• Susanna Williams

A Frayed Knot

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

I’ve been an independent consultant for more than four years. Due to some client communication issues (an invoice that somehow fell through the cracks, a contract that is tied up in the transition to a new contract management software, holidays, capacity problems), I haven’t been paid for a month and a half. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to pay my rent this month. I lost my health insurance last month. I’ve been unemployed twice in my life and my financial situation has never been as dire as it is now. (2018 has been a *year*.) The only difference is that I am confident that payments are on the way- they’re just delayed. But all of this has me thinking about workforce development and training programs and how those function for people who experience economic fragility as a part of their daily existence. And, more than that, what happens when people who have never experienced economic vulnerability themselves are the ones making the policy and program decisions that economically vulnerable people must navigate?

When you live in economic uncertainty, survival instincts come to the fore. Your time horizons get shorter and shorter. You live from paycheck to paycheck, in two-week cycles. You constantly do math to be sure that you are covering the things you can’t do without and you put off anything that you don’t absolutely need. Sometimes, you indulge in something, anything that makes life feel a little less harsh- last night I purchased cotton wipes to remove my makeup at night. Did I absolutely need to spend that $3? No. But it felt good. Being financially vulnerable puts everything at risk- food, shelter, relationships- all of the Maslowian essentials.

So now imagine that you are uncertain if you will still have a roof over your head next month or the month after that and you’re working for a massive chain store that makes sure you don’t ever work more than 20 hours a week lest they be required to provide health insurance. If you have kids, the picture gets even more complicated. The only way to improve your economic circumstances is by getting a different job that pays better. The only way to get a different job (with more than a few cents pay differential) is to get additional training. The only way to get additional training (in far too many places) is to stop working and enroll in a program that is itself either full time or has odd hours (Tuesday & Thursday from 2:30 – 4 except for the weeks of ....). There is no guarantee of employment after completing that program. Nor is there any financial support available while you are doing the training itself. The amount of vulnerability that is required for that process is unreal, particularly in a society where effort in no way is equated with reward. “Trying” isn’t enough.

I find it unconscionable that full-time digital skill training programs don’t universally offer a living-wage stipend along with their courses. I find it appalling that higher ed leaves its students to fend for themselves as they navigate the labor market. I find it abhorrent that we have come to treat jobs as brass rings rather than a fundamental right. And I cannot abide with all of the risk being placed on the shoulders and lives of the people who have the least amount of tolerance to absorb failure.

My favorite leaders in this space have direct personal experience with economic vulnerability. Once you’ve been touched by that level of insecurity, you never lose sight of how near we all are to being there again- or of the systems that make it all but impossible to make the leap to security. Consciously designing pathways out of vulnerability to be understanding of the stresses and demands of economic insecurity is one way to help people be successful. That means flexibility. That means ensuring that their basic needs can be met. That means that, in every way possible, your structures need to say to people “Here, let us take care of that for you. You’re doing really hard work right now and you don’t need to worry about this until you’ve finished what you need to do.”

There is a hospice community in Bentonville, Arkansas that provides free, all-inclusive homes for families who have a loved one in palliative care. They take care of everything. All you have to do is be present as they go through that transition. What if we approached the transition to economic security in a similar way?

I have been in regular contact with both clients. I am grateful to have the work. I am grateful for the friends who are generously covering the check for meals when we go out. I know that I have support systems I can call on in the next six days should I need to. And I have every reason to be confident that this period of financial stress will soon come to an end. But I am always mindful that for the people I seek to serve, this is the shape of their lives. And they deserve better support than we currently offer them.