Both sides of the Paycheck: Recommending Thrift to the Poor in Job Readiness Programs

Authors: Brian Hennigan*, Department of Geography, Syracuse University, Gretchen Purser, Department of Sociology, Syracuse University
Topics: Urban Geography, Socialist and Critical Geographies, Economic Geography
Keywords: poverty governance, workfare, labor intermediary, job readiness, thrift, ethnography
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 16
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Job readiness programs—as anchors of the devolved organizational landscape of neoliberal poverty governance in the United States—endeavor to instill within the poor not simply the virtue of work, but the virtue of thrift, and thus orient them to “both sides of the paycheck.” Using a comparative ethnographic study of two community-based, government-funded nonprofit job readiness programs, we show that this pedagogic focus on budgeting is central to the overall goal of conditioning clients to embrace and endure a degraded labor market. Recognizing that most participants will remain poor with or without low-wage employment,
these programs suggest that it is as crafty consumers that participants may retake control of their lives. Despite the programs’ differing target populations and racialized and gendered logics, both attempt to accommodate participants to the dictates of the neoliberal economic order: jobs are hard to find and, even if you get one, wages will not be enough. Rather than teaching a set of unknown skills, the principal lesson when confronting the “other side of the paycheck” is: you are on your own. Can’t afford your rent and groceries? Start a budget; it’s like a raise you give yourself. Don’t have a job? Invent one.

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