The Complexities of Unemployment and Underemployment

Adapted from chapter five of Practicing the King’s Economy.

As we’ve been talking about the importance of helping people find and keep meaningful work as a centerpiece of long-term development, we’ve unpacked a lot of the ways work “works” in God’s story. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible reveals God’s heart for work as one of the highest callings of His image-bearers.

But what happens when someone wants work but can’t find it? What happens when “the one who has been stealing” wants to do “something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need” (Eph. 4:28), but can’t get a job? What happens when they find work, but it is so temporary, unsteady, or poorly paid that they can’t even get off government assistance, much less have something left over to share?

In the United States today, these questions aren’t theoretical.1 

  • Up to 25 percent of all workers in the United States are in temporary, contract, or nontraditional employment.
  • In many neighborhoods which have historically experienced concentrated poverty, over 40-50 percent of adult residents are not working.
  • A high proportion of the jobs created since the 2007-09 recession have been in low-wage sectors, leading many individuals and families across the nation to enter the ranks of the “working poor,”2 and the shorter but deeper economic crash during 2020-21 due to the Covid-19 pandemic hit service-sector workers hardest.
  • By some estimates, over half of those who receive food aid in America have at least one person in the home who is working, and nearly one-third have two or more workers.3
  • Nearly one-fourth of working Americans earn less than two-thirds of median earnings (less than $12/hour in 2021).4

The picture is even bleaker if you’ve had encounters with the law in your past that have resulted in a criminal conviction: 

  • Unemployment rates among ex-felons in their first year out of incarceration have recently been as high as 75 percent.5
  • 60 percent of employers in one multicity study said they would “probably not” or “definitely not” hire somebody with a criminal record.6
  • One long-term study found that, for returning citizens who do find jobs, past incarceration reduces wages by an average of 10–20 percent.7

These statistics on post-incarceration employment are driven by a complex set of policies at the national and state level that are shaped by all sorts of liability concerns and insurance issues, but many other populations also particularly struggle to find work in the U.S. Recent immigrants and refugees, people with disabilities, African American and Native American populations, and people who grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty all struggle to find jobs that pay wages high enough to allow them to achieve anything like financial stability. 

This is often a result of broken systems. Consider, for instance, these studies on race and work:

  • The exact same resume was 50 percent more likely to receive a callback from a potential employer if it had a “white name” (Brendan) versus a “black name” (Jemal).
  • In one study, African American applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at a rate as low as white applicants who had criminal records.

In other words, not only those who commit injustices against society through theft struggle to find work. Victims of injustice in our society also struggle to find jobs and thrive at work.8

In addition, in a fallen world, broken economic systems can prevent people from working even if nobody is intentionally discriminating against them (although that certainly happens). For example, a host of factors can cause an economic recession, putting millions of people out of work even when nobody meant them any harm. And as in almost every other area of life, the ways our economic systems are broken often put the materially poor and others on the margins at a particular disadvantage.

We might be tempted to think of lack of work as having to do with the sins (past criminal convictions) or shortcomings (unwillingness to work, etc.) of un- or under-employed people. But in a world marred by the fall, we must recognize that many struggle with unemployment at least in part because they’ve been sinned against or simply work within broken and unjust economic systems. 

Our biggest problem may not be that people don’t want to work. Our biggest problem may be that for too many of our neighbors, work just doesn’t seem to work anymore.

These and other difficulties are at the heart of the Chalmers Center’s Work Life program. Through Work Life, we train Christian nonprofits and churches to step into these complexities and walk alongside those on the margins as they navigate these systems to find and keep meaningful work.

Let us provide you with the skills and confidence you need to start a work readiness ministry! If you’d like to learn more about what’s involved in starting a Work Life program in your church or organization, you can enroll in our free Intro to Work Life course and start the journey.

  1. Unless otherwise cited, numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  7. Bruce Western, “The Impact of Incarceration on Wage Mobility and Inequality,” American Sociological Review 67/4 (Aug. 2002), 526-546.
The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.

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