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Get a Job If You're Lucky, But You Might Be Looking for Another One Soon

Sharing the hopes and disappointments of trying to find work through a 'Job Club.'
 
 
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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.”