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    a farmer walking through a gate

    At Least He Got a Job before He Died

    What does welfare-to-work mean for those who struggle to hold down a job?

    By D. R. Groten

    September 18, 2023
    • DeVonna R. Allison

      Thank you for your thoughtful compassionate take on joblessness and welfare recipients. It has touched me deeply.

    • Laura

      Thank you for illuminating and describing these dynamics so well. From my experience with those in poverty, other very prominent chronic obstacles to employability are learning disabilities- that can make it hard even to understand and deal with available support services- and substance abuse, which is so prevalent.

    He’s wearing bib overalls, a thick black beard, and what seems to me like a kind of tattered innocence. He’s in his forties, a grown man, and I can tell he’s embarrassed, perhaps even humiliated, to enter the office of a career counselor. My office.

    Just a few weeks before I met James, as he would soon introduce himself, I had completed a master’s degree in career counseling. James was my first client, on my first day at my first job in the profession I’d worked so hard to join.

    I ask the man standing before me to sign his county welfare referral sheet, and to sit down in the chair in front of my desk. I hand James a pen and paper and ask him to fill out a “vocational test.” Once sent away and scored, this will tell me what jobs he’s best suited to, allowing me to direct James toward the career best suited to his skills and interests. Midway through the test, James starts to speak. “I’ve never had much of a job,” he says, “off the farm that is. But I’ve worked. On the farm. Worked hard too. You have to, when you work on the farm …” My studies hadn’t prepared me for this.

    “James,” I reply, “you developed so many valuable and transferable skills on the farm – like dependability and punctuality – skills that would make any employer happy to hire you.” James doesn’t seem excited by the prospect of a career. As I get to know him better over the next few weeks, and as he grows to trust me, I discover it’s because he thinks he has a career already. He’s a farmer. He was born a farmer, and he intends to die a farmer – even though he’s not farming at the moment. As I become more involved in James’ life – meeting his mother, Betty – I piece together why that is.

    James’s  father was a farmer, and he helped the older man out with the family business from an early age, milking cows and raising corn and soybeans. As he matured, James and his father formed a partnership. And then, one day around eight years before I met James, his father unexpectedly died of a heart attack. James kept the farm going single-handedly. He worked hard and, even at a time when other family farms were going bankrupt, he prospered. He did so well he decided to expand his farm. To fund the expansion, on the advice of some people he shouldn’t have trusted, he took out a loan. And then, one day, the bank foreclosed on James’s farm, and his hard work no longer mattered. He was a farmer without a farm.

    I listened to his story, and, over weeks, developed his résumé, identified openings for jobs he felt confident enough to do. I coached him on how to perform in a job interview. And then, one joyful day, James got a job. He told me about his good fortune in my office one Tuesday. His first day, he said, was less than a week away: the coming Monday.

    That Saturday, six weeks after our first meeting, I drove to James’s funeral. His mother had called me as if I were one of his best friends rather than his career counselor of a few weeks. “James died in his sleep,” she told me. The cause of death was, she said, a broken heart: “He was so heartbroken and under such strain over the loss of the farm.”

    It was thirty years ago, but that memory of my first client – and the questions about the purpose of work and life his sad story raises – remains with me to this day. At the time, I was working for a nonprofit dedicated to assisting those entering the workforce. Later, I was contracted by the local county to provide support to long-term unemployed single adults. Eligible individuals like James would receive $203 a month on condition that they participate in the job search and career development services provided by me and my colleagues. Recipients were expected to do everything in their power to obtain employment, achieve “self-sufficiency,” and permanently move off state benefits.

    The people who entered my office under this program were mostly male and white. A few had major barriers to employment such as police records. Some had endured a great deal of hardship, struggling, for whatever reason, to hold down jobs. Others found their experience of economic disadvantage a brief one, quickly finding work and exiting the program. James was part of that latter group.

    Program participants were required to meet me once a week in my office, but, for some, punctuality – or even showing up at all – wasn’t a strong point. I distinctly remember one woman arriving at my office twenty-three hours late to her scheduled appointment, and opening her conversation by saying, “Sorry I’m a little late.” That’s not to say that there weren’t often good reasons for participants to miss or run late to appointments. The county was largely rural; transportation links were poor, and welfare recipients sometimes lived a significant distance from where I worked. And, as I’ve learned since in studying generational poverty, punctuality is often a middle-class virtue. What appears of high importance to me might not seem that way to someone from a less privileged background.

    a farmer walking through a gate

    Photograph by Nareeta Martin.

    As it happened, I had the authority to declare any one of the people enrolled in the program “unemployable.” Suspecting that I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors by labeling him as such, it was an authority I was reluctant to use. Believing, as I still do, that a meaningful job is a great blessing that enriches one’s humanity, I insisted on continuing to work with anyone who wanted to find employment.

    Our society stigmatizes dependence on state benefits (“welfare bashing”), a stigma reinforced even by some of the people I was working with. A man who helped tutor participants seeking a GED (a high school–equivalent diploma) complained about the worklessness of his pupils. “I just paid my state property tax on my lake cabin,” he told me, by way of explanation, “and those taxes were exceptionally high this year.” According to my colleague, his property taxes had risen because the people in our program didn’t have jobs. And if they would just get off the state purse, his thinking seemed to run, it would make life better for everyone – both lake cabin owners and the erstwhile unemployed.

    Looking back, I wonder if he was faulting the program participants for lacking exactly the qualities that led him to complain so bitterly about his lake cabin’s taxes. If only they could develop a sense of acquisitiveness; get a little greedier; receive a dose of ruthlessness, perhaps, just large enough to push them into employment and off welfare. If only they would be more like everyone else – with our jobs and educations, our property taxes and wealth and punctuality. If only they could worship mammon, just a little bit. Wouldn’t that be good for them?

    Something about all this didn’t sit right with me. James had gotten a job. But it didn’t stop him dying of the stress and heartache of losing his farm. And he had lost his farm, in part, because of the drive for acquisition and expansion my colleague felt our clients lacked. That drive, that spirit, is what scripture calls mammon. Mammon is a false god that promotes and encourages greed and stupidity and eternal dissatisfaction with acquiring the things we are driven to possess, but the hunger and thirst for such acquisition can never be satisfied. It might lead to a kind of material prosperity – the wealth of the United States owes something to how deeply engraved in American culture that commercial instinct is – but the long-term consequences, spiritual and otherwise, are dire. When Jesus said we cannot serve both God and mammon at the same time, it was a warning as well as a statement of fact.

    But maybe this is too simplistic. Both of my parents lived through the Great Depression and were bruised by poverty. They did whatever they could to build a comfortable and safe home for their children and to ensure those same children would never go to bed hungry at night. Was this the demonic spiritual force of mammon? Or was it love? Was it both? In the same way, James might have been possessed by the spirit of mammon when he decided to expand his farm. But he might also have been motivated by a healthy desire for security, to build up his sole asset in farming – a discipline facing an uncertain future, and where the costs of failure are cripplingly high. I don’t know which is true. But judging by the kind, caring man I got to know, if James had flirted with the spirit of ruthless acquisition, it was short-lived. And the same was true of the other clients on my course. They were kind people, on the whole, and most of them I liked a great deal.

    Maybe the lack of interest in paying obeisance to mammon among welfare claimants was  a reason some elected officials hated the program so much. In the eyes of these politicians, welfare encouraged people who should be acquiring jobs and earning their own money to do nothing instead. This simply didn’t match up with my experience. Where properly applied, the program’s strategies for getting unemployed people into work were generally successful. Many participants got jobs as James did – and forwent their monthly payments for good. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before the state governor decided to veto the budgetary allocation for the program, and so end all our work with the stroke of a pen. The governor’s reasoning for this was that in some counties there had been reports of people receiving their $203 per month despite failing to show up even for a program orientation. With the governor’s decision to cut our budget, a number of my colleagues were to join the ranks of the unemployed themselves. Our work – and the good we were doing among some of our society’s poorest – had been cut short.

    But the lessons I learned there have stayed with me for decades. As I welcomed participant after participant to my office, I soon realized that as much as my guidance on how to develop their résumés or prepare for job interviews helped people, one of the most effective tools I had at my disposal to help participants find and stay in work was something that wasn’t part of my formal role at all. And that was simply to listen to them.

    Without the spirit of acquisition and ruthlessness hanging over their heads my clients could live, as well as work, on their own terms.

    These were not people you would number among the great and good, or look twice at if you saw them on the street. But the stories they had to tell about their lives, I found, were fascinating all the same. One young man told me how his uncle had been a famous movie actor. Another told me that he had once played in a rock band that performed on live television. One woman told me a frightening story about her encounter with a “hit man.” Other stories were harder to tell. I learned secondhand that one gentle soul, a regular at my office, was mercilessly beaten by coworkers at one of his first jobs.

    Although no one told me outright, I eventually learned that some of the people whose stories I heard were not, as some critics of welfare might allege, afraid of hard work. They were afraid of a job. Their previous experiences of employment had taught them to be. In past jobs they had been badly treated: called stupid or “chewed out” for making mistakes; harassed, sexually or otherwise; mocked, bullied, or even beaten up. Working at a job with a supervisor and coworkers wasn’t an opportunity for people like that. It was a threat.

    So, although they were not afraid of work itself, they wanted to work on their own terms. Their $203 monthly payments supplemented various side hustles – about which I would be told nothing. Going into the woods to pick morel mushrooms or ginseng for sale; salvaging scrap metal; trapping wild animals and selling the pelts. Some might work cash-in-hand, putting up fences for farmers, shoveling snow off driveways and sidewalks, raking leaves, or mowing lawns. Some would even play gigs in bars as part of a traveling band.

    This didn’t describe most of the participants on my program – only a small minority, the long-timers. And I wouldn’t want to romanticize their way of life – some side-hustles could be harmful as well as dangerous. But such an approach to work appears to be remarkably free from the temptation to worship mammon. It is as if each of these people had taken a vow of poverty of sorts, refusing the stability and prestige of the stable, well-paying jobs most of us covet. I do not know all the reasons why my clients took such a “vow” – but I could not ignore the freedom it imparted. And even with those who found steady work quickly, like James, you could catch glimpses of that freedom – and the different way of looking at the world it allowed.

    Free from the nine-to-five grind, my clients had time for family and friends and lovers – and to pursue other passions, like fishing and hunting, making jewelry to sell at flea markets, writing poetry and playing music and reading novels. Even though they lacked many of the things others work so hard to acquire, there was a kind of dignity in the life they led. Without the spirit of acquisition and ruthlessness hanging over their heads they could live, as well as work, on their own terms. That’s all James wanted, I think. He wanted to live and die as a farmer, working the land not because he wanted more land or money or power, but because that’s who he was. And there are some who will tell you he got his wish, and that where it really matters James died a success. Maybe we don’t need to worship mammon after all.

    Contributed By DRGroten D. R. Groten

    D. R. Groten is a writer involved with ministry, and lives in rural Minnesota with his wife.

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