Worst Job Ever
No, I never switched boxcars on the Southern Pacific Railroad, I never strip mined mountaintops with pick and shovel—my worst job ever wasn’t even wrapping meat in a supermarket, a job I really did.
I awoke from a dream this morning in which I was a vocational counseling supervisor in a work incentive program. Strangely, after some sleepy thought, I remembered that’s exactly one of the ways I earned a living. Is there a job in the world more dehumanizing to both parties than “helping” people less privileged than oneself when the help is a sham?
There I was earning a paycheck to assist women and men to become empowered by training for and getting decent jobs. In actuality, the state required the job seekers to meet with me and my staff, thereby rendering the clients powerless in the hands of us minimally trained “experts.”
Many “clients,” usually high school dropouts trying to bring up kids, sometimes saddled with criminal records, ill health, addiction problems, unsafe living conditions, hunger, and more, saw right through the well-meant program. We young, college-educated idealists were completely hoodwinked into believing we could balance an institutionally unbalanced situation. The relationships between client and counselor were overwhelmingly adversarial from the get go.
With some exceptions, the hopeful or resistant—often both—clients were of African American or Puerto Rican heritage. We eager beaver counselors could not have been whiter. Only one of our counselors spoke both English and Spanish. Although some of us came from originally blue-color families, by the time we were hired we were at least breaking into the middle class.
I got along with the clients, but quickly became overwhelmed by the futility of trying to effect any meaningful change from my form-heaped desk. We used both state and federal funds so the paperwork continually threatened to become the counselors’ focus no matter how hard we tried to concentrate on the clients. The process itself built a wall between helper and helpee that had to be scaled before anything could be accomplished. Some clients never returned after those grueling initial encounters.
Others returned because their incomes depended on their participation. Clients didn’t actually have to be hired anywhere, nor did counselors have to produce jobs. The government, the program, the clients and the counselors could not right the wrongs that brought us together, so if all else failed, we might go through the motions. Which should have made us, in a way, equals, and sometimes did. An unspoken understanding could come of client/counselor interactions which amounted to collusion: the obstacles that our clients needed to overcome were so great, what could we do but sign the paperwork to keep all our checks coming?
Which is not to say there were no success stories. For every dozen men who perhaps drank too much to keep jobs, there was an unemployed father who completed training as a union drywall installer and was able to leave the welfare system behind. For every woman who couldn’t afford daycare, there was another who simply needed help putting together elements of a plan that freed her up to learn office skills and survive on pink collar wages not much higher than what she got from the government. Such meager triumphs sustained all of us. We hoped her children would go to college.
Ultimately, I burned out. We were, mostly, good people, clients and counselors, doing the best we knew how. None of us had the tools to make change and all of us felt embattled in hostile surroundings. The clients entered an environment created and operated by white people who ruled the roost yet fled for greener pastures at the end of the day. The counselors invaded the neighborhood where the clients lived and were not welcome. For all our liberal views and sympathetic efforts, we counselors were products of a classist, racist culture and, try as we might to cleanse ourselves, we carried the germs of fear, ignorance and polarization to work.
The clerical and paraprofessional staff was primarily non-white and many were program success stories themselves. Yet the counselors and supervisors earned higher wages and still held the power. Relationships between staff were touch-and-go, everyone on guard for slights and discrimination. Power struggles between clients and staff, staff and staff, staff and management, management and funding sources were ongoing.
The physical plant mirrored this. Well-used government desks and chairs were aligned in pre-cube rows. Walls between departments were made of nothing but four-drawer file cabinets. The high ceilings of the former brick factory enabled an unceasing cacophonous racket. Years of battles were fought between smokers and nonsmokers over the tiny lounge that served well over a hundred workers. The parking lot was not considered safe. Armed guards stood at entrances. The place was never fully cleaned; the inadequate restrooms served staff and clients, stripping both of dignity.
And gay people? There were three of us on staff that I knew of, two guys and me. We hid our queerness to keep our jobs, feared running into co-workers on days off. I never had a gay client that I knew of. There was no government help for downtrodden gays.
Really, there was no government help for anyone.That might have been my worst job ever, but I was still the privileged one: I could leave. And did. I had the privilege to become ever downwardly mobile.