By Moorel Bey
Review of All I Want Is A Job! Unemployed Women Navigating the Public Workforce System by Mary Gatta (Stanford University Press, 2014)
The Great Recession that began in 2007 has also been referred to as the “Great Mancession” due to the fact job loss was predominantly in male-dominated fields such as transportation, manufacturing, and construction. At the same time, female-dominated fields, such as education, health services, public administration, and government, saw slight increases in employment. Nonetheless, that fact that women lost fewer jobs does not mean they thrived during the recession. In the short and to-the-point 2014 book All I Want Is A Job!, Mary Gatta, an ethnographic sociologist, combines first-hand incognito research with observation and focus group discussions to analyze and understand the role of the federally mandated One Stop Career Centers in re-employing the unemployed during the Great Recession. The 1998 Workforce Investment Act led to the creation of such centers which were to provide a full range of job-assistance services to job seekers in one convenient location. These services range from simple job listings and computer/Internet access to more comprehensive career counseling and job training.
Gatta’s incognito work was done at a Center in New Jersey, and she was interested specifically in how the Center’s policies and procedures affected female clients who had been employed in low-wage fields. To give greater understanding and context to her analysis, she situates One Stop’s role within the backstory of workforce and welfare policy as well as broader cultural and societal views and norms regarding poverty, women, and racial minorities. She concludes with suggestions on how to improve the One Stop, and especially the outcomes for the women served by them.
What immediately attracted me to Gatta’s book was the title, All I Want Is A Job! It is a simple enough statement but when I saw it I immediately understood its depth. I could feel the desperation and anxiety of the job seeker because I have been that person. And so, in addition to summarizing Gatta’s findings and research in this review of her book, I will also offer a personal account of how her findings reflect some of my own experiences with welfare policy in trying to get a job during the Great Recession.
In her incognito research Gatta poses as Mary Jones, a recently unemployed waitress. She is excited to attend her first reemployment seminar at a New Jersey One Stop Center, however she finds herself very quickly disappointed. Her disappointment begins with her arrival at the building which in no way resembles the state of the art career center she had pictured in her head, but instead a dreary government building “reminiscent of a welfare office.”
Her disappointment continues with the reemployment seminar which starts ten minutes late. The instructor explains this is because “unemployed people are always late,” even though on this particular occasion the instructor is the only one late. When the highly anticipated seminar begins, Gatta and her classmates listen attentively and prepare to take notes. But just nine minutes later the instructor concludes the seminar, and Gatta’s high hopes for the One Stop are firmly and definitively dashed. Gatta later attributes the abruptness of the course in part to deeply ingrained stereotypes about the unemployed as lazy and personally responsible for their unemployment. Despite the fact that unemployed workers have paid into unemployment in order to receive their benefits, many still view unemployment benefits as an entitlement. Furthermore, even though the One Stop is mandated to serve unemployed workers of all educational, work, and socioeconomic backgrounds Gatta reports, “I actually felt quite stigmatized as I used these universal services. . . . I very much felt like a welfare client.” Indeed, Gatta found that the One Stop was ill-equipped to service the needs of clients who did not fit the “‘low-wage worker’ mold”—those with higher education or years of work experience. In some instances One Stop staff ended up trying to help these jobseekers lower their expectations of what kind of jobs they could actually get in a down economy.
Gatta points out that this recognition by the One Stop staff that there simply aren’t enough jobs, and definitely not enough good-paying jobs, helps demonstrate a gap in the One Stop logic—which in turn helps them perpetuate stereotypes about the unemployed. While accurately recognizing the overall lack of jobs, the Center’s approach blamed the unemployed workers for this situation and put the responsibility for becoming re-employed solely on the workers’ shoulders without considering societal obstacles outside their control. These obstacles are not only those related to the lack of jobs but also to specific problems confronting the long-term unemployed. It is much harder for job seekers unemployed six months or more to get rehired, regardless of their education or experience. In addition, racial minorities, especially African-Americans, have unemployment rates that are traditionally higher and even double that of Whites, regardless of education. Race, length of unemployment, and the state of the economy are all external factors that limit an unemployed worker’s ability to be rehired and that are outside of their control.
Gatta points out several other factors that contribute to the One Stop worker’s at times negative attitude toward her unemployed client. One is lack of education and training. Although One Stop employees must meet performance measures set by federal and state policies, there is no mandate to provide training for these workers in order for them to help their clients or even themselves. One Stop staff reported suffering from burnout, stress, and emotional exhaustion. One worker said of her clients, “These people are losing everything they have ever worked for in their entire life, and it could be any of us at any given time and it is just sometimes very difficult to deal with.” Indeed low pay is standard for One Stop staff, along with heavy case loads, lack of room for advancement, and a pronounced focus on results or numbers. These work conditions filter down and affect One Stop clients. Heavy case loads and the demand for quantifiable results leaves One Stop staff with very little time to spend on the individual needs of a client. Gatta found that “the counselors felt that they tried very hard to help everyone and often had to work around policy regulations to accomplish their work.”
Women and workforce and welfare policy
Although Gatta’s book is enhanced by the perspective of One Stop employees and of others, its primary focus is low-wage female workers and clients of One Stop. These women are in the most need of the services but are the least served by the centers. Gatta explains the reason for this in the context of workforce and welfare policy. Women, she writes, make up 60 percent of the low-wage market, and almost one-third of the female labor force is concentrated in low-wage work as compared to just one-fifth of the male labor force. Further, Gatta says that jobs and occupations that emphasize attributes traditionally associated with women—such as sociability, caring, or communicating—typically pay less than jobs that emphasize male qualities like demanding physical work or exposure to danger. Gatta demonstrates how workforce and welfare policy have reinforced structural inequalities and steered women into low-wage work. She provides evidence of gender and racial biases going back to the implementation of New Deal programs.
Women’s participation in the workforce was likened to their taking charge of the family finances. As this was seen as the man’s role, it was discouraged. As a result, fewer positions were made available to women, and nearly always at lower wages. For example, women’s participation in the New Deal programs was limited to only one-sixth of program openings and only to heads of households.
It must be clarified, however, that this New Deal practice was primarily aimed at White women because women of color were often excluded from these programs. Furthermore, unlike White women, women of color had always worked and always worked in low-wage positions of domestic service. During the Second World War White women were encouraged to work as well, but when the war ended they were again encouraged to step aside for returning veterans and take their rightful place back in the home.
Initially welfare policy aimed at keeping single mothers out of the workforce to protect their role as caregiver and for the benefit of their children. The federal Aid to Dependent Families (ADC) was supposed to help strengthen the family for those who became poor through no fault of their own, in specific after the death of a husband. Later, with the establishment of the Social Security system, “deserving” widows received Social Security assistance while “undeserving” single mothers, often poor and of color, were sent to ADC. As the face of the woman served by ADC darkened (changed) so did its purpose. ADC was no longer to support the role of the mother but instead to prepare her for work. Unlike the Social Security recipient, she now had to earn her benefits. This new purpose was officially signed into law by President Clinton in 1996. Welfare reform, or the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) changed ADC to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and set a two-year time limit for recipients to find paid work. The belief was that paid work was better than welfare, education, or job training. Unfortunately, this policy forced women into traditionally low-wage work without the opportunity to improve their lives. Many of these women found themselves unemployed during the Great Recession, seeking services at One Stop Career Centers where they were again funneled back into low-wage work instead of being offered education or training, or the opportunity for higher wage work in male-dominated fields.
Personal experience with welfare policy
In reviewing Gatta’s book I was not a neutral reader. I often found myself nodding and agreeing wholeheartedly with her findings and analysis. This is because of my first-hand knowledge of much of what was discussed. When welfare reform hit in 1996 I was 16. My mother, who had been on welfare all of my life, had gotten a job as a shift manager at McDonalds. Soon thereafter she lost all her welfare benefits including food stamps. Losing the food stamps was the hardest because, even with them, we barely had enough to eat. After we lost them there was almost never any food in the house.
Her new job did not make up for the benefits she lost. By that summer my mother could no longer take care of us, and so my three younger siblings, my son, and I were all placed in foster care. (And I am sure this cost the state substantially more than food stamps.)
I also relate to the unemployed women served by the One Stop. During the most recent recession I was also unemployed. Unable to find a job I ended up on welfare. While on welfare I went through a welfare-to-work job-training program which I found to be as frustrating and unhelpful as the one offered by the One Stop Career Center. I had a bachelor’s degree and had worked most of my life but the program was geared to those who had little education and work experience. It provided simple services like how to prepare a resume and proper interview etiquette. During the program I basically looked for work on my own. I used local One Stops and other career centers for their computers and faxes. When the training program was coming to an end, and I still had not found a job, I decided to go back to school to get my master’s. That was when I found out that going to graduate school was not an authorized welfare-to-work activity. Because I already had a bachelor’s degree I was supposed to get a job, any job, even if it didn’t cover my basic living expenses or student loan payments. If I couldn’t get a job I was supposed to volunteer. Eventually I got an exemption from welfare-to-work activities which allowed me to get my master’s. The unfortunate irony was that getting my master’s did not translate into a job upon graduation either. By that time I was one of the long-term unemployed.
Suggestions for improving the One Stop
Initially I became unemployed during the recession after leaving a part-time job, partly because my hours had been drastically reduced and partly because I had a newborn and childcare was an issue. Adequate childcare was also an issue for many of the women serviced by the One Stop, but childcare was not offered as a solution to their unemployment. Gatta points out that “because women’s experiences are marginalized and excluded in public policy discourses, the policies themselves are often constructed in ways that reproduce traditional gender ideology and relations.”
For example, “unemployment insurance has been and continues to be structured to fit male work patterns.” “[W]omen who have to leave the workforce for caregiving reasons cannot access the program. . . . The ideal worker . . . experiences unemployment only when laid off, not because of being faced with a choice between going to work or staying home to care for a sick child.”
Including the perspective of women in workforce policy is key to improving their circumstances. When it comes to the One Stop, Gatta suggests that more emphasis be placed on human capital and career paths that offer economic security. One Stop staff needs better training and support. But Gatta admits that the problems with the One Stop are simply symptoms of a much larger problem. She says there needs to be policy reform on a larger scale; a new social contract that involves a reconceptualization of poverty and unemployment. “Moving away from individual explanations of unemployment is key to helping us move toward a deeper understanding of how education, workforce development, economic development, and public assistance can and be part of the larger societal contract.”
Moorel Bey is a writer who also works in social services (welfare) in Los Angeles. She holds a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Master’s in Humanities and is pursuing a second master’s in public administration.