Lumps of Labor

Benjamin Harrison, "Protection To American Labor" Handkerchief, ca. 1888

Barack Obama’s most recent State of the Union included no less than 33 repetitions of the word jobs, and that does not even include his one glowing reference to the recently deceased Steve Jobs. Most of them were piled up near the top of the speech, in statements like this: “Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.”

Yet for all this talk about jobs, the president was strikingly reluctant to specify what kind of jobs he’d like the business community to “bring back.” One job, it seems, would do as well as any other. Perhaps that’s why he praised American manufacturing  for “creating  jobs for the first time since the late 1990s,” while declining to note that new hires in that sector are getting paid far less than their predecessors.

To be sure, a job can be a fine thing to have — especially in these lean times. But the value of a job depends largely on what kind of job it is, who’s working the job, and the conditions of employment. For most Americans, even most unemployed Americans, taking a job at one of China’s Foxconn plants would mean accepting a significant decrease in their overall quality of life.

When neoliberal pundits and policymakers talk about “job creation,” they’re rarely talking about a specific sort of job. Instead, they’re using the word job as a generic indicator to mean “a state of affairs in which some individual is somehow compensated to do something for whatever length of time under whatever conditions.” How much value these jobs produce for the individuals who hold them (either in terms of material compensation or unquantifiable psychological benefits) is basically irrelevant. The greater concern is making sure that the Economy — another magnificent abstraction — has enough jobs. Jobs are the means by which individuals become productive conduits for economic value: The resources they consume get converted into labor that keeps the engine of the Economy humming along nicely. Anyone who’s desperate enough will seek shelter in even the worst job and accept its meager dividends with gratitude. And no matter how terrible a new job might be for an individual, it’s still a net gain for the Economy.

Desperation might make a jobs-at-any-cost policy seem appealing, but the consequences of such a policy can be disastrous. Viewing the unemployed merely as unactivated nodes of economic activity strips them of their agency and justifies some remarkable acts of state cruelty.

In a post from mid-February, the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal highlighted a striking example of that cruelty, described in Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race by Joe Soss, Richard C. Fording, and Sanford F. Schram. Konczal reported that the authors found in Florida “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.” In other words, the state of Florida punishes welfare recipients by reducing their income precisely when doing so is most likely to force them into temporary, low-wage jobs in the tourism industry. So in the month of March, when tourism tax revenue is highest, the average welfare recipient lives with more than a 40 percent risk of being sanctioned. In September, when tourism revenue is at a minimum, that percentage drops into the single digits.

The correlation is even starker when one breaks down the results by race. As Soss, Fording, and Schram point out, not only are welfare recipients disproportionately punished when it serves the ends of Florida’s tourism industry, but it just so happens that the penalized recipients are disproportionately black.

Even assuming that case workers (and their institutional overlords) are acting entirely in good faith when they levy sanctions, their behavior is nonetheless part of a disturbing structural pattern. But at least one progressive commentator seemed genuinely mystified that anyone would be alarmed by the numbers. In a post responding to Konczal, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones (Mother Jones!) asked: “Is this a bad thing?” Elaborating, he added: “Is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren't there?” In a later comment on the same post, he put the same question even more bluntly: “Should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs?”

From the standpoint of neoliberalism, the answer is obviously no. After all, as long as people are working — no matter for how much, how long, or under what conditions — they’re at least creating some value and thereby doing their part to feed the Economy rather than leeching value out of it. Given how much the government has tolerated their inefficiency thus far, it’s the very least they can do. Welfare, after all, is supposed to be a safety net, not a permanent resting place. Shouldn’t we expect a good welfare case worker to nudge welfare recipients back into the job market, where they can give their own bootstraps a firm tug?

But the state of Florida’s actions shouldn’t be mistaken for some kind of benign nudging. These sanctions are penalties. The greatest beneficiaries of this practice are, of course, employers: When the poor must work to survive, bosses are free to depress wages and buy workers' productivity at a bargain rate. Welfare recipients go from being at the mercy of a caseworker to being at the mercy of an employer, though not for long. Because the demand for their labor is seasonal, their job is likely little more than intermediate step between this welfare check and the next one. Though the work only lasts a couple of months, the lack of agency it signifies is year-round.

This is the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: It can mean forcing people into precarious, temporary, low-wage, nonexistent-benefit work that will most likely land them back on the welfare rolls in a couple of months. Emphasis here belongs on the word forcing, because employers — faced with an oversupply of labor in the broader job market — have the upper hand in negotiations. These same employers can feel free to deprive their employees of the basic security needed to stay off welfare for good. After all, once the fallow season ends, the state will subsidize those workers’ subsistence until the business community needs them again.

Thus welfare becomes a means of keeping spare workers on ice until they can again be made productive — which is to say, until they can again be slotted into temp jobs. But collecting a welfare check shouldn’t mean forfeiting the right to a baseline of self-determinacy. If welfare is to serve to benefit the poor — which is to say for actual human beings, and not for an abstract intellectual construct such as the Economy — then it should ameliorate domination, not perpetuate it in a modified form.

Freddie DeBoer has condemned this kind of “pity-charity liberalism,” pointing out that “even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to do this in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity.” If the safety net serves any function, it should be to provide something beyond basic sustenance; it should be something that makes room for real self-determination.

In Florida, it serves as just another cage. And a racist one at that.