The Internet Archive, one of the world's best-trafficked websites, is headquartered in a cavernous former church on a quiet street sandwiched between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio. The nonprofit organization is a hoarder of cultural artifacts: snapshots of archaic Web pages, Grateful Dead concert recordings, more than 2 million digital books. On a typically foggy Thursday morning, rows of employees are hunched over their desks scanning book pages one by one a rote task its practitioners are grateful to be performing. "This job," says Faasolo Pua, 51, "has given me hope."
She's not alone. Since last year, 145 employees have latched onto the Internet Archive through a San Francisco program called Jobs Now. Tapping into funding from the Obama Administration's $787 billion stimulus package, 36 states plus the District of Columbia have unveiled similar initiatives, enabling local organizations to hire 250,000 people with federal funds. In San Francisco, these gigs, available to unemployed residents with dependents, offer modest salaries; entry-level positions at the Internet Archive pay $11 per hour. Benefits are paid by employers, who pick candidates from a roster culled by city staffers. Amid a punishing recession, these jobs have provided a lifeline to more than 4,000 San Franciscans and a jolt to the city's economy, shaving its unemployment rate and slashing welfare rolls 20%. "It's making a profound difference," says San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.
But with Washington spooked by the swelling federal deficit, parsimony has become smart politics and employment programs like Jobs Now are on the chopping block. Barring a Senate vote to extend funding for another year, programs will expire across the country on Sept. 30, leaving tens of thousands out of work once more. Six weeks from the midterm elections, mustering the votes won't be easy. In May, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Contingency Fund the unwieldy name for the pool of money from which programs like Jobs Now draw support was the first to be singled out for elimination by voters on House minority whip Eric Cantor's YouCut website, which highlights purported examples of wasteful spending.
Newsom has tried to dispel the suspicions shrouding stimulus-subsidized programs like Jobs Now by noting that participants earn roughly the same salary they would collect in unemployment benefits and accumulate valuable experience. The $2.5 billion needed to renew such programs is a sliver of the overall stimulus package, and for the most part, they have flown under the radar. "By every measure, this is one of the areas of the stimulus that's working," says Newsom, who attributes its inability to garner broader support to "pure ignorance."
Proponents are trying to change that by launching online petitions, letter-writing campaigns and social-networking blitzes to spotlight the ways participants will suffer if the program ends this fall. "Their level of commitment and work ethic has been extraordinary," says Jesse Bell, who manages 26 Jobs Now employees at the Internet Archive. Those workers, whose jobs may be blown away by the political winds buffeting Washington, are left to ponder uncertain futures. "I love it here," says Alex Montecinos, 33. "I wish I could stay longer, but I don't know what's going to happen."
Even those who see Jobs Now as just a bridge to something better appreciate the temporary help. "A lot of people think being on welfare is a free ride, but it really sucks," says Rebecca Dixon, 34, a single mother of four who had been out of work for a year when she landed a job last November. "You don't feel a sense of belonging. Most people would rather work and support their families and not have to burden the state." Dixon, who took a pay cut from the $17 per hour she used to earn at a pediatric clinic and who hopes to return to medicine, calls lawmakers during breaks to tout the program's merits. "I don't know how I'm going to support my kids if this ends," she says. "It's very scary."