Monthly Archives: January 2011

Movin’ on Down: CMT addresses the Working Class

Country Music Television (CMT) aired a new sitcom last Friday, January 28th, to voluminous pre-media coverage—most of it positive.  It is called, surprisingly, Working Class, and it stars blonde amazon Melissa Peterman as Carli Mitchell, a twice-divorced mom with three children whose slacker (yet metrosexual) brother lives with her as well.  She works at an upscale grocery store (a lá Whole Foods) with the incomparable Ed Asner –  a long-time real-life Socialist and everyone’s favorite crusty boss from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Peterman had her last starring role was the “other woman” on the Reba McEntire’s single-mom sitcom Reba.  She is definitely the best thing about the show. She has something almost Sarah-Palin-like in her way with words:  she can deliver withering sarcasm with an apple-pie smile, and she can be, at once, blustery, confident, mildly desperate, and disarmingly appealing.

Carli works at the deli counter of a grocery store, so she probably earns about $10.00 an hour, which cashes out to about $21,000 year.  Can she really support three kids and her younger brother in the suburbs of Chicago on $21,000 a year?  Especially if her ex-husbands are as deadbeat as she suggests?  $22,050 is the federal poverty threshold for a family of four.  Perhaps this show should have been called Working Poor?

Of course, we don’t look for realism from our sitcoms, but we do hope for funny.  There is a lot of economically driven humor in the first three episodes.  In the opening scene, for example, Carli surreptitiously waters down a gallon of milk while leading her children in a bowed head “gratefulness visualization” exercise.  When her son catches her he complains, “Hey, I’m a growing boy.”  She retorts, “Well, stop, we can’t afford it.”

The most relevant series of economic jokes take place in the second episode, when Carli’s oldest son has to make an emergency trip to the dentist.  At first she tries to talk him out of his pain: “My insurance doesn’t kick in at the store for another month.  Is it really that bad?”  Her son replies:  “It hurts to blink.”  She then tries to pay for the fillings with a check that she post dates for 2012.  The deadpan African American dental assistant/office manager says:  “I can’t accept this.  Even though you wrote ‘please’ in the memo line.”  Carli begs:  “Do you have some kind of payment plan?”  “Yes.  The dentist performs the service.  You pay.  That’s the plan.”

The least funny jokes are those about sex and sexuality, like when Hank Greziak (Asner) leers at Carli while she towers over him, or  when the dentist who makes unbearable puns tries to exchange his dental services for sex with Carli.  These jokes suggest that Carli’s best chances at social mobility will probably come from how she uses her sexuality.  In the first two episodes she turns down a marriage proposal from a financially stable high school chum as well as a less permanent arrangement offered by the goofy dentist.  In the third episode her dead-beat ex-husband shows up loaded with gifts that he was able to buy with the bank account of his new bride:  an oil magnate played by Reba McEntire.  They even buy Carli a new bed.  The suggestion is clear:  in order to move up Carli is probably going to have to spend some time on her back.

Does the show have any genuine working class roots?  The show’s creator, Jill Cargerman, argues that she created the show from the wellspring of class resentment that she harbored while growing up in a Chicago suburb.  “‘My mother moved us to [Chicago's] northern suburbs,’ she says.  ‘Very much as Carli does in the show, to give us the advantages of the schools and the community and the community support that we hadn’t — that she hadn’t had growing up….It seemed like everyone else had more than we did, and only now do I realize that I was probably a little bit of a brat and that my mom was kind of a hero.”

At its worst, Working Class is a Reagan-era “couch and kitchen” sitcom.  One preview quipped,  “It’s kinda like ‘Roseanne,’ only more Republican.” And if that ragged couch in Carli’s living room looks familiar it may be because the pilot for the show was filmed using cast-offs of from Hollywood’s dumpsters.  As New York Times reporter Joe Rhoades explains, “In an even more radical cost-cutting move [CMT Senior Vice President] Mr. Johnson did not order full pilots for the CMT sitcom scripts — all domestic comedies — he was considering, including ‘Working Class.’ After reading 350 scripts and deciding on the 4 he liked best, he ordered second scripts of each show and then, instead of pilots, shot what amounted to 15-minute screen tests with prospective casts, using leftover sets from failed pilots that other networks were about to throw out — interchangeable living rooms and kitchens — where actors from all four shows could shoot their scenes.”  The show does feel a bit scrapped together. Only the quality of the show’s stars (especially Peterman and Asner) allow it to rise above the predictable treacle of the genre.

While most critics writing before the debut of Working Class last Friday found the show to be funny and timely, others, like TV critic Matt Roush, were decidedly negative:  “Playing off the nostalgic vibe that worked for TV Land’s silly sleeper hit Hot in Cleveland, but working with a much emptier hand, Working Class is intended mainly for exhausted working stiffs willing to kick back on a Friday night with something that already feels like a rerun. They have my sympathy.”

CMT does have “working stiffs” in its sights.  As CMT Senior Vice President Ben Johnson explained, CMT’s audience consists of mostly “C and D counties,” or, in advertising speak, rural areas with population concentrations of 40,000 or less.  Johnson also called the CMT audience “working class” and “blue collar.”

Why is this interesting?  If there is one place where the myth of a “classless” America is completely busted it is in the demographic mapping departments of Madison Avenue.  When it comes to advertising and marketing the language about class is blunt; class divides are honestly discussed and minutely tracked.  Of course, no one ever advertises to a working class demographic with the hope of making those viewers more class conscious, but isn’t it bizarre that if we want a frank picture of how much Americans make per year, what they buy, what kind of mobility they might have and how they see themselves—that Madison Avenue and Hollywood can provide us with some of our most reliable data sets?

I close with a plea to Working Class to use more of Ed Asner.  When he gets to be biting and sarcastic (as opposed to lecherous and gnome-like) he is a joy to watch.  He is an interesting choice for the show since he is certainly not beloved by the Tea Party wing of the CMT audience.  Numerous right wing websites have attacked Asner for his outspokenness on Socialism and other progressive issues.

But if Working Class takes off, it may be because it can appeal to a broad spectrum of people who work for a living and who, like me, are stunned by how much food our kids can plow through in a week, who ask our dentists for payment plans (like I did last week), and who struggle to make ends meet on far more than $22,000 a year.  The question of our current era may not be can we preserve the middle class, but can we prevent the working class from becoming the working poor?  And, as we know, there is nothing funny about that.

Kathy M. Newman

The Digital Divide Goes to College

At Youngstown State last week, we held a one-day institute on teaching with technology.  Faculty and staff spent the day talking about innovative ways of using technology to facilitate our students’ learning, and a keynote speaker, Gardner Campbell, challenged us to think creatively about how technology is changing education.  Among other things, he suggested that tools like digital storytelling and blogs can engage students in more active critical thinking and communicating and help extend their learning far beyond the classroom.  While participants expressed enthusiasm and curiosity about how they might expand their uses of technology, a side conversation kept popping up – a conversation about the whether we can fully use new media technologies when we teach so many poor and working-class students, for whom the digital divide remains a real challenge.

In my own divided professional life, with one foot in working-class studies and another in scholarship of teaching and learning, I have often felt frustrated listening to my colleagues touting ever more technologically-grounded pedagogies.  Predictably, many of those who most avidly develop and promote innovative uses of new media work at elite institutions where they have access to the latest equipment and software as well as support for innovative, technology-centered pedagogy.  They’ve heard me complain perhaps too often that I can’t do what they do, because I don’t have enough technical support, and I sometimes can’t even get my classes into computer labs.  Working-class institutions simply can’t afford to provide the quality and quantity of technology available at wealthier schools.

But, of course, the digital divide in higher education isn’t just about faculty access.  Access is an even greater challenge for poor and working-class students.  2009 data from the U.S. Census shows that the lower the household income and the lower the level of education in a family – two key measures of social class — the less likely people are to use the internet.  African-Americans and Hispanics also use the internet less than whites or Asians.  Given those patterns, it’s not surprising that working-class students, especially students of color, often do not have internet access at home.  Those who do are more likely to use dial-up services or to work on older, slower computers.

Colleges and universities try to address this problem by providing open labs and wireless internet access in college buildings.  But even with reasonably good technology available on campus, many of our students struggle to complete online assignments, access readings and other course materials online, or do projects using new media.  Why?

The obvious answer is time.  At YSU and many other urban working-class institutions, most of our students live off-campus, sometimes as much as an hour away, and most work, often 40 hours a week or more.  They come to campus for classes, and they have difficulty finding time to stay or to come back to access computers.  Often, the time they have to do schoolwork is the middle of the night, when campus labs are closed.

But even when they can find time to work on campus computers, these students come into the lab with limited experience, so doing internet-based assignments is harder.  They may not be familiar with the software or have enough experience to confidently figure it out on their own.  At YSU, the Writing Center is trying to address that aspect of the technology gap by offering workshops on the basics of word processing as well as how to use a flash drive and e-mail.  But for many, catching up digitally is a slow and daunting process.

Yet, as educational researcher Joanna Goode has argued, the problem goes beyond computer access and skills.  She suggests that by the time they reach college, students have developed a “technological identity,” a set of ideas and expectations about their own relationship with technology.  Students who have had limited access to technology before college may well come into the classroom, and even more important into the computer lab, worried about their own lack of knowledge and unsure about whether they can ever catch up.  Goode argues that such students need training and support, not just better technical access.

Even as some of our students struggle to work well with emerging technologies, others come with years of experience, expertise, and digital flexibility.  In a chapter in Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors, Linda B. Nielson identifies some of the characteristics of the “millennial generation.” It’s just one of many articles from the last decade telling us that today’s college students think differently and have different expectations of college, in part because they are – supposedly – so immersed in new media technology.  For faculty at working-class institutions, especially, that creates an even greater challenge: while some of our students are struggling with technology, others are much more tech-savvy than we are, and they want us to use technology more fully and more creatively. Finding the balance between the two sides of the digital divide – two sides that are growing further apart – remains a challenge, one with which we must wrestle even as we develop new ways of teaching with technology.

How are we to bridge this gap?  We begin, of course, with awareness.  Those of us who teach poor and working-class students must be mindful of the challenges some of our students will face in using technology.  And we must be prepared to offer alternatives.  That might mean accepting a hand-written journal in lieu of online discussion postings from a few students or providing hard copies of online resources.  It might also mean being a bit lenient on deadlines.  Our institutions could go beyond providing access to hardware and software on campus.  Some internet providers offer discounted internet access through educational institutions, and schools could rent equipment.

But as Goode suggests, we must also be prepared to teach not just the content but also the tools, including technology.  That can happen on the institutional level, through workshops to help students develop their computer skills, but some of the work will fall on the shoulders of individual faculty. If we want to use technology in the classroom, and if we know that some of our students are not fully prepared, then it’s in our interest as well as that of our students to help them.

Technology provides opportunities for more active, inquiry-based learning, and many faculty are excited by the possibilities.  We see how new media can expand our students’ learning opportunities, engage them in significant questions, connect them with authentic audiences, and help them develop skills for both professional and personal life.  If we want to embrace those possibilities, we must accept responsibility not only for preparing ourselves but also for preparing our students.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Will Ohio Democrats Sell Out Workers Again?

The State of Ohio provides several forms of public assistance, including Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance through the Ohio Works First Program.  Medicaid is the largest line item in the Ohio budget. Through these direct supports to low-wage workers, the state also indirectly subsidizes employers.  They can get away with paying low wages or not providing health insurance because they know that workers can turn to the state. Some even help their workers sign up for state assistance.  The biggest recipient of this form of corporate welfare in Ohio is Wal-Mart. According to the Ohio Depart of Jobs and Family Services, 15,000 Ohio employees receive Medicaid and 12,000 receive food bank assistance. In 2009, this amounted to an estimated $67 million subsidy.  That makes Wal-Mart the biggest “welfare queen” in Ohio.

Over the last four years, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland administratively required the Department of Jobs and Family Services to report on how much the State was subsidizing various corporations. The Republicans who now control the Ohio House, Senate, and statewide offices, including Governor, won’t continue that practice.

Knowing that this would happen, State Representative Bob Hagan (D-Youngstown) attempted to codify the practice by introducing legislation that would have required companies with 50 or more employees to report how many receive public assistance.  During the lame duck session in December 2010, the legislation made it out of the House State Government Committee and to the House floor.  With Republicans controlling the Ohio Senate, it had little chance of passing, but its journey through the House is a reflection of the disconnect between Ohio Democrats and their core constituencies.

The bill barely got enough votes in Hagan’s Comittee, and even though Committee support reflected party affiliations, when it reached the Democratic caucus,  three Representatives refused to support it because they feared offending the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Ohio Manufacturing Association. Democratic party operatives reported that one Democrat Representative, Josh O’Farrell, who had just lost a reelection race, said that he wanted the Chamber of Commerce support should he run for election in the future.  The Chamber had taken no position in his race in the 2010 election.  Another Democrat, Representative John Carney, spoke against it in the Democrat Caucus and walked off the floor just prior to vote – a move referred to as “going to the duck pond.”  Democrat Representative Stephen Slesnick said the bill was anti-business and refused to vote for it.  That Ohio Democrats sold out on a bill that merely required that the public be informed of indirect state subsidies to corporations, a bill they knew had no chance of passing, did not surprise many in the Democratic base.

Given the debacle of health care reform, inaction on the Employee Free Choice Act, and the Wall Street bailout, it is easy to understand why Democratic voters simply did not show up in the November election in Ohio and elsewhere.  With confidence in Democrats at such a low point, many agree with Paul Krugman and Robin Wells who have suggested in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, it is only a matter of time until that the Democrats will ultimately sell out on social security.  Many Ohio public sector workers now feel the same way, as the attack on the public sector grows.

The base has little hope that they can count on Democrats to fight against the mounting attack on public employees.  Around the country, Republicans are going after public sector pensions and bargaining laws, taking aim at workers who often earn less than their private sector counterparts, heaping scorn on hard-working men and women who fight fires, care for the elderly, and teach our children.   If they don’t stand up for these workers, Democrats will be walking away from their base. According to the Economic Policy Institute, public sector workers are more likely to be female and black than are workers in the private sector, and they are also more likely to belong to unions.

Even as they seek to cut public sector jobs and benefits to those workers who will remain, Republicans tout their job creation initiatives, many of which amount to corporate welfare.  It’s easier to blame public sector workers – women and people of color, after all — for draining state budgets than take responsibility for the results of tax breaks to corporations and tax cuts to state residents.

We need our Democratic representatives to fight for Ohio’s workers.  But facing worries over their own re-elections and the endless challenge of raising money to fund campaigns, Ohio Democrats find themselves confused and disoriented.  Those who do speak out feel as if they’re in an echo chamber in Columbus, talking to themselves. Without leadership and/or a coherent plan, they are doomed to irrelevance.  And did I mention the looming battle over redistricting, a process that will shape the state’s political future for the next decade?

What should the Ohio Democrats do?  First, when the Republicans propose cuts to primary, secondary, and higher education, the Democrats need to formulate ballot initiatives and use the referendum process to roll them back. If Republicans attempt to undermine state bargaining laws or prevailing wage rules, or if they try to enact “right to work” laws, Democrats should take the issues directly to the voters.  No matter what the Republicans do, Democrats must fight back – not for the sake of fighting but to defend Ohio’s workers and their families.

This strategy has several advantages.  First, ballot issues have the ability to inspire and motivate constituent groups, especially the Democrat base who could become even more dispirited as Democrats lose vote after vote in the legislature.  They provide a way to get the message out, to mobilize and engage community and labor groups.  By going to the voters, Democrats can step outside the Columbus echo chamber. People will listen to the debates that accompany ballot initiatives and the referendum process.

Furthermore, Democrats will be able to raise money and organize around ballot issues. If they can propose the right issues and demonstrate their willingness and ability to fight for them, progressive funders will respond, because they want to prove that the voters aren’t “working-class idiots” who want to dismantle the government.

Best of all, going directly to voters does more than demonstrate commitment or inspire support.  They can work.  Just look at the coalition that came together to enact the minimum wage amendment in Ohio last year.  The odds don’t look good, but if they are willing to fight, Ohio’s Democrats have a chance to regain the support of workers.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Working Labor Back into the News

In her last post, CWCS affiliate Denise Narcisse looked at the Pew Center’s latest research on the digital divide in America and noted the ways in which digital deprivation for poorer and working-class families amounts to a form of social and economic disenfranchisement.

To be sure, one of the most serious implications of the digital divide is the barriers to information lower income and working-class citizens need to fully participate in the political and social spheres of their communities and of the nation. But, even if working-class and poor Americans were to gain regular access to digital news and information sources, I wonder what kind of news and information they would find. For as traditional commercial news organizations migrate to the web, too many are replicating the structures and agendas that have elided the experiences and interests of the poor and working classes for most of the 20th and 21st centuries.

It is certainly not news to note that commercial mainstream news media abandoned the working class quite some time ago.  The reasons for this desertion are numerous and widely cited: advertisers increasingly want to appeal to more affluent readers, reporters and editors no longer come from working-class backgrounds, and corporate media ownership encourages an ethic of business.

These factors, combined with the steady downsizing in newsrooms that began long before the crisis of competition with online news, resulted in the replacement of substantive issues stories in mainstream commercial media (the sources relied upon by most working-class people according to Nielsen) with cheap-to-produce stories about celebrities and scandals. For example, The Pew Research Center found that in 2007, the deadliest year for U.S. troops in Iraq, that Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith received more extensive coverage than the war, noting that, “During the two days immediately following Smith’s death, nearly a quarter of the news from all sectors (24%) was devoted to this story. Public interest did not match the amount of coverage, and 61% of Americans said the story was being over-covered.”

One result of this is that Americans who rely solely on commercial media for political knowledge and hard news are being denied critical information and analyses of the national and international events that may ultimately affect their daily lives.

In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols cite a recent study by a group of communications researchers that finds Americans with a high school education or less who rely on commercial media for news, score just above the 20th percentile in political knowledge of international and right at the 40th percentile for domestic hard news, compared to the next lowest group, British news consumers, who score just above 50 percent and 60 percent respectively. For McChesney and Nichols, the data suggest that American “commercial media systems tend to marginalize the poor and working class,” endangering the very purpose of a free press system.

Furthering the disenfranchisement of the working class is the skewing of coverage of workers issues, part of the mainstream media pursuit of an affluent consumer base designed to appeal to advertisers.

McChesney and Nichols cite Christopher Martin’s benchmark analysis, Upscale News Audiences and the Transformation of Labour News, which documents the emergence of news coverage targeted at an “upscale” readership, in which he charts the shift in labor coverage in the U.S. and Canada evidenced by content analyses of coverage of transportation strikes in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Toronto Star. Martin chronicles the movement in news accounts of the strikes from accounts of legitimate disputes between workers and management to tales of inconveniences suffered by the majority of consumers using transportation services. For Martin, this reconfiguration of news is related to the increasing consolidation of media and its adoption of the practices and ethic of big business, and this adoption is apparent in the narrative frames, and even in the language, in which the strikes are presented, notably in the commonplace phrasing that management makes “offers” while unions make “demands” or, as Mc Chesney and Nichols observe, “Poor and working-class people are, for all intents and purposes, only newsworthy to the extent that they get in the way of rich people” (51).

And, while the burgeoning economy of online news sites and blogs has led to increased awareness of working-class lives and struggles (as evidenced by this site) these issues often remain relegated to specialized sites and targeted user searches. Many mainstream sites still foreground the business beat at the expense of the labor beat and the former rarely represents the interests of the latter in a way different from what Martin describes. And too often, when working-class people are featured in mainstream accounts, they serve as anecdotes or catchy narrative leads to pave a colorful path to the “experts,” the real sources for the story.

There are of course, exceptions. Some excellent examples of stories that chronicle the lives and issues of working class Americans have emerged in the major dailies, particularly since the start of the Great Recession. Anne Hull of the Washington Post has written about the struggles of working class Americans with precision and detail, and Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times reports on the complexities of labor, economics and politics in a way that connects policies with people.

Yet, with the opportunities of the internet and the demand for news organizations to reinvent themselves comes the opportunity for the profession to further rediscover its working-class roots and mission– if news producers can see both a means and a benefit for undoing the damage, for as John Nerone notes in a 2009 article for Journalism:

The past half-century of neglect leaves a lot to overcome: the media have worked hard to encourage ordinary people to think of themselves as consumers rather than as workers, and to regard any overt appeal to the working class as not just biased but old, dreary, and boring.

Nerone believes, however, that there exists potential for news organizations to reconnect to their working-class readers, and that because traditional filters and gatekeepers are falling away in the new media economy, that such a reconnection is not only possible but beneficial, because in today’s economy, more and more people self-identify as workers. Indeed, with the most recent Labor Department data showing that 80 percent of the economy is tied to the service sector, Nerone may be on to something.

If news outlets continue to try to rely on advertising for revenue, which Nerone believes is probable, but McChesney and Nichols do not, then in theory, news sites can rely on advertisers who now recognize the importance of reaching the working-class, an appealing proposition, particularly for local news outlets, which many agree might be best positioned to carve out a niche in the online economy. In fact, People magazine has recently begun developing stories about working class people, telling CWCS co-director John Russo, that they understand that most of their readers are working class women.

Endorsing this rather optimistic view, Robert Niles of OJR: The Online Journalism Review lists the five most important beats for a local newspaper/newssite, and included in this list is the Labor Beat:

We eat. We learn. We work. But how many publications cover work, from the worker’s perspective? Business stories typically focus on the management side. But what about the pocketbook and workplace politics issues that employees face? Where’s the coverage of that? This is the home for your consumer reporting, including household finance and budgeting, but also for local development issues covered from an employee’s point of view. Are development incentives helping create jobs and pay for workers, or just fatting management’s pockets for projects that would have happened anyway?

For both Niles and Nerone, the resurgence of the labor/work beats would, at a local level, help to refranchise working class news consumers. And, if these stories were done in a way that explains the relationship between state, national, and international policies and the everyday lives of the working citizens, news sites could do much to return to the mission of journalism and to remedy the deficits in democratic participation.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Expanding Inequality

In a series of articles in Slate this fall, Timothy Noah traced the growth of income inequality in America and identified several contributing factors: the decline of organized labor, the poor quality of K-12 education, and various government policies among others.  He reviewed the arguments of economists and policy analysts, and he considered – and rejected — claims that economic inequality doesn’t matter.  As British scholars Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue, economic inequality is bad for all of society, not just those who are struggling to survive on the bottom.  Nicholas D. Kristof summarized their argument in his column in yesterday’s New York Times:  “inequality undermines social trust and community life, corroding societies as a whole.”

Inequality matters, in other words, and not only on moral grounds.  The productive functioning of our society, for everyone, rich and poor, depends on reducing the level of economic inequality.  But given recent trends in employment, education, and public policy, the income gap won’t decrease anytime soon.  In fact, it’s likely to get worse.  Here’s why.

First, as Jack Metzgar and I have both noted here in previous blogs, the working-class jobs of the present and future are, increasingly, low-wage service-sector jobs.  Moreover, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’re going to see more and more of those kinds of jobs.  Combine the growth of such jobs with the decline of the labor movement – the social institution that has, historically, contributed most to higher wages and better benefits for all workers, not just union members – and it’s easy to see how these emerging employment patterns will contribute to more inequality, not less.  Simply put, workers will earn less and have limited social or legal resources with which to advocate for better wages and benefits, much less better working conditions or fair treatment in the workplace.

As a society, we don’t seem worried about this emerging trend.  Perhaps we accept low wages because we believe that they make goods and services more affordable, or because we buy the claim that paying higher wages would cripple businesses.  We forget, though, that these advantages, to both consumers and employers, come at a cost in taxes. A California study found that Walmart workers cost the state $86 million a year in public assistance.   But the Ohio Legislature recently defeated a bill that would identify companies whose employees rely on public assistance, and supporters were accused of being anti-business.

We may also accept low wages because we believe that those who work in low-paying jobs deserve what they get. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity, and we believe that anyone who tries hard enough should be able to get a good job.  After all, if you had been smart or hard-working enough, you’d have gone to college, which would give you access to a better-paying job, right?

While it’s true that getting a college degree correlates with higher lifetime earnings, and earning a degree does help individuals get ahead, economic inequality is a systemic problem, one that can’t be solved by increasing higher education alone. If most of the job growth over the next few decades is in low-wage jobs that don’t require higher education, then education won’t reduce economic inequality.

Education can even contribute to inequality.  The poor quality of K-12 education available to most poor and working-class students helps perpetuate inequality in this country. Too many schools simply don’t do a good enough job preparing these students for either employment or further education, much less to participate well in civic society or advocate for their interests.

Many working-class people who do seek college degrees or further training encounter two key problems: they get sucked into for-profit schools that leave them in debt, often without yielding good employment, or they enter the public higher education system, which is battling budget cuts and overcrowding.

For many working-class and poor students, the best educational option is community college, which offers training for the workplace at an affordable cost and helps prepare students to go on to four-year degrees.  If these schools could accommodate all of those students, they might improve their economic chances – though, again, that wouldn’t solve the underlying problem of too many jobs that pay too little. But community colleges across the country are facing budget cuts and having to turn away motivated students.

Which brings us to the next reason why economic inequality will grow over the next decades: government policies that provide less support for the poor and working class, including cuts to higher education.  According to a recent report in the Washington Post, community colleges in California alone have had to turn away 140,000 students because of budget cuts.  Even when space is available, cuts in state funding often yield tuition increases, making higher education less affordable for those who need it most.

Of course, this reflects economic trends: state budgets are in trouble.  That’s partially due to the struggling economy, and they’re losing federal support as the stimulus ends.  But they are also taking in less revenue because of tax cuts.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 46 states have cut taxes in recent years.  Taxpayers have pushed for lower taxes, and politicians tout them as a way of stimulating the economy by making states more “business friendly,” garnering votes along the way.  Never mind that it doesn’t work, according to economists Iris J. Lav and Robert Tannenwald.  It’s also a sleight of hand trick: we may pay less taxes as workers and citizens, but we make up the difference in what we pay for college tuition, as well fees on various state services (such as drivers’ licenses and car registrations).

And as Noah points out, income inequality has grown more during Republican administrations than during Democratic ones.  Why?  Because conservative policies favor the wealthy.   Noah notes, for example, that the real tax rate for the wealthiest Americans declined from 42.9% under Carter to just 4.3% under George W. Bush.  Republicans claim that putting more wealth at the disposal of business owners will generate more jobs and income increases for the rest of us, but in fact, most people’s incomes increase more slowly when Republicans run things than when Democrats are in charge.  Not surprisingly, the only people whose incomes increase at a faster rate under Republicans are those in the top 20% of income brackets.

Which suggests a final reason why we should expect more inequality in coming years:  the Republicans regained power in the November election – not full control, but enough to push through continuing tax cuts for the wealthy.  In several states, newly-elected Republican governors have pledged to “go after” public employees, hoping to reduce costs by laying off thousands of workers and cutting the wages and benefits of many others.  I doubt that most of those who voted for Republican candidates in November did so because they wanted to see economic inequality increase, but that seems to be where we’re headed.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies