Monthly Archives: October 2008

1930s Redux? The Working Class and the Economic Crisis

The current economic crisis is the result of the financial practices of the past decade, but we talk about it as if it were a new thing.  We also focus on what the crisis means for banks, insurance companies, and investors, forgetting that the working class have been and are likely to continue to struggle the most.

For working-class people, this crisis is more than three decades old.  Starting in the 1970s, workers’ wages began a steady decline.  Deindustrialization, increased technology, and globalization eliminated many of the jobs that once provided working-class families with a middle-class lifestyle.  Service industries create new jobs, but they pay less, offer fewer benefits, and are less secure than industrial jobs.  Laid-off industrial workers found themselves working two or even three part-time service jobs and still earning less than they had at the auto plant or steel mill.

As Robert Reich pointed out in the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago, working families have been struggling to maintain their economic security for a long time.  First, married women, many of them mothers, entered the workplace — not for self-fulfillment but as a means of household economic survival.  Then workers began to take on overtime and additional part-time jobs.  When neither of these was enough, families relied more on credit, a move that, while sometimes necessary, could make household finances even worse.

Now a declining economy is causing widespread layoffs.  In September, 2008, more than 235,000 people were laid off.  Experts predict the same for October, and the trend will likely continue.  While that includes many middle-class, professional workers, like those at Lehman Brothers, many working-class people are also losing their jobs. The difference is that better-off workers are more likely to have the financial cushion and job skills to recover, or at least survive.  Many working-class families are just a paycheck or two away from losing everything.

For many, sub-prime mortgages offered the first opportunity, after many years of hard work, to achieve the American dream of home ownership.  Mistakes on all sides, including, to be fair, on the part of working people whose eyes were bigger than their pocketbooks or who didn’t have the financial education to understand what they were getting into, have left many working families without a home.  Many have used up their meager financial reserves trying to pay the mortgage.  As in the 1980s, we will likely see a rise in homelessness over the next few years.

All of this creates feeds a growing class resentment, which might explain why voters don’t seem to have a problem with Barack Obama’s promise to “spread the wealth,” despite John McCain’s warnings about creeping socialism.  Working-class people have grown tired of promises that tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy will eventually trickle down to improve the economy for everyone.  Instead of fueling the economy, investors and the finance industry have put everyone’s economic security at risk.  Working-class Americans know that they have been getting poorer over the past few decades, while the richest Americans have been getting even richer.  In 2007, CEOs earned, on average, 364 times what workers made.

Many have debated whether the current economic crisis parallels the Depression of the 1930s.  Economic analysis aside, there may be a parallel cultural shift.  In the 1930s, the American labor movement gained momentum, leftist politics flourished, and artists and organizers created what Michael Denning terms “the cultural front,” an array of art, film, music, and literature that reflects working-class perspectives.  Those social movements worked together with economic policies to create political change.

We may well be on the brink of a similar transformation.   While the labor movement continues to struggle, the AFL-CIO has started a grassroots organization, Working America, to engage people who don’t belong to unions in organizing for economic and social justice policies (more on this from Jack Metzgar next week).  Voter registration patterns show a clear shift if not to the left then at least to the Democrats.  “Rock the Vote” concerts, the popularity of “The Daily Show,” and the rising ratings for MSNBC’s left-leaning commentary programs suggest the convergence of politics and pop culture.   So while the working class may suffer the most from the economic crisis, they may also have reasons to hope that it will bring real change.

Sherry Linkon

Youngstown’s Future and the “Tech Belt Megapolitan”

Youngstown 2010, the city’s award winning community plan, is structured around four principles that have provided the framework for all of the work that has followed:

  • Accepting that Youngstown is a smaller city
  • Defining Youngstown’s role in the new regional economy
  • Improving the area’s image and enhancing quality of life
  • A call to action.

Most of the favorable attention Youngstown has received for 2010 has resulted from the first principle-focusing on being a smaller sustainable mid-sized city rather than continuing to mourn the past. Less attention has been devoted to the second principle-defining Youngstown’s role in the new regional economy.

Both physically and mentally Youngstown is located at the center of a bi-state region. Despite this fact, Youngstown has long defined itself as being at the edge of two urban centers-Cleveland and Pittsburgh. This perception is beginning to change because our nation and region are changing. As the community understands these new realities, we will be better able to identify new economic opportunities for Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

To thrive in this changing world, we must take a long view-looking 30 years ahead to new economic patterns rather than looking back to the industrial world of more than 30 years ago.

Between now and 2040 our nation will absorb another 100 million people. Only India, with a population of 1.1 billion, will add population more quickly than the United States. According to Arthur Nelson and Robert Lang of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, the majority of this population growth will be accommodated within just 20 “megapolitan areas.”

Megapolitans are, in essence, the Combined Statistical Areas of the 21st Century. Like CSAs, megapolitans are defined by empirical evidence of overlapping commuting patterns. The country’s 20 megapolitan regions are already home to about 60% of Americans and account for nearly 70% of our Gross National Product. Nelson and Lang project that this economic dominance will only intensify by 2040.

Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania together constitute one of the 20 megapolitans. Nelson and Lang call it the “Steel Corridor,” a name which evokes the region’s proud past but unfortunately does not point to a promising future. Congressman Tim Ryan and his colleague in Western Pennsylvania, Jason Altmire of Aliquippa, have coined a more future-oriented name, the “Tech Belt.”

The Steel Corridor/Tech Belt is home to 7.1 million people. It is larger that Ohio’s other megapolitan, the “Ohio Valley,” anchored by Columbus and Cincinnati (5.3 million) and is the same scale as the “Carolina Piedmont,” anchored by Charlotte and Raleigh (7.0 million), the “Georgia Piedmont,” surrounding Atlanta (6.9 million), the “Florida Corridor” linking Tampa and Orlando (7.8 million), and the “Greater Metroplex” of Dallas-Ft. Worth and Oklahoma City (7.9 million)

Despite its impressive scale, the Steel Corridor/Tech Belt is projected to remain the nation’s slowest growing megapolitan and the least likely to benefit from the nation’s projected population growth.

These projections give rise to several important questions: How can the region compete for its share of the nation’s growth in population and wealth? How can its communities compete against others in the faster growing megapolitans as places to live, work and invest? What role should city governments and universities play in advancing our understanding of the threats and opportunities that lie ahead?

Many across the region are beginning to ask these questions.  On October 1, 2007, Representatives Ryan and Altmire co-convened the first “Tech Belt Summit,” bringing to Youngstown State University 100 business, educational, and philanthropic leaders to discuss organizing a Tech Belt initiative to leverage the strengths of the entire region.  Ryan urged the participants to think of the Tech Belt not as a collection of aging steel centers but as an “economic unit able to compete with Shanghai and Mumbai.”

This summer the regional dialogue continued when Youngstown State University hosted the first “Cleveland+Pittsburgh+Youngstown Regional Learning Network,” a collaboration of community organizers, public officials, and philanthropies dedicated to making the region’s communities attractive, equitable, and sustainable.

The Learning Network has invited Ryan and Altmire to discuss their Tech Belt initiative at its second summit-a day-long session at the Youngstown Club on November 7,, 2008. I would urge area residents concerned with the future of our region to join the Network and attend this session.

Everyone else should keep an eye on the “Steel Corridor.”  Youngstown’s experience of deindustrialization predicted what would happen around country in the 1970s and 80s; our “Tech Belt” future may well do the same for 2040.

Hunter Morrison

To Race and Class Add Religion

Discussions of race and class often ignore religion, relegating it to the distant margins or explaining it away as a cover for something else.  If we examine American history, as historian Mark Noll does in God and Race in American Politics: A Short History, we see that religion and race have often been interconnected.  Class and religion also intersect; religious people, institutions, and symbolic resources span social classes and have played important roles in working-class movements. In Youngstown, Ohio, religious leaders responded to deindustrialization by organizing social justice projects.  More recently, they have initiated processes of racial reconciliation. If we want to understand how class and race fit together, we must take religion more seriously.  We need to see how race, class, and religion work together.

A number of top-notch scholars have already moved in this direction. For example, the authors of Divided by Faith contend that racial segregation is maintained less by intentional racism than by sins of omission.  People are so absorbed with attaining the good social and spiritual life for their own selves, families, churches, and communities that their “brothers and sisters” on the other side of racial and class boundaries are left to be their own keepers. Religion, which could bring people together across race and class divisions, may in practice reinforce segregation.

Rev. Rob Johnson pastors a church that sits on a dividing boundary of race and class in Youngstown. He sees segregation and its effects daily, including during Sunday morning worship. Below, he invites us to consider visions of heaven, for many a real place and for others a metaphorical one. Anthropologists tell us that views from outside and afar, including visions of heaven, reveal what we cannot see from the perspectives of our own class, race, gender, and so on.  What can our imaginings of heaven reveal about our social places and experiences here on earth? Are our visions of heaven as segregated as our lives?

Rev. Rob Johnson:

While the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week” is still prophetic and true, what is happening now is not what most concerns me.  It’s what is going to happen in the future.  In the Christian Bible, Matthew 25:32 tells us that all nations will stand before Jesus’s throne.  Revelation 7:9 is even more precise: “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” For Christians, our destiny is bound up in eternal Sunday morning with every tribe, every language, every people, every race.

In his song “Thugz Mansion,” rap artist Tupac Shakur asked, “Where do niggaz go when we die?”

“Nobody cares, seen the politicians ban us
They’d rather see us locked in chains, please explain
why they can’t stand us, is there a way for me to change?
Or am I just a victim of things I did to maintain?.
…Just think of all the people that you knew in the past
that passed on, they in heaven, found peace at last
Picture a place that they exist, together
There has to be a place better than this, heaven
So right before I sleep, dear God, what I’m askin’
Remember this face, save me a place, in thug’s mansion

Ain’t no place I’d rather be
Chillin’ with homies and family …
… Chromed out mansion in paradise
In the sky”

For Tupac, being segregated by race and economics in this life has direct implications for eternal life.  Heaven is a good place, a peaceful place, where family and friends live together forever.  As a place of forgiveness and grace, heaven is a place where even thugs can “kick it.” However, Tupac’s “thug’s mansion” is segregated.

Many White Christians may bristle at the idea of heaven being segregated.  A recent CNN.com story regarding interracial churches quoted Theodore Brelsford:”[White church members would] say, ‘Can’t we just get along without talking about race all the time?  Can’t we just be Christians?'”  And yet, the same article observes:  “integrated churches are rare because attending one is like tiptoeing through a racial minefield.  Just like in society, racial tensions in the church can erupt over everything from sharing power to interracial dating.”  In the past, the American Protestant community has been a sad exemplar of a segregated heaven. Most notably, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists have either splintered or divided over race issues at some point in their histories.  If this is the example that Christianity offers, what was Tupac supposed to think about heaven?

Research by Curtiss Paul DeYoung, professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University, shows that “only about 5 percent of the nation’s churches are racially integrated, and half of them are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white.” If this is our example, then what are Christians teaching our children?

Paul Gordiejew, with guest Rev. Rob Johnson

Improving Working-Class Education

Conventional wisdom tells us that these days everyone has to go to college.  It’s become what high school once was:  the basic requirement for employment. That may be an exaggeration, but even if college isn’t absolutely necessary, it does increase earning power.  At its best, it also increases people’s understanding of politics and culture, making them better able to stand up for their own interests.  Good education for working-class people is not just a matter of economics.

But it’s dreams of economic opportunity that drive both the government and parents to encourage more working-class kids to go to college.  Elite schools, such as Harvard, have been offering free tuition to students with lower family incomes, part of an effort to foster economic diversity on their campuses. Colleges around the country are talking about how to improve access and admission rates for students from lower-income families.

But working-class students need more than access, as many of the contributors to Teaching Working Class noted a decade ago.  Whether they attend elite schools or community colleges, working-class students benefit from working with faculty and staff who understand their culture and recognize that being working class bring assets as well as challenges.  The practical, straight-talk attitudes of working-class students can help them thrive in school, and what they lack in traditional cultural capital may be balanced by common sense and awareness of how to get things done.

Class does create challenges for students.  For some, juggling family life, work life, and school simply adds up to too much to do in too little time.  Because working-class culture values family and community connections, working-class students often feel torn between the needs of their families and the demands of school work.  An ailing grandparent, a sister whose babysitter didn’t show up, or a friend who’s going through a difficult divorce – these and other personal crises often take working-class students away from the classroom.

For others, going to college creates internal tensions.  It may come as a surprise to some professional-class people, but many working-class people don’t see us as positive role models.  We’re the problem.  We do useless, non-productive work for which we get paid too much.  We have book learning instead of common sense.  We take ourselves way too seriously.  Imagine what it must feel like to come to college, which is supposed to transform you into a professional-class person, from a culture that views professionals with suspicion. And, of course, college does change you.  Many working-class students report feeling guilty about how much they love going to college as well as feeling lonely because they no longer fit in as comfortably with their families and friends back home.

Add to all of this the self-doubt that comes with seeing yourself as an outsider, worrying that you don’t really have the right or the intelligence to be here, professors and peers who denigrate working-class culture, persistent worries about paying for tuition and books, and college becomes an obstacle course.

A few faculty at elite schools are noticing the working-class students in their courses, and they’re asking questions about what those students bring to the classroom and what they need from their professors.  The latest issue of the Diversity Digest, published by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, focuses on class in higher education.  It includes reports on strategies for teaching about class, how class shapes the higher education system, and why academics should pay more attention to class.

While attending an elite school may provide a working-class student with terrific opportunities, community colleges and state comprehensive universities are the specialists in educating the working class.  A new report on community college education from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching identifies strategies that work, including high structure and significant challenges, as well as assistance in developing learning habits such as the ability to monitor one’s own progress.  Although many community colleges already provide that kind of education, four-year programs also need to consider these issues.  After all, as Inside Higher Ed reported recently, students who start college at a four-year institution are significantly more likely to complete a BA than those who begin at community colleges.  No doubt, educators need to find ways to improve the chances of those who begin at community colleges (which is the goal of Carnegie’s project on “strengthening pre-collegiate education”)), but if we want to provide high-quality education for working-class students, all types of institutions need to pay more attention.

These and other efforts to recognize and support working-class students can help us move beyond access to success.  Yes, we should support programs to increase the number of working-class people who attend college, but we also need parallel efforts to help them thrive.

Sherry Linkon