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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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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.