Lord (“cleaning the toilet for Jesus”).

Emphasizing the sacred character of and Christian imperative to work, JFL bolsters the neoliberal project of enforcing market- and work-compliance.

Of course, in his classic Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber noted how the Protestant religious ideas that gave rise to our feverish work ethic could serve to legitimate, even glorify, degraded work. But for Weber, religious ideas were of dwindling significance to capitalism.

Our study highlights the ongoing relevance of, and reliance upon, religion as ideological support for workfarist policies aimed at encouraging, rewarding, and mandating work.

Righteous responsibilization

Ultimately, we argue, the case of JFL reveals how the fusion of neoliberal ideology and evangelicalism inflects the grounded practices of poverty management, giving rise to a project that we call the righteous responsibilization of the poor.

This project fuses neoliberal responsibilization, which demands that individuals assume the responsibility for their own plight and hence—in the case of JFL—the obligation of enhancing their own employability, with the Christian theological conception of righteousness, which assures that it is through faith that we obtain salvation and become “right” with God.

Gretchen Purser is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Brian Hennigan is a PhD candidate in Geography at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. This article summarizes findings from their article “Work as unto the Lord: Enhancing Employability in an Evangelical Job Readiness Program” in Qualitative Sociology.

Image: Angie Harms via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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