As we stood in line at a Burger King in Sacramento, Calif., Joe Sisco gave me a nudge. “Look at the age of the people who are here right now,” he said and cocked his chin toward the three women behind the counter, each several decades past the age when manning the deep fryer might seem like a good career move. “That’s the economy, right here.”
At 55, Sisco was no spring chicken himself. And having been out of work for a couple of years, he’d had plenty of opportunity to study the job market. I had met him at the welfare offices down the street, where he was attending Job Club, a mandatory seven-week program that aims to move welfare recipients off the dole and into a job. Sisco stood out as a charming, wisecracking presence in the group, impeccably dressed in a fedora, polo shirt and creased pants, a thin stripe of silver beard bisecting his chin. He’d led a varied and complicated life that included stints in the military and in prison and for a time he’d lived in a local park. These days, though, he just wanted a steady job and a working washing machine. He was raising his 3-year-old daughter by himself after saving her from foster care when her mother, a prostitute, lost custody. For the moment, he was surviving on a monthly cash stipend of $490 plus food stamps, a sum that didn’t even cover his rent. Job Club was supposed to give him a fresh start. He’d gotten a new resume out of the program, and learned how to parry the awkward questions that come up in job interviews. Now several weeks in, he had just one question.
“Where are the jobs?” He took a bite of his burger and shook his head. “Where are they? Don’t be telling me everything’s possible, all that Mary Poppins stuff. What do you got, right here?”
Federal welfare policy has one clear goal: to move people off aid and into the workforce. But four years after the start of the Great Recession, nobody has been able to answer Joe Sisco’s question.
The Job Club class where I met Joe Sisco was held in a windowless room decorated with posters of candles and forests and rock climbers. Each was emblazoned with motivational words like “Hope,” “Believe” and “Perseverance.” On the program’s third day (and the first of several classes I attended), I found 19 grown-ups leaning over several rows of tables, each drawing shields with magic markers. The shields had five sections. In one corner, participants were to list all the jobs they had held; in another, they were to name the members of their family. There was a section for hobbies, and one for phrases that conveyed why they would make a good employee. They were hardworking; they were punctual; they were friendly; they were self-starters. The top left-hand corner was reserved for their accomplishments.
“Accomplishments can mean leaving a violent relationship, or no longer on drugs,” Gwen Williams, one of the facilitators, explained. “If you’ve been homeless and you have a place now, that’s an accomplishment. If you’ve got a high school diploma, or a certificate, that’s an accomplishment.” Williams wore a gray pantsuit and a black top, accessorized with a knotted strand of pearls and big pearl earrings – an outfit designed to show the participants what business attire looks like. She paced the front of the room, her voice rising and falling with the earnest modulations of a preacher or motivational speaker. “For some, an accomplishment is coming here. I want to say that. Saying, ‘I’m going to try this again. I’m going to get through this. I’m going to get me a job.’ Job Club can be an accomplishment.”
Ever since 1996, when President Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” welfare recipients have been required to work in exchange for aid. That might mean having a regular job – a modest income isn’t counted against your grant — or it could mean an approved “welfare to work” activity such as job training or working toward a GED. In California, where cash aid to parents with minor children is known as Cal-WORKS, the seven-week program, officially called Job Club/Job Search, is based on the assumption that the only thing standing between aid recipients and gainful employment is a decent outfit and a little coaching. The first three weeks are devoted to sprucing up resumes, practicing interview skills, and pep talks. The last four weeks are spent applying for jobs. If, at the end of seven weeks, a Cal-WORKS client doesn’t have a job, she is automatically enrolled in the county’s workfare program, where she’ll perform 30 to 35 hours a week of unpaid duties until she’s either found a paying job or used up her time on aid.
Increasingly the time a parent is on Cal-WORKS is growing shorter, at least for Californians. In April, when the Job Club class I attended started, California parents were allowed a lifetime total of four years on welfare – 12 months fewer than the federal maximum. (Parents with children under 2 were exempt from federal work requirements). But then in June, the state effectively cut that period in half. Starting in January 2013, parents can lose welfare benefits after 24 months unless they have some sort of paid or unpaid employment, and the exemption for having a child under 2 can only be used once. As strange as it sounds, the only sure way to stay on welfare in California is to secure a job.
But this reality remains almost entirely disconnected from the political discussion about welfare, in which political aspirants conjure the specter of bonbon-popping welfare queens sleeping the day away on a mattress stuffed with fur coats and government money. When the federal Department of Health and Human Services announced over the summer it would allow a modicum of flexibility in the way states meet welfare-to-work requirements, Mitt Romney moved swiftly into attack mode. “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job,” one of his campaign ads claimed. “They just send you your welfare check, and ‘welfare to work’ goes back to being plain old welfare.”
But while most aid recipients understand that they have to get a job, few of them start out eager to attend Job Club. By the third day of the first week of Job Club, the number of participants had already dropped from 31 to 19. Some of the no-shows had problems with childcare or transportation and had called to explain. Some just didn’t come. An excused absence means you’re automatically re-enrolled in a subsequent Job Club. An unexcused absence could mean losing part or all of your check. A skinny 21-year-old at the back of the room told me he had learned this the hard way when the state docked $200 from his check, a shortage that meant he and his girlfriend couldn’t pay their utility bill.
“I didn’t really want to come,” he told me. From the looks of things, he wasn’t the only one. The man next to me sat slouched in his seat, a red Chiefs hat pulled over his eyes. The young woman behind me kept sighing between the text messages she tapped out on her phone. At 10.9 percent, California’s unemployment rate is the nation’s second highest. It was even higher in the state’s capital, averaging 12.3 percent in April. After years of looking for a job with no success, what was Job Club going to teach them that they didn’t already know?
* * *
All the same, none of the 10 women and nine men attending Job Club needed to be convinced that a steady paycheck would be a big improvement over their current welfare check. A three-person family living in Sacramento receives $608 a month while rent for a one-bedroom apartment there averages $786. When adjusted for inflation, a 2012 grant is worth less than half of what it was in 1988. The question wasn’t whether people wanted to work, or even whether they were good at finding jobs. It was whether or not anyone was hiring.
“If people are struggling who have amazing resumes and bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees, can you imagine how it is for an individual who has maybe a GED or a high school diploma?” asks Cathy Senderling-McDonald, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California.
You don’t end up at Job Club if everything has gone according to plan. Everyone in the room had gotten there through some combination of bad breaks and bad choices. There were unplanned pregnancies, divorces, illnesses, job injuries, drug problems and layoffs. Maybe you went into debt to get a business college certificate only to discover that those certificates often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Maybe you lost your job because your kid got sick or the baby sitter got sick and you had to stay home one time too many. Maybe your marriage fell apart and you drank too much and the resulting DUI torpedoed your plans to become a paramedic. Maybe your marriage is fine but now your husband is on disability and can’t work. Or maybe your husband’s fine, he’s just living with someone else now and for the first time you find yourself on your own.
What Gwen Williams wanted the people in the room to know was that people recover from such setbacks. She, too, had felt the despair of being unemployed. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried when I didn’t have a job,” she said. “But you know what? Things do change. It’s all in the mind-set of where you want to be. Just because you’re unemployed, doesn’t make you any less than the man and the woman that you are. You have to believe that.”
Williams gestured to Alicia Hernandez, the other Job Club facilitator. Hernandez was a woman in her early 60s with a sweet smile and a habit of cocking her head to one side, like a bird, when she listened. She had been on welfare herself, back when she was a newly arrived immigrant from Mexico and now she told the class about being pregnant and living in a basement with her husband and her two kids, using a bucket for a bathroom. Standing there, the picture of respectability in her pink jacket and black pants, she was living proof that it was possible to come across to the other side. She had now been married 44 years, she told them, and her three sons had all graduated from college.
I looked around. The woman behind me had stopped texting. The guy next to me had lifted the brim of his Chiefs cap. “We all cry sometimes,” Williams said. “We all get down and out. But you know what? What makes you cry, should make you stronger.”
This kind of motivational message was the “Mary Poppins stuff” that Sisco had talked about and it was a sizable portion of the Job Club curriculum. As much as I saw Sisco’s point, it was hard not to be struck by how intently people listened whenever the staff recounted tales of adversity overcome. Looking for a job in this economy meant knocking on doors until your knuckles bled. How on earth could anyone keep doing it if they didn’t believe their story might have a happy ending?
* * *
That first afternoon I sat in as a Job Club facilitator named Beverly Pilas conducted a mock job interview with Gerardo Mondragon, a 34-year-old father of two whose combination of humor and vulnerability had made him a favorite among the staff. He was a tall, muscular man who, until getting laid off a few months before, had sold gym memberships during the day and worked as a bouncer at night. That meant he sometimes worked from 9 in the morning to midnight. Earlier that day, he had told me a little of his life story — he had grown up poor in a household he described as “very, very negative” — and about his children, whom he’d gone to court to get joint custody of after initially being told he could see them every other weekend.
“I’m trying to parent very different than my parents did,” he said. He hadn’t even heard from his father, he told me, since 2004.
Pilas, a straight-talking, gravel-voiced woman, conducted the interview with a pack of Kools stacked on top of her cellphone. She asked about Mondragon’s job experience and why he wanted to work in sales. Mondragon was talkative, but he rarely smiled and when he did, the smile didn’t seem to reach his deep-set eyes. Pilas was determined to change that.
“Smile, baby, smile,” she said when the interview was over. “Smile, smile, smile. That’s what they like. If I’m gonna spend my money, I want somebody to be smiling at me.”
Mondragon knew he was supposed to smile; he just didn’t think he was good at it. “I don’t smile much, so the muscles aren’t trained,” he told Pilas. “It looks fake.” He was trying to change that about himself, to become someone who smiled more easily. Each day, he told me, he posted positive sayings on his Facebook page. That morning it was this: “Asking is the beginning of receiving. Make sure you don’t go to the ocean with teaspoon.”
* * *
Late that afternoon, after the clients had gone home, I joined the four Job Club facilitators as they talked over the day and shared M&Ms from the bag they kept stashed in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet. Between them, they had 125 years’ experience in the building and so passionate were they about the power of good employment that they provided job counseling services to nearly everyone they encountered, including the security guard who sat in the lobby and the salesman who had sold one of them a cellphone. As they saw it, they had seven weeks to offer clients as much help as they could, whether it was arranging for new teeth for a woman missing hers to clearing up outstanding traffic warrants so Job Club members didn’t have to fear driving the streets in search of a job.
Carol Hancock, a husky-voiced blond who has worked in the building for 40 years, said that she had a special affection for the “tough nuts.” To illustrate the type she meant, she slunk down in her seat and folded her arms. “The ones with the little slitty eyes and their hats on backwards,” she explained, “and they’re like, ‘I don’t want to be here and I’m not going to like it.’”
“I say, give me a week. If you still feel that way, you go ahead, go,” Beverly Pilas said.
“It has never happened,” Hancock said. “People have left from other circumstances but not because they didn’t think there was value in what we were doing.”
That was how the four of them talked – finishing each other’s thoughts. During the day they were like a gaggle of aunties, offering advice and encouragement, waiting for the right moment to tell someone to pull up their sagging pants or start washing their hair. Remember to take your gum out before you sit down for an interview. If you can’t make eye contact, look at the interviewer’s forehead. If you’re nervous, put your hands in your lap. Don’t fidget. Never fold your arms.
They know it’s a terrible economy, of course. The number of Californians who have been out of work for six months or longer is still nearly seven times higher than it was before the recession began. “The economy does suck,” Pilas said. “But for some, it’s just giving them a little self-esteem. You know, you sit at home for a long period of time or you’ve been in relationships where you’re told you’re nothing, and you start to feel like you are nothing.”
Sure, there were some people who just weren’t employable, Hancock admitted. But even those people could get something out of Job Club. “If we could just give them seven weeks of being treated like gold for the first time ever in their life,” she said, “that’s worth it to me.”
In mentioning the unemployable, Hancock had put her finger on the topic nobody in political circles wants to discuss – the people whose life stories don’t have a happy ending. When Congress radically restructured welfare in 1996, it was part of a narrative of can-do American optimism, in which anyone who wants success badly enough is guaranteed to get it. In this story, there are only two kinds of poor people: hardworking people who have experienced a temporary setback, and undeserving laggards living off the public dime. The new program was designed to help the deserving poor, which is why it was called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
But life tends to be more complex than your average morality tale, and virtue isn’t always rewarded. What happens to the people who need more than a couple of weeks of pep talks and pointers to be employable? What happens when the economy has no place for you and the safety net disintegrates after two years?
* * *
By the second week of Job Club, the mood was hopeful. Having gotten new resumes and survived several days of practice interviews, people were now scrolling through job listings at the computers along the wall — computers so old, they still used floppy disks. Gerardo Mondragon had already gone through a real job interview, for a position working the front desk at a massage studio. Another Job Club member, a sunny, brown-eyed blond from Chiapas, had landed an actual job. She had hoped for a full-time posting as a phlebotomist but had settled for part-time work as home healthcare aid.
Joe Ward had secured an interview as well. He was a quiet, bespectacled 27-year-old with a goatee and an air of detached weariness. He’d had a contract job doing tech support for Apple but that had ended almost two years ago and he’d lost count of the jobs he had applied for since then. Now he had an interview with AT&T scheduled for the next morning and he was going to spend the afternoon looking for shoes to match the outfit he already had ready.
Ward was worried about being able to sell himself in the interview, particularly because his heart wasn’t really in it. For almost a year, when he was working, he had donated $20 a month to a family in Darfur and had gotten letters and pictures in response. He wanted to help poor people overseas or save the environment; he wanted to do something meaningful. But changing the world isn’t the kind of career that’s covered in a welfare-to-work plan and he had no idea how to make his dream a reality. So for now he would try to land a job doing customer service or technical support. “I have to pretend I’m passionate about computers,” he said.
And then there was Kimberly Berg, who sat in the far corner of the room scrolling through job listings. Berg was the mother of four kids, the youngest a teenager, and she had gone on public assistance three months earlier after separating from her husband of 22 years. Two years ago, she had taken out a $15,000 loan to earn a medical assistant certificate from Western Career College but the $24,000-a-year job she thought she’d get had never materialized. Meanwhile, the bills for her student loan still come each month. She was still hoping to get a medical job, but she wasn’t counting on it, and now she was thinking maybe she could clean houses or hotel rooms.
“I’m so sick of it,” she said when I asked how the job search was going. “Sick of it.” Motivation was the biggest challenge, she acknowledged, when the very process itself was – here she sighed emphatically —“depressing.”
Berg let me sit beside her as she began filling out an online application to work in the housekeeping department at an upscale hotel. It seemed more like the reading comprehension portion of an SAT test than an application for chambermaid. There was a picture of part of a hotel room along with three paragraphs of written instructions about how the area should be properly arranged: the pen across the pad of paper, the coffee pot next to the phone, and so on. “I’m not reading all that,” she said, but then she wished she had. The next screen showed a photograph of the same scene. Berg’s task was to identify how many mistakes had been made, like in one of those Sunday comics puzzles where you have to spot the differences between two pictures, except that she wasn’t allowed to go back and look at the original photo.
“I don’t see any difference,” she said as she stared at the second photograph in the series. “Probably if I read it, I would know,” she offered. The clock in the corner of her screen said she had 42 minutes and 7 seconds left of the 50 minutes allotted to complete the application, but she sped through the pairs of photographs with their detailed instructions, her answers increasingly haphazard. The next section of the application was no easier. Did she solve problems by herself or with others? Was she good at meeting deadlines? How often did she try extra hard to do a good job? Berg wasn’t sure how to answer these questions. Should she be honest? Should she tell them what she thought they wanted to hear? Was it better to say you were average or that you were exemplary?
“I got straight A’s when I was in school,” she said. “I got all-class honors. But they don’t want you to like, brag.” Or do they?
That application was hardly an aberration. As I watched her and others go through the application process, I was struck by how high the bar was for the most basic entry-level jobs. There were personality tests for sales clerk jobs and math tests for warehouse postings and all of it was automated – online forms evaluated by computer based on an unknown algorithm. Joe Sisco had always worked as a custodian but the following week he would get an email saying his application for janitor had been rejected because he didn’t meet the minimum qualifications. “I can’t not be qualified,” he puzzled. “It’s labor.”
Most of us got our first jobs by persuading someone to give us a chance. But in a world of online applications, Joe Sisco’s easygoing charm held no sway nor did Joe Ward’s sense of mission. It was like playing a board game where there was no starting square. All you could do was watch the other players go around the board and wonder how they had gotten ahead of you.
A few people were making progress, including Gerardo Mondragon, who was called back for a second interview at the massage studio. In the afternoon, he arrived wearing a black suit and carrying a hanger of ties because Pilas and Hancock had insisted on helping him choose one to wear. They settled on a silver one with burgundy stripes and held it up for him.
“You’ve got your smile ready?” Pilas asked. “Good, positive attitude?”
“If you’re nervous, just think, ‘Beverly says, “Smile!”’”
“I know. I know,” Mondragon said. He rolled his eyes as the two women fussed over him, dusting imaginary specks from his shoulders, reminding him to take out his gum before the interview.
“If you get the job, you’ve got to call,” Pilas said.
She grinned at me as he walked out the door. He’d left the room smiling.
* * *
By the fifth week of the program, five people had gotten jobs, including Mondragon and Steven Huff, the young man who had told me how much he didn’t want to do Job Club. Huff’s job, which paid $10 an hour, had him going house to house on roller skates distributing flyers. Yet when I spoke to him on the phone, he was almost giddy with delight. The job effectively doubled his income and for the first time in a long time, he and his girlfriend were going to be able to pay all of their bills. “It helped us a lot,” he said of Job Club. “It made our life a lot more happier and a lot more easier.”
The rest of the group had moved down the hall to make room for the next Job Club class. They were supposed to be spending most of their time out looking for work, and their time in the cozy confines of Job Club, with its inspirational posters and motivational speeches, was over. Now it was just a small room with a bank of computers and a table stacked with flyers about job fairs and the local classifieds. Near the door were signs reminding participants that they can’t come to Job Search wearing pajamas and that attendance was required Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 4.
Those remaining had learned a lot over the past few weeks, not all of it positive. They knew that the online applications they filled out were unlikely to generate a response and that the high-paying job posted on Craigslist was probably a scam. They knew about all the tests they had to take – the aptitude tests, the personality tests, the drug tests. They knew about dropping off resumes at places that weren’t hiring, and getting the brush-off when they phoned. “The days seem pretty long now,” a young man named Curtis Rule remarked as he filled out yet another online application.
At a nearby computer, Kimberly Berg was applying for a job at a mental hospital. “I’m kind of like seriously depressed right now,” she said. She’d heard back from some of the jobs she’d applied for, but the news was never good. “You didn’t qualify,” an email message from HR would tell her. Or: “We hired someone else.” Her daughter had just turned 18 and her teenage son was living with his dad. With no minor children at home, she was probably weeks away from losing her grant. I asked her what she thought she would do. She blew her bangs out of her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said. “Text my friends?”
For now, she was going to keep looking. But her ideas were getting more wild, her desperation more palpable. Maybe she’d be a mortuary cosmetologist, she said. Or maybe she’d get her haz-mat license. “I wouldn’t mind cleaning up after a suicide or something,” she said. “It sounds creepy but it’s really good money.”
* * *
By week six, four more people had gotten jobs. None, however, seemed like it had much long-term potential. One secured a job working at a collection agency. Two found jobs selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. A fourth had gotten a temp job at a warehouse. Altogether, nine of the 31 people who had started Job Club had found work. The names of those who were still looking had already been referred to the County’s Community Work Experience program, where — short of a last-minute surprise — they would be placed in unpaid jobs that required 20 to 35 hours a week of work. (The duration varied from person to person depending on whether they or the other parent in the family were doing any other approved welfare-to-work activities.) CWEX was presented as another step on the path to employment, a way to gain experience and fill in those unsightly gaps on a resume. But CWEX jobs rarely turned into permanent employment.
I sat in with Rachael Noble, a human services specialist with the county, as she did CWEX intake interviews for the remaining Job Clubbers I had met. Noble had bright brown eyes, long brown hair and a no-nonsense manner. She was kind and cheerful with the clients who came in, like a dentist assuring you that your teeth will feel a lot better after your root canal is over.
“Basically, what I try to do is find someone a slot that fits in with what their career goals are, incorporate some of their experience or education and mostly their desires,” she told me. But finding a good match wasn’t all that easy, she admitted. “Because this is a welfare-to-work program, they have to do something. So then they end up with a placement that meets their welfare-to-work hours, but may not meet their career goals.
“I do what I can, but I can’t create jobs,” she continued. “If I could, I wouldn’t be a social worker.”
When Joe Ward came in, Noble asked what kind of job he wanted. “Something with computers,” he answered dutifully.
“And as far as career goals?” Noble prompted.
“Career goals?” Ward gave a wry laugh. “Not even anything that’s on my resume.” Noble waited for him to elaborate and he haltingly told her about wanting to help people.
“What got you interested in this?” Noble asked.
Ward shrugged. “It’s just what makes me happy,” he said. After acknowledging that helping people “doesn’t really pay a lot,” he trailed off and looked at his hands, as if caught doing something wrong.
“OK,” Noble said, scrolling through the list of jobs on her screen: Warehouse. Maintenance. Childcare. Receptionist. Production Machine Operator. There was a job working with at-risk youth, but Ward didn’t have the necessary experience. A job as an activities assistant working with seniors at a community center sounded promising, but halfway through the application Noble realized that the job was only 20 hours a week and Ward needed 33 hours.
“There’s a job working for the California Department of Social Services,” Noble offered. She looked up and caught Ward’s eye. “Not exactly where you want to go,” she said.
“No. I don’t expect to go where I want to go.”
“But – we help people,” Noble said.
“Yeah. You do.”
The job’s duties included answering the phones, preparing correspondence, filing, and copying. Noble began filling out the form. For several minutes, Ward watched silently as Noble typed in the information that would assign him to his new job. “Have you ever heard that career goal?” he asked at last. “I’m just wondering if it’s weird.”
“It’s not weird,” Noble assured him. “It may sound a little complicated when you’re on aid. But no, I don’t think it’s weird at all.”
She got up to print copies of his forms. As she left the room, Ward put his head in his hands and sighed.
“I just feel like it’s nothing I want to do,” he said, when I asked what he was thinking. He rubbed his hands through his hair and sat up. “I bet a lot of people feel that way, though,” he said. “Like they are not where they want to be in their life.”
Three months later, he’s still looking for work.
Dashka Slater is a writer for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Salon, Mother Jones, among others. She’s the author of five books for both children and adults.
Co-published with Salon.
Help us change the conversation about inequality in America. Donate to EHRP.