September 8, 2022

What is work? Why do we do it? And what does it have to do with religion? Join CCSR Visiting Fellow Lauren Kerby to explore where Americans’ ideas about work come from (spoiler alert: race and gender are involved too). In this episode, discover how American welfare policy tries to regulate poor people in every aspect of life, from work to diet to sex, all under the white Protestant umbrella of “personal responsibility.”

About the Expert

Dr. Lauren R. Kerby is an expert in American religion and politics. Her first book, Saving History, explores white Christian nationalists’ version of American history through a study of Christian heritage tours in Washington, D.C. During those tours, she started paying attention to how religion can influence what people say or do even when it’s completely implicit. Her current project, Religion at Work, develops strategies to notice that deep level of religion in society, using Americans’ ideas about work as a case study. This series is informed by her own experiences of unemployment, precarity, and workplace sexism, even as it is made possible by her privilege as a middle class, educated white woman currently employed at Princeton University.

This series was filmed and produced on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded lands of the Lenni-Lenape people, who maintain a continuing relationship with their territory.

Start a Conversation

  1. Think about your own experience and the stories you’ve heard about why people (perhaps including you or your family) are poor. How do they echo this white Protestant deep story about personal responsibility and self-restraint?
  2. Take a look at the USDA Thrifty Food Plan (07:09). What does it assume about the people who use it? What other deep stories in American culture does it tap into to justify how it restricts SNAP recipients’ spending? 
  3. What do you think would happen if financial support to people in need came without strings attached? Write down your initial thoughts, then read this Forbes article ( for one approach that’s similar to COVID-19 stimulus checks. What are some alternative ways to help people in need without trying to make their decisions for them? 

Selected Sources

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. Routledge, 2008. 

Jakobsen, Janet, and Ann Pellegrini. “Obama’s Neo-New Deal.” Social Research, Winter 2009.

Kandaswamy, Priya. Domestic Contradictions. Duke University Press, 2021.

MacCleod, Laurie, Darrel Montero, and Alan Speer. “America’s Changing Attitudes Toward Welfare and Welfare Recipients, 1938-1995.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 1999.

Social Welfare History Project. Virginia Commonwealth University.