Unemployment and Divine Plans

When I began my research interviewing unemployed and underemployed Southern Californians in 2011, I did not expect that their religious views would turn out to be so important. Previous studies of unemployed Americans have scarcely commented on their spirituality. But over and over I heard my interviewees say, as an unemployed IT worker put it, “I believe in God. So I do believe that He has a plan for me and I leave it in His hands.” At the Career Coaching and Counseling Ministry introductory lecture I attended at Pastor Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, the discussion leader began by saying to the job seekers (and one anthropologist) that we were not here by accident. God has a plan. This is where we’re supposed to be. Our goal is to discern what God has in mind for us. Perhaps we are meant to spend this time “in transition” (a standard career counselor euphemism for being out of work) by bringing others to Christ, as the founders of that ministry had. This trial could be a deliberate test of our faith. But in any case, we should know that God will not abandon us if we have a job loss and ultimately the Lord has “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Many of my interviewees agreed that there is a spiritual meaning for their travails. They were puzzled about why God would want them out of work, but comforted that there was a purpose for it. This is not the Protestant work ethic of old, in which not working is a moral failing. Their views reflect the new Christianity described so well in Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back. In this new paradigm, God is personal and loving; not distant and judgmental. If a benevolent and all-powerful God puts you on the path of unemployment, it must be for a good reason. This view was most evident among Protestants, but I heard it as well from Catholics, Mormons, and in different versions from New Age spiritual seekers who sought meaning in the workings of the universe, rather than the intentions of a singular deity.

Southern California coastline and Santa Monica mountains. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Southern California coastline and Santa Monica mountains. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

With the invaluable help of grants from NSF (#1230534) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, I have collected the stories and opinions of 64 Southern Californians who were looking for work in 2011 and 2012, in the aftermath of the recession when the Los Angeles and Riverside metro areas had the second and third highest ratio of job seekers to job openings in the nation. I am talking to most of them again now, two years later. Some never found work; others have, but typically earning much less than they had before the recession. A majority went more than a year without a job; for some it was two or more years, during which their unemployment benefits ended and they faced the prospect of losing their home or apartment. The men and women I interviewed mirror the ethnic diversity of Southern California and range from some whose previous household incomes were in America’s top 1% to others who had been living on the streets. While there were church-based ministries to the unemployed in Southern California, I did not attend them until late in my research, after I realized the importance of religion in their lives. Instead, I found my interviewees at secular locations: job fairs, networking groups for job seekers, and career counseling sessions run by a nonprofit group and a local county employment office. Nonetheless, religious explanations kept coming up as they mused about their situation.

Divine purpose was rarely part of their narrative about losing their job. Instead, they chalked that up to evil bosses, corporate restructuring, mass layoffs, and the like. Furthermore, they were well aware that jobs were hard to find because of the recession, which they attributed to greedy bankers or undisciplined consumers or excessive taxes and regulation in California. God was not invoked as a distal cause of a bad economy. But even in the midst of a national recession that hit particularly hard in Southern California, they knew others were doing okay. They invoked God’s plan for them to understand why, with what was for most a solid record of previous employment and months and or even years of diligent job searching, they had so much trouble finding steady work. That new and unsettling experience cried out for explanation.

Mona Child, a former saleswoman for a local business, wondered if God was punishing her for something she might have done wrong in this life or a prior life. Rebecca Robinson, a 64 year-old administrative assistant, wondered if “He’s showing me by getting all these refusals that maybe I should stop and not even try.” Maybe it was His way of saying she should retire. Nearly everyone else, however, was certain they were supposed to persist in their efforts. Carl Mathews, an unemployed security guard, commented about his year of unemployment, “I don’t understand what I’m going through but I hope I pass the test. It’s a test of faith, you know? Just to see how I’m going to do.” To pass the test he had to keep applying for jobs, avoid the temptation to earn a living by illegal means, count his blessings for the good things in his life, and remain positive.

The relation between personal agency and God’s will is complex. When someone like the IT worker quoted above said, “So I do believe that He has a plan for me and I leave it in His hands” that does not mean that the job offers will appear magically. The unemployed still have to do their part by controlling their attitude and taking the right actions. Individual effort is still needed. As Anastasia Tang, a Human Resources manager, explained, “I know God has watched over me all these years, even through the difficulties. He’s given me everything, it’s just how do I overcome it? I’ve got all the tools, I’ve got the same hands, same legs, I’ve got the same body, I’ve got the same hair, whatever everybody has been given; what makes you different? Just how you think about it, how you overcome.”

God’s hand was particularly evident when things worked out well. Tom Dunn, a former technology consultant, had been out of work for three years when I first sat down with him the fall of 2011. The bank was preparing to foreclose on his house, and he was hard to reach because he was trying to avoid calls from creditors. When I caught up with him again this spring, he had erased his debts by starting a lucrative business delivering medical marijuana. He had also become a confidant and personal assistant to his customers, which he found very fulfilling. For that, he said, “I have to credit God.” Curious, I asked Tom, “So you think God kind of pointed you in this direction?” His reply acknowledged the elusiveness of the indirect causality he imagined: “This is a hard concept to explain. My whole concept of God is not that He’s my puppet master. But I do believe that the day I was born, He knew my life story in advance. And I think that in general I’ve been placed in situations where I could make a difference,” which he feels he is now doing through his assistance to his customers.

Previous research on unemployed Americans has emphasized their individualistic, self-blaming interpretation of their situation. If they believe it is their fault that they are out of work, then in addition to financial adversity they have to contend with lowered self-worth compounded by shame because they expect others to look down upon them for their failure. The only alternative posited in the literature is to view their situation as due to structural forces such as blocked educational access, discrimination, and unfavorable economic trends, which should lead to anger and possibly efforts at social change. However, if, like so many of my interviewees, they acknowledge both their part and that of structural forces, but see their situation as ultimately the plan of a benevolent God, then their mix of emotions is tempered by hope. And that is what I found among the believers I interviewed. As depressed as they were that their efforts had not resulted in the job they wanted, they were sustained by their faith that God would not abandon them, and so they persisted. Fred Hernandez, an addiction counselor, said he knew he was in “the hand of a loving, caring, forgiving God. And that’s what really keeps me going.”

Claudia Strauss is professor of anthropology at Pitzer College. Her most recent book is Making Sense of Public Opinion: American Discourses about Immigration and Social Programs (Cambridge, 2012). 

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