"Work As Unto the Lord:" Enhancing “Employability” in a Faith-Based Job-Readiness Program

Sunday, 10 July 2016: 10:45
Location: Hörsaal 42 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Gretchen PURSER, Syracuse University, USA
Brian HENNIGAN, Syracuse University, USA
The 1996 passage of welfare reform radically reshaped the principles and practices of poverty management in the U.S. On the one hand, it brought about an end to welfare as an entitlement and imposed rigid time limits, work requirements, and a programmatic supply-sided focus on “job-readiness.” On the other hand, it permitted and promoted the expansion of faith-based organizations in the provision of social services. This ethnographic case study of a prominent “faith-based” job-readiness program--Jobs for Life (JFL)--is situated at the underexplored nexus of these two trends. Drawing upon participant observation in a JFL class, in-depth interviews with class instructors and participants, and content analysis of organizational materials, this article documents the program’s use of Biblical principles and teachings to expound on the moral irreproachability of work and to fabricate “employable” subjects who submit themselves to both God and the employer. At play is a project that we call the “righteous responsibilization” of the poor, a responsibilization achieved through religious salvation. The case of JFL, we argue, not only deepens and extends our understanding of religious neoliberalism, revealing how it shapes the process of subjectification and practices of poverty management.  It also remediates a tension at the heart of neoliberal ideology between its emphasis on individualistic entrepreneurialism and its demand for submission to the abstract, alien decrees of the market. In the religious neoliberal framework exemplified by JFL, deference to capital is recast as the first step toward the entrepreneurial achievement of individual salvation.