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Book Review: All I Want Is a Job!: Unemployed Women Navigating the Public Workforce System by Mary Lizabeth Gatta

April 11, 2015

All I Want Is a Job!: Unemployed Women Navigating the Public Workforce SystemAll I Want Is a Job!: Unemployed Women Navigating the Public Workforce System by Mary Gatta

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Researchers, politicians, and workforce officials alike know full well that few people choose to be poor and unemployed. In a country that praises and rewards success, achievement, and self-sufficiency, thinking that anyone would want to be regarded otherwise is absurd. Pathological, self-defeating behaviors and character defects are not primary causes of unemployment, and if they were, no amount of training, education, or behavioral remediation would alter them[,] and the resources allocated to try would be wasted. (129)

Mary Gatta’s otherwise excellent book has one serious flaw, her a priori insistence on making the issue at hand a particularly woman-oriented issue when it is not. Her reasons for doing so are based on the gender gap in wages and employment. While these are important issues, and they do have an impact and deserve mention in the study, most of what Gatta discusses are similar to my own experiences with Workforce One in New York. She seems to instinctively know this by her description of a man in his early seventies dressed in a suit and diligently taking notes during every class (63). I despise meninism and do not discount the feminist issues at play in this book, but I do believe she decided it was a given based on the way she describes her methodology and deliberately chose to interview only women. I am reminded of Dee Andy Michel’s study of gay Oz fandom, in which he wanted to argue that there are special qualities to the appeal of Oz for gay men, but he refused to survey women or straight men who are also Oz fans as control, as I and several other straight male fans noted when we offered to take his survey, much of the questions from which would get a “not applicable” from a straight male. Gatta notes that the fastest-growing jobs are in the low-wage sector, and that women are concentrated in all but two of these fields (postsecondary education teachers and construction laborers) (21). This is Gatta’s justification, but it still seems like she is trying to put a specialized subargument instead of a general argument at the forefront. It is interesting that I get attacked for attempting to do postsecondary education as a career even though it’s in the top 20 growth positions. Gatta also finds that race is a significant issue, but doesn’t stress it as much as gender. In discussing the origin of unemployment benefits, she notes how the program was intended to “not interfere with the exploitation of African American and female labor in the sharecropping and domestic services.” (28). She was unable to address the race issue in this study because her community is 91% white (138).

Gatta’s book is divided into four parts: the experiences of those using the workforce system, the experiences of employees, the history of welfare and workforce policy, including three pages devoted to Piven and Cloward’s Regulating the Poor, and finally her recommendations for what strategies workforce centers should use moving forward. I was a bit dissatisfied with the index, since some often repeated terms, such as “value added,” (quotes Gatta’s) appear repeatedly throughout the book. These are things I would not have wanted to see the index had I not read the book and noticed the repeated trope. Such inclusions would have been helpful. Because two weeks have passed since reading the book and writing the review, I cannot recall the other terms I would have liked to have found in the index, and my note sheets are stuffed to the margins, but there were several others.

The principle problem with workforce centers is that they are above all geared toward the interests of the business community, not the job seeker. She quotes Kathleen Shaw and Sara Rab: “[T]he customer that benefits here is the business community, which Florida’s economy in particular sustains a demand for a supply of workers willing to work for low wages” (8). Whether such a position will keep someone from losing their home or keep food on the table for their families is apparently immaterial. There is an extreme unwillingness to put people into training programs to improve their situation. Gatta mentions woman with a journalism degree from 1995 (60), but workforce centers do not allow clients to train in different fields, only to have further training in fields in which they have already worked (50). This is what I experienced at Bronx Workforce One in 2011. A friend from church told me about individual training grants. I was given two choices based on my resume: Microsoft Office and web design. Since my GoodTemps scores for Word and Excel were 97/100 and 87/100, respectively, I went with web design, even though my web design skills at the time were self-taught and quaint, but good enough to get this now-defunct film fan site proclaimed official and supported by the owner. It still remains on my resume, and I have nothing to supersede it because once I got my certifications, everyone wanted to see my portfolio. What I did for the class was all incomplete and not live (we abandoned each project after a few days so that we would retain the knowledge of building a site from scratch), and the flash drive it was on got zotzed (although it should be backed-up on my hard drive that is in storage). They were not to be made live because for the sake of time, pictures were mostly taken off copyrighted websites. The two times I was allowed to interview for web design jobs, and The Jewish Image, I was told they went with someone who had more experience, and I was recently denied a web design job when I told the recruiter I could not provide a portfolio of professional web design work. About halfway through the course, I called about the grant, but was told the program was frozen, so I never received it.

One of Gatta’s main sources is Sandra Morgen’s Street Level Bureaucracy, which discusses, in Morgen’s words, “how and sometimes even whether, policy is implemented depended on the front-line workers who carry out policy in their day-to-day work.” As Gatta says, privatization “only serves to widen these vacuums” (25).

Front-line workers report that they understand the challenges of the economy and social structures, but in practice have internalized a very individualistic approach to clients–specifically, that the clients need to be realistic about their options, take personal responsibility for their situation, and do whatever it takes to get any job. Such an approach is very much in line with the ideological underpinnings of welfare reform that emphasizes personal responsibility (32).

Gatta’s undercover work as a job seeker showed this vile ideology from the very beginning. “Unemployed people are always late” says the instructor for the orientation class at which no one has arrived late, then she fails to exhibit proper grammar by saying, “If it was up to me, we would start on time,” demonstrating her failure to internalize the subjunctive mood while internalizing slanderous inanities. I read most of this book during down time on a proofreading gig. I caught two then/than confusions (63, 84), suggesting that Stanford University Press doesn’t hire proofreaders, and Frances Fox Piven’s surname is spelled “Pivan” in the index. As mentioned in an earlier post, the Beveridge curve shows that as job openings grow, unemployment shrinks, only this actually is not happening according to data, because businesses refuse to hire the long-term unemployed. The message then becomes, “Take responsibility for other people’s choices!”, a vile, blame-the-victim approach toward clientele. Rand Ghayad and William Dickens have essentially proven that personal responsibility is not the primary issue when it comes to unemployment.

Presenting herself as unemployed waitstaff, which she had done in earlier in life, Gatta found, “My work skills were in high demand, they were just not considered skills that were high or even moderate wage. This contradiction is a significant factor of the nation’s workforce system” (44). Having in-demand skills precluded Mary Jones from further job training. She would be considered a successful placement, but she would still be working poor and economically insecure. The median income for waitstaff according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is $18,330, which could exacerbate economic insecurity by removal of child care assistance and food stamps. For Workforce employees, finding employment holds primacy as the measure of success, even if that success has more negative than positive consequences for the individual served (45). The Workforce Investment Act is all about work, not about bettering the lives of individuals. A workforce center client who had many years of experience as a pharmaceutical manager was told to take a job as a clerk at Michael’s because her hobby was needlework, while other people with college degrees were told that that made them employable and job ready and not in need of assistance, even though they were unsuccessful when they came seeking help (12). She cites a then-unpublished book by Ofer Sharone for which I’ve found two additional titles in addition to the one Gatta gives, Job Searching, Unemployment, and Self-Blame, which is all about the cult of “attitude” and “taking responsibility,” that the prospective employee needs to be a cheerful, obedient, diligent, eager, and compliant drone, which was equated with being “job ready” (46). I was considered “job ready” on my first appointment at Workforce One, much as my Twitter cyberbullies would disagree. Many people not considered “job ready” were forced to take redundant classes with much the same information as the orientation, and others were downright harassed: “Do you know how hard it is to hear someone tell you that you have to be sure to speak a certain way and smile when you talk to your employer? I worked for seventeen years. I didn’t get laid off because I can’t speak. I got laid off because the store I was working at closed” (48). Workforce workers are in denial about the structural problems and complex life situations that are far more significant as causes for unemployment. One example is how people with incomes under $15,000 rarely have cars, and with limited public transportation in New Jersey, makes so many jobs untenable by their location. I have been repeatedly contacted for short-term positions in Montvale, New Jersey, where one would have to arrive on the 1:30 AM train in order to make it to work by 8:30 AM, as directed, but there was no bus from the train station, and the job site did not appear from the map to be a realistic daily for someone without an ambulatory problem, let alone someone like me. “[T]he flipside to the positive thinking mantra,” Gatta tells us, citing Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-Sided,

is that if someone does not have a positive attitude about his or her unemployment, then it is that missing positive attitude that is a contributing factor to their inability to find employment. Such rhetoric easily blames the unemployed for their continued labor market challenges and takes off any pressure to even define employment as a jobs issue with a sociological frame. The reality is that even the most positive attitude will not make up for the structural factors of the labor market (47).

The reality, it is the employed who have the attitude problem: “Have a good attitude when we’re lying to you and insulting you to your face,” they seem to say. They also put high emphasis on importance of “luck” and make analogies to “winning the lottery” (54). As I discussed in my review of Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash, this is the untenable casino model for career advancement, which is unsustainable.

The last time I was at a Workforce center, they had significantly contracted the work that was considered in-demand, and web design was no longer on there, so I could bot build up skills with CSS (barely touched on in the original class), let alone XHTML and PHP, which were not covered at all, but appear in skills requirements for web design jobs. The software is expensive, and training on them independently is not really a viable option the way I could teach myself Microsoft Office. Gatta (51) uses the system’s refusal to allow people to change careers to attack its failure to allow women to obtain CDL licenses and become truck drivers, although this is an across the board policy, more systemic than it is gender-targeted. Gatta, however, is the first author I’ve encountered since I’ve been reading books of this nature to address an extremely important question. I get attacked for having a film degree based on the job market demand. “What if a client has an interest in a non-demand job? And simply because something is not in high demand, does that mean there is no demand for the job at all? … When training is targeted only to high-demand jobs, the client’s level of autonomy and choice is affected. For instance, if I wanted to be trained to be a desktop publisher or graphic artist, I would not be able to do that via the workforce system as it was not a targeted high-demand occupation in my local labor market” (52). As Shaw and Rab put it, “‘the free choice that us the hallmark of a market-driven education model is not present under WIA’ … when the only education available to WIA clients is what suits the immediate labor needs of employers, then ‘student choice will be severely constricted despite the free-market philosophy that would, in theory, provide the customer with more choices, rather than fewer'” (53). This is clearly a fascist situation, but Gatta apparently feels it would sound unprofessional or alarmist to say so.

On pages 58-63, Gatta discusses how people with college degrees are treated by Workforce centers. Not unlike the welfare office or the Department of Homeless shelters, they suffer from the ideology that those who cannot find work with college degrees simply are not trying hard enough, no matter how rampant the problem becomes. To a workforce employee, a degree automatically equates to employability (58). They routinely tell such clients to go to their college career center for assistance. That’s a joke. When I went to my college career center, most of what they had was low-wage retail and food service occupations that someone medically limited to a desk job, as I am, cannot do, nor will they pay the rent. The jobs were all part-time and seemed intended for current undergraduate students. The career center at my undergraduate school seemed a little better, although I was not impressed with it at the time, and since it’s 750 miles away, even less practical to visit than the two-hour one-way trip to Staten Island that I would need to visit the career center where I went to graduate school, where the resume writer thought I should separate my paid work form my unpaid work, which could only make me look worse for finding work in my field. Gatta (61) describes a systemic unwillingness for Workforce to help those with bachelor’s degrees, let alone beyond.

Another inanity Gatta brings forward is telling people to sell their cars for food, when that will make getting food far more difficult. It’s brought up often in Occu-Evolve meetings that a Metrocard is more important than food because you need the Metrocard to get to places that give food away. Another suggestion was paid food pantries such as Angel Food Ministries, which sell packages of food cheap. I was referred to something like this when I was housed but in poverty, but I didn’t use it, because their packages were very one-size-fits-all, with foods that are not going to fit everyone’s dietary needs and preferences.

The worst part of all this is summed up by an anonymous interviewee:

But what is the standard of someone having that job where they are going to sit back and look at somebody;s resume and kind of analyze what kind of training they need and what their career options are, like, how do I get it? But I said, if they fire her and her boss came in and said this is the worst I have ever seen and if they fired her and gave me that job, people will be coming out of there exuberant and excited with new opportunities and information. I said, “How the hell is this woman doing this job?” She looked like a mess. She didn’t present herself professionally. She didn’t speak professionally. Well, she went over to talk to somebody, I stole a bunch of documents and literature off of her … she had big piles of opportunities literature (65).

While I can’t say much for the grammar of the above job seeker, either, her point is pretty valid. Social worker John Sheehan, who recommended that I read Regulating the Poor, told me he thought I would make an excellent job developer, but thus far, I have never been considered. I don’t understand the selection processes (or the application process–I have never seen them post an opening) that allows such seemingly unprofessional people to obtain such positions.

In the next section, Gatta examines the plight of the front-line workers, with whom I have little sympathy, although Gatta points out that most do not receive the BEST standards of economic security as established by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) (74). Gatta tells us, “the lack of available and good quality jobs made it difficult for them to perform their work, while simultaneously that same labor market structure could not be an excuse for clients’ inability to be employed.” In other words, this is a double standard, and I have no respect for double standards.

Part of the problem is that there really are no standards for these workers at all: “if workers are expected to meet performance measures set by federal and state entities, but those entities are not mandated to provide training to those workers, the chances of policy goals being achieved become dubious” (74). She also knows that workers in these centers have very unclear career paths, even those with advanced degrees, because there is little room for promotion (74). What front-line workers at job centers often consider their best work, clients consider a “brush off” (79). The workers have a strong tendency to blame the client–“While the front-line workers were aware of the multiple barriers faced by workers and the changing labor market, they reverted back to personal choices and individual responsibility as the determining factors for the client to secure the job” (93). This means that whatever training they received is based more in theology and ideology than in facts and evidence. They do know better–“The lack of jobs that offer wages that provide economic security was one of the biggest challenges front-line workers felt they faced in working with clients, and this was directly related to the social structure in theirs minds” (89). It’s a shame that such ideas slip from their minds when they’re berating and blaming clients. Lack of economic security in available jobs is a societal failure. “If many of these workers are not earning those wages themselves,” Gatta asks, how can they help the clients (some of whom have fewer skills and less education) to achieve economically secure jobs?” (97) Gatta notes that the jobs lacking both economic security and medical benefits grew 2.7 times faster than mid-wage and higher-wage occupations (89). I have pointed elsewhere on my blog evidence that the “skills gap” is merely a meme. A single worker with no children in New Jersey must make $3,392 a month to be considered economically secure (90). In a just society, this would be an average wage, not a high wage.

Gatta cites a veteran worker: “Eighteen years ago when I first started I would be able to pick up that phone if I liked someone sitting at my desk and get that person a job. now, I’m lucky when I pick up that phone that I can get that person an interview” (91). Clearly, the blame-the-client mentality is completely without merit, and even though the workers know it, they still use it. This kills my sympathy. Citing Joel F. Handler and Yeheskel Hasenfeld’s 2006 Blame Welfare, Ignore Poverty and Inequality, “the emphasis on choice [affects] workers in two ways: it portrays the agency as fostering highly cherished values associated with freedom and citizenship, and it absolves the agency for what happens to clients who choose not to cooperate” (95). Needless to say, I don’t absolve them of any responsibility. The idea “that poverty is caused by the behaviors and choices of individuals and not by social and economic structures” (85) is patently false, and they need to be taken to task for using it. Gatta takes them to task for not recommending “non-traditional” jobs to women (defined as jobs in which women make less than 50% of the workforce), while workers claim that their failure to do so is because it “was not on the radar screen” (96). This goes back to my point that Gatta is attacking the workforce centers for deep-seeded structural failures that are not specific to the problem, but endemic of greater societal problems. It’s very telling that the workers “defined their role as being able to help clients accept the reality of the labor market,” or as I put it, helping workers to accept shitty policy that no person sane should ever be expected to accept. The workers are hypocritical filth refusing to acknowledge systemic failure they know exists and for which they are, in part, responsible, in that they enforce and solidify an ideology they know to be false.

She concludes the chapter on front-line workers by citing Arlie Russell Hochschild (99) on the workers distancing themselves form the authentic. As David Friedman puts it, they are “demonstrating to not feel.” While David discusses it in the context of acting–people pay actors because they want to see them feel for real, not to demonstrate emotion, and the front-line workers are “bad actors” in more than one sense of the term, both in the sense of inauthentic performance and in terms of their work often having malicious effect. Their “small act of kindness” is easy to take as insult and incompetence. It’s no wonder workers react with fear when I see through their lies and disingenuous niceties. The “value-added” is, to my mind, an at of cruelty because of its very dishonesty.

The third section describes programs that preceded the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). The most promising-sounding of these programs is the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), passed by that flaming communist, Richard Nixon, in 1973. It was based in the interest of workers, not employers, which makes it infinitely superior to WIA. In Gordon Lafer’s The Job Training Charade, he states “At its height in 1978, CETA had provided nearly three-quarters of a million jobs for adults, and an additional million jobs for teenagers.” (105) It was replaced with the Job Training Partnership Act (1982), which eliminated job creation from its duties, placing emphasis on training for better jobs, privatizing what had once been public, with the expected gains for businesses and loss for the individual worker. Like my experience with the web design program, JTPA had a very poor record at actually placing people in jobs once they got trained (106). She successfully props up her main thesis by demonstrating that the gender wage gap increased under WIA (107), noting that men were more commonly placed in jobs requiring heavy physical labor (i.e. jobs I can’t do for medical reasons). Right-wing extremist Bill Clinton pass the disgustingly dishonestly named Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, which unconstitutionally legalized slave labor, or at least severe skirting of minimum wage laws, for the poorest United States citizens.

Gatta also draws attention to the divide and conquer strategies employed as early as 1913, defining “the fit and worthy poor” as families in which the “father [was] removed by death” (110). “In fact, in the 1940s and 1950s many states forced women to work by lowering the payments and restricting eligibility requirements of ADC. Yet at the same time that poor women and women of color were being forced to work in the paid labor market, white middle-class women were being told that they should not work in the paid labor market. In fact, not only should white middle-class women not engage in paid labor, it was believed that if they did, it could easily lead to the destruction of their families and communities” (112), which can only mean that the destruction of black families and communities was considered desirable to the capitalist interests. As Jean Rice of Picture the Homeless points out, there is even terminology for this, “planned shrinkage” and “benign neglect,” which are two of the three primary true causes of homelessness, the other being the greed of rich people.

“[W]hen the system was most effective,” however, Gatta informs us, “both front-line workers and clients reported that its services were able to take into account the personal biography of the client and the structural factors of the labor market and workforce system” (116). I am still waiting for someone to aid me who will take these factors into account. Thus far, I have encountered a total and abject failure to do so. The closest attempt I saw was the welfare worker who tried to get me stagehand work because I stated on my resume that I had experience directing plays, which, given my physical challenges, is a pretty half-assed attempt at this. “When employment and training reflects the welfare discourse of individual responsibility and work first, it has not met the needs of clients who may be from the welfare rolls or the managerial suite. “[Front-line workers] acknowledge that there are not enough good jobs (or even jobs) to place people in, and raise concerns about the economic futures of their clients. They report higher workloads and workplace stress in trying to complete their own jobs in this environment, Yet they do not seem to make the larger connections between their experiences in the field and the larger context of workforce policy and labor market structure. How can they stop to see this with the constant influx of new faces?” As Shmuly Finklestein put it, “The lack of self-awareness displayed … is astronomical,” only he was foolish enough to attribute it to “proglodytes like you” rather than those who fail to see systemic and structural failures. In this way, the front-line workers are worse than fascist scum like @2015Outlaw and @Patriot_Wolf_1974 — they see the problem but refuse to acknowledge it, and instead choose to blame and dehumanize their clients (118).

CCRIEPtVIAAizDB.jpg:large (I realize there’s a misspelled word here, but the content is otherwise true. Thanks to @dancyshrew for infographic.)

“Front-line workers accepted the work-first policy framework, knowing it had the real probability of not providing any real labor market routes to success for their clients. The WIA, even perhaps more so than welfare reform, has led to an internalization by front-line workers that since both clients and employers are to be served by workforce development systems, their role is to work with the clients to ‘whip [them] into shape so that they better meet the needs of employers and taxpayers in general’ [quotation from Frank Ridzi: Selling Welfare Reform: Work-First and the New Common Sense of Employment]” (126). Gotta attacks this as racist and sexist in the next sentence, but despite citing a book by the Marxist Monthly Review Press, which published The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism, she never attacks it as capitalist. She n notes that mid-wage occupations have fallen by 7.3 percent, which makes the “good job” defect greater (that is, worse) than it was in the early 2000s (127). It boggles the mind how anyone could refuse to question capitalism in light of such a reality. It is only alluded to when she talks about high-income countries as analyzed by Eileen Applebaum and John Schmitt, stressing unions protect workers against layoffs and a national minimum wage provides, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt demanded, “a decent standard of living,” “employers are less able to evade institutional constraints on their ability to lower wages and reduce employment security” (130).

Gatta blames “ill-fitted philosophical underpinnings” and shrinkage of workforce development funding, making routes to financial secure jobs increasingly less likely for clients. “Instead, front-line workers report that they spend time trying to lower the expectations of clients for their futures–not a good policy for these individuals or the America [sic] workforce at large” (119). Her recommendations are pretty simple, such as eliminating redundant classes and making the physical spaces look less like welfare offices, but street level bureaucracy can do only so much to change a program that is rotten at its core. The book is more important for its illuminations than its recommendations for reform. While Gatta’s stressing of gendered over general hurts the book structurally, her facts and arguments are nevertheless solid and of the utmost importance.

“Moving away from individual explanations of unemployment is key to helping us move toward a deeper understanding of how education, workforce development, economic development, and public assistance can and must be part of the larger social contract. Economic security needs to be understood comprehensively to include aspects of several elements–income, job quality, education and training, savings and assets, and public supports.” (129)

Unfortunately, the capitalist class wants to remove as many of these supports as possible and call the poor greedy and entitled. They fail to self-reflect as badly as Shmuly Finklestein and my other cyberbullies. Such self-reflection is not beneficial to their interests any more than it is beneficial for the job seeker to look inward for faults she does not possess and instead look outward to a system that is designed by those with wealth to take advantage of those who do not.

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  1. A bit overwhelming, but what is the solution? If the USA works with and even emulates China, we can still cooperate with them.. We don’t have to become a Chinese colony of some sort. The solution to the USA’s problems are not going to come from inside the USA. It will come from outside the USA at least as a spark…. We can work with China and the Brics country, and still call it the USA Commonwealth Party, or if you like, Socialism with American Characteristics. But hurry up, don’t wait for California to dry up for lack of water infrastructure and desalination.

  2. Reblogged this on News From the Bronx and commented:
    We need more.. USA can work with China and still be independent. Call it the USA Commonwealth Party or Socialism with American Characteristics… or better yet, go to

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