“On one hand,” writes Elliot Liebow in Tell Them Who I Am, “the women desperately want and need the money, the independence, and the self-respect that most of us have come to expect from a job. On the other hand, to get a job and keep it, the women must run an obstacle course at the end of which is a low-pay, low-status job that offers little more than they have without it.” In his book Liebow explains that most of the homeless women he spoke with in his book wanted to work, or at least they saw the benefits that work would provide and wanted those things. However, few of the women he met were actually working.
Women didn’t work because it was difficult to actually obtain a job and difficult to keep a job once they had one. They were not respected during the job search process, and the jobs they landed often put them in places where customers could be rude to them, where the threat of losing the job could induce additional stress and anxiety, and where the work required such great travel and time costs that the cost benefit analysis barely made working worth the effort. For the women at the lowest socioeconomic level, jobs were seen as necessary but insufficient to improve their position in the world, and as a result some simply dropped out and decided it was not worth trying.
A point from Liebow’s quote that I think is worth exploring in more detail is how low-wage jobs available to homeless women are low-status jobs, and how such jobs don’t help integrate individuals into society. No one wants to feel like an outcast, and if we feel that what we do doesn’t matter and isn’t respected, then it is hard for us to get up, put ourselves together, and put in the effort of getting to work and sticking it out through the whole day. In our society we are all constantly looking to improve our status one way or another, and one way to increase our own status is to diminish the status of others, creating a bigger gulf between us and them, even if our status doesn’t actually raise. Relative to those who lose status, we look better. I think this is part of the problem with the low status jobs that homeless people may be able to find. Those who are barely above the homeless are incentivized to keep the lowest-status jobs as low status as possible, to keep themselves marginally better in the status race than the working homeless.
Our country celebrates work, but only certain kinds of work. For the lowest status work, we sometimes accept disrespect and inconsiderate behavior. We certainly don’t do much to praise those who do the lowest status work. Lunch counter servers, lawn service personnel, and janitorial staff are crucial to the smooth functioning and high standards of our society, but people who do these jobs are not well respected. It is little wonder that many people who find themselves choosing between homelessness where they don’t have to be around disrespectful people while they complete menial tasks, chose unemployment over work. Dead end jobs with no prospect for life improvement are not inviting, yet they are often the only option for those who want to work. The increase in status over being unworking and homeless is marginal, and if we don’t make an effort to increase the status of those low-wage workers, we won’t be able to convince them that putting in the effort and actually working is in their best interest.