Panel Paper: Work As Foraging: A Smartphone Study of Job Search and Employment after Prison

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8226 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Naomi Sugie, University of California, Irvine

Reentering individuals face barriers to employment that are challenging for poor, low-skilled job seekers generally (e.g., spatial segregation, changing industries, few resources for job search, little schooling) as well as specific to their prior criminal justice involvement. They are excluded from certain professions (Stafford 2006) and experience severe stigma related to their criminal record and incarceration (Holzer, Raphael, and Stoll 2006; Pager 2007; Stoll and Bushway 2008; Pager, Western, and Bonikowski 2009). The reentry period is also a time of uncertainty, instability, and hardships, even apart from employment, in which people often must reconnect with family and friends, locate stable housing, and address health and addiction issues.

Obtaining employment at reentry is typically considered a beneficial, key aspect of social integration and recidivism prevention (e.g., Sampson and Laub 1993; Western et al. 2015). However, the reality of work at reentry does not typically resemble the types of stable, high-quality, and well-paying jobs that are able to provide these benefits. Instead, the types of jobs that people at reentry find are often extremely unstable and precarious. This study proposes that the nature of work at reentry is akin to foraging behavior – or the pursuit of short-term, income generating opportunities that span across a range of job types. The foraging term emphasizes that work is primarily a short-term, instrumental transaction for income, and it contrasts with perspectives that emphasize multifaceted benefits of employment— for example, contributing to positive identity, increasing feelings of self-worth, and building an expertise or skill set. Foraging for work views these aspects as secondary, such that the primary motivation is income, and it highlights the very uncertain, haphazard, and precarious nature of survival work among job seekers navigating the margins of the labor market.

To understand foraging experiences at reentry, this study collected unique real-time, self-report information from smartphones among a cohort of men returning from prison to Newark, New Jersey. Using sequence analysis methods with over 8,000 daily observations for a sample of 133 men recently released from prison, the study found that most people ceased looking for work after the first month and maintained a state of very sporadic and temporary work. Rather than specializing in a specific trade or occupation, people worked in a range of low-skill jobs— from landscaper to warehouser to concession stand operator— all within a short amount of time. Although it was most common for men to quickly cease search activities and to find sporadic work, some had very different search and work patterns, particularly older men who were highly committed to their job search. Yet, despite these differences, the nature of work as foraging was common and widespread.

The concept of foraging implies a previously unrecognized depth of instability and variation across job types, which has short- and long-term consequences that contrast sharply with the consequences of regular employment.