The other side of the paycheck: Budgeting lessons in job-readiness programs for the poor

Authors: Brian Hennigan*, Syracuse University, Gretchen Purser, Syracuse University
Topics: Social Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: welfare, poverty, job readiness, labor, budgeting
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2020
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Spruce, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


There is a growing body of literature documenting the diverse and devolved field of social service programs aimed at enhancing the “employability” and “self-sufficiency” of the poor. In this article, we turn our attention to a widely overlooked dimension of these training programs: their lessons on personal finance, budgeting, and money management. Based upon a comparative ethnographic study of two community-based, nonprofit job-readiness programs, we show that job-readiness programs interpellate participants both as workers and consumers. Further, we argue that this focus on budgeting and consumption is key to the overall goals of conditioning clients to embrace the low-wage and precarious jobs at the bottom of the labor market and, in the absence of state support, to take charge of their own financial well-being. Nevertheless, based upon our comparative case studies, we find that the way in which this conditioning takes place is deeply inflected by class and gender-based stereotypes. In Choosing Success, a program steeped in the ideological terrain of the “culture of poverty,” participants are universally urged to embrace thrift and to practice self-regulation of their spending practices, to ensure that their consumption sinks below the level of their low wages. In Women on Work, a program animated by neoliberal feminism, participants are urged to take stock of their consumption needs and to gauge their level of self-exploitation accordingly. These findings reveal the disparate ideologies that undergird efforts to manufacture “job-ready” clients properly oriented to both sides of the paycheck.

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