Category Archives: Issues

Climate Change and Income Inequality

People committed to struggles for peace and justice always have our work cut out for us.  The forces arrayed against us are powerful and determined, and the range of issues and crises demanding action is daunting.  Given our limited time and energy, where and how do we apply them for the common good?  What guides us in deciding?  Life experience and the values we uphold, no doubt, but also our analysis of the present situation.  For me, the two broad concerns that have become most pressing, at least since the economic collapse of 2008, are income inequality and climate change.

These are, of course, twin products of industrial capitalism and its class system.  The rising oceans, killer heat waves, floods, species extinctions, and crop failures we are witnessing on the climate front – like the poverty wages, attacks on labor, bank fraud, malnutrition, and “austerity” in public services on the class front – are inter-related signs of a system in crisis.  Yet the two issues – climate change and income inequality – are rarely linked in a common analysis.

For instance, a recent study by the UK Government Office of Science predicts that, given increasing global population, “by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 percent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change.”  Author John Beddington adds, “This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events,” without specifying what those events might be or how they will be exacerbated by unequal distribution of the necessary resources.

The just-published fifth assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goes a bit further, according to The Guardian’s report:

The volume of scientific literature on the effects of climate change has doubled since the last report, and the findings make an increasingly detailed picture of how climate change – in tandem with existing fault lines such as poverty and inequality – poses a much more direct threat to life and livelihood. (my italics)

One study that does make the link explicit comes from the NSF-funded Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in a report titled “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies.”  When Nafeez Ahmed wrote about this report in his Earth Insight blog for The Guardian, he touched a nerve regarding our “convergent catastrophes,” and generated a storm of commentary.  The study, Ahmed writes, “highlight[s] the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

The HANDY report begins with a review of past collapses of societies – such as the Roman Empire, Han dynasty, and Mayan civilization – to demonstrate that societal collapse is “a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.”  Collapse typically entails loss of political authority, breakdown of economic systems, and inability to sustain the population.   Not all societies collapse, of course, but in those cited the cycle of “boom and bust” seems to take about 300 – 500 years.

Noting “widespread concerns that current trends in population and resource use are unsustainable,” the authors apply their analysis of such collapses to the question “whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible.”  Explanations for particular cases of collapse vary by time and place and include drought, foreign invasion, earthquakes, technological change, famine, and popular uprising.  But across states and cultures that have collapsed over the past 5000 years, the authors find two common features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).”

Using the HANDY theoretical model, the authors analyze interactions between population and natural resources as these tend towards equilibrium or towards collapse, across three scenarios: 1. Egalitarian society without Elites, which can achieve a “soft landing” to equilibrium;2. Equitable society, with Workers and non-Workers (students, retirees, disabled people), which oscillates a bit but can still achieve a negotiated sustainable equilibrium; 3. Unequal society with Elites and Commoners — “most closely reflecting the reality of our world today” – in which,

Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates.  . . .  However, collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

Good luck with that, you might be thinking – but it is the goal!

The HANDY analysis is mathematical and complex, but two significant points emerge clearly.  One is that technological innovation does not reverse the trend towards collapse:  “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”  For example, greater fuel economies for cars can have the “rebound” effect of encouraging people to drive more and faster, in newer cars.  Current “policy effects,” despite occasional “green” tweaking, all tend towards encouraging consumption as a stimulus to economic growth.

The other point addresses the conundrum: do the leaders of the fossil fuel industries, and the politicians who do their legislative bidding, not know that their activities will make the Earth uninhabitable, for themselves as well as the rest of us?  Well, “it is important to note that the Elites – due to their wealth – do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners.  This buffer of wealth allows the Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”   This mechanism, the authors believe, may explain the obliviousness of the elites in the face of the impending Roman and Mayan collapses.  But they got theirs in the end.

Although I’ve been concerned here with scenarios of collapse, I am an optimist, still hopeful that the arc of human history does indeed bend towards justice.  I am also a realist, and I sense that the arc is going to need a mighty shove from those of us who still believe we can shape our history.  The fundamental problem we face, as the HANDY study makes clear, is that a sustainable equilibrium of population and resources is incompatible with business as usual under industrial capitalism.  And the difference in the current cycle of boom and bust is that the society threatened with collapse is not Roman or Mayan or even American, but global.  It’s all of us.

Perhaps I ‘ve gone a long way round to affirm the obvious: that issues of economic and social justice are interrelated with issues of environmental justice and climate change, and that we need to keep making those links visible in our activism.   But I find it helpful to have an analysis that explains the linking mechanism and points a way forward, while laying out very clearly the consequences of inaction.

Nick Coles

Working-Class Voices Silenced

The last couple of weeks have seen the silencing of two important voices on working-class issues in the UK. Within the space of seven days, the deaths were announced of union leader Bob Crow and veteran Labour Party parliamentarian Tony Benn. Neither may be familiar to readers outside of Britain, but in their very different ways they always maintained a working-class perspective in everything they did.

While Tony Benn was born into a liberal dynasty and solidly middle-class family, he gradually moved to the left over the course of his long and eventful career. Benn entered Parliament in 1950.  By 2001, when he famously stood down to “devote more time to politics,” he was the longest serving Labour MP.  Benn had been a cabinet minister during the 1960s and 1970s. becoming increasingly frustrated with his party’s rightward list. He became a totemic figure on the left of British politics, the champion of ordinary people and of democracy. Benn’s legacy will be secured in part by his diaries, which he kept from a very young age and daily from 1964.  These writings chart Benn’s changing political stance as well as his reflections on the rising tide of neo-liberalism outside and inside his own party. He remained actively engaged politically almost until the last.

Benn’s death at the age of 88 was sad but not unexpected, but Crow was only 52 when he died from a massive and sudden heart attack. Bob Crow was the leader of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union (RMT), the main union representing general transport workers, especially those working on the railway and London Underground. Unlike Benn, Crow came from a solidly working-class background. Born into humble conditions in the early 1960s in the east end of London, he joined the Underground at the age of 16 as a junior track worker. His rise through the union was rapid, but Bob never lost touch with his roots and working-class culture.  Nor did he lose his accent, which was delightfully working-class London, or cockney as it is sometimes described. Crow was incredibly successful, recruiting 20,000 new members in the context of near universal decline in other unions.  He was also brilliant at securing improvements in pay and condition that most other organised workers could only dream of. As a result of this success, Bob Crow was hated with a visceral passion by the middle-class establishment in the UK, particularly in London. Former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, himself the victim of sustained character assignation over his political career, noted that he could not think of another group of working-class employees who had seen their conditions improve over the last twenty years apart from Crow’s railway workers.

The explanation for the vilification of Crow – at one stage he was labelled the most hated man in Britain -  lies in the fact that he understood the logic of market forces. He knew instinctively that in a fully or partially privatised work environment his members possessed and could exercise tremendous power if they acted, or event threatened to act, collectively. Bob Crow’s RMT were able to call industrial action on the London Underground that could bring a city of 10 million to a halt with relative ease. Politicians and media commentators condemned Crow and the RMT and often highlighted what they perceived as the ‘scandalously high wages’ that he secured for his members. Op-ed columnists scrambled to remind their readers that train drivers earned $65,000 or more a year. During the last London-wide strikeright of centre columnist Simon Jenkins decried these workers and their status.  I have always wondered if the people of London would be happier if those performing safety critical jobs were on minimum wages with few fringe benefits.  I for one am comforted to know that the driver at the front of my train and the signal worker controlling its passage under the streets of the Capital don’t have to work two jobs just to make a living wage.  Just when did it become acceptable to decry working-class living standards as being too high?

But Bob Crow’s story tells us something else about class, namely the way journalists wrote and spoke about him. His broad working-class London accent was an object of derision, but this always said far more about the elite class background of those making the comments than it did about Crow. With Crow, journalists and politicians were in most cases talking to someone unlike anyone they had ever met before. In one interview several years ago, the journalist Jim Pickard in the weekend ‘Lunch with the FT’ (Financial Times) column, wrote about an interview he did with Crow: “Does he ever hit people, I ask?” This was in the context of a series of descriptions of Crow’s appearance – “pugnacious face, shaved head, thickset build.” Now while I regularly read the FT and that column, I cannot recall a captain of industry being posed such a question. My favourite anecdote about Bob Crow, however, dates from just prior to the second Gulf war when he appeared on the BBC Radio flagship Today Programme. Crow was asked by the thoroughly middle-class presenter James Naughtie to agree to the proposition that the union had called a strike to coincide with the start of hostilities and was by implication being unpatriotic. Innocently Crow asked, “What war?” at which point Naughtie rose to the full height of condescending best and said “Come, come, Mr Crow — the Gulf war obviously.” Crow’s reply over a decade on still makes me smile, without missing a beat he retorted “Oh, I thought you were talking about the class war.” What was beautiful about the exchange was that the attempt to patronise Crow had backfired so badly. Crow’s intelligence, wit and quick thinking left Naughtie floundering, and the journalist knew that he had been had by someone he could not conceive of as his equal.

Bob Crow’s passing was widely mourned in Britain, and for a brief period he was paid some richly deserved complements even by those diametrically opposed to him, though often through gritted teeth. To the last, Bob Crow provided a genuinely working-class perspective in British public life.  While Tony Benn’s passing is obviously sad, it is perhaps Bob Crow who will be missed more for what he achieved, what he stood for, and the lost potential his death robs us of.

Tim Strangleman

Which Side Is Culture On?

Last week I got a call from a reporter at The Guardian asking me to weigh in on the newest anti-union salvo from the Target corporation: a creepy, personal, direct-to-camera attack on unions, delivered by two red polo-shirt wearing Target “team members” (were these actually SAG member actors?) who talked in a chatty and informal way about how unions would destroy the “open door” policies, flexibility, and pleasant working environment already enjoyed by every Target employee. This new Target video has already drawn considerable attention, earning media reports in Salon and Gawker to name a few.

This Target video got me thinking: what is the role of cultural artifacts—art, film, and music—in contributing to attitudes about labor? How do cultural objects impact individual union drives, and how does anti-union propaganda impact wider culture attitudes about labor?

I am a professor of a literature and a cultural historian, so I am inclined to think that culture is powerful, and that anti-union culture has played a role in the decline of union membership we are all suffering from today. At the same time I wonder how much of the decline of unionization is more the result of labor policies and law—especially anti-labor laws passed by state and federal governing bodies because of the powerful lobbying by the wealthiest oligarchs in the land?

We often think that anti-union sentiment peaked in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in full bloom, unions were purging their radicals, and labor/management cooperation was all the rage. But Nelson Lichtenstein assures us that for the last hundred years and more that the union has been portrayed as boss, bully, and thug.

cartoonHere’s a political cartoon from 1914 that implies that AFL demands were violently military and aimed at the very heart of American democracy.

But during the Depression, there was in upsurge in popular cultural support for labor—what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. The 1930s and the 1940s saw an outpouring of pro-labor culture, from the positive depictions of the taxi-cab strike in Waiting for Lefty, to proletarian novels like Christ in Concrete and In Dubious Battle, to the pro-labor film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and, of course, the rise of the pro-labor folk song tradition with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.

What about the rest of the last century? As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the American working class has long been a “silenced majority”—mostly invisible in news reports, mass-market magazines, films and television programs alike. Roseanne Barr, who starred in one of the most popular working class sitcoms in TV history (Rosanne), said that: “Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.” Other scholars agree, such as Pepi Leistyna who shows that working-class people have been much maligned on TV, Ken Margolis who argues that unions are “tarnished” on the silver screen, and William J. Puette, who writes that the media views unions through a jaundiced eye.

While I agree that unions are usually portrayed negatively in popular culture, and especially in film, I think the positive relationship between labor and mass culture has, at times, been ignored or forgotten. Mass culture is profit driven, so we suspect that culture always endorses whatever ideology is best for capitalism. But culture produced for the masses is complicated, because in order to appeal to working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the mass audience, culture must represent some ideas and issues that are important to that audience.

In my current book project (Striking Images: Labor on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s), I argue that there were more positive and realistic representations of unions and workers on film and television in the 1950s than we remember. The new mass medium of television sometimes depicted labor even more positively than postwar film. Teleplays like Marty (1953), A Man is Ten Feet Tall (1955), and Clash by Night (1956) had a more radical edge than their film counterparts (Marty, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Clash by Night, 1952). Even Ralph Kramden, on an episode of The Honeymooners, staged a rent strike.

What about the present? A recent poll shows that 51% of Americans approve of unions. While 51% may not seem like a lot, this number has increased 10 percentage points in the last two years. Have cultural factors, like the Occupy movement, the national living wage campaign, and Robert Reich’s powerful documentary Inequality for All, helped Americans to view labor more sympathetically? Have they won out, despite intensified anti-union campaigns, with films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down,which argue that teacher unions have ruined American public education, the anti-UAW campaign launched in Tennessee, not by Volkswagen but by Southern Republicans, and the continued press by the national “Right to Work” campaign?.

Perhaps culture isn’t on one side or another. Perhaps it is the battlefield itself. The skirmishes are everywhere. Though Republicans helped to tank the union drive at Volkswagen last month, P-Diddy and Danny Glover are helping Nissan workers in Jackson, Mississippi in their current union drive. In 2012, when Scott Walker’s anti-union policies were on the national stage, the Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys refused to allow Wisconsin Republicans to use their song “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” in Republican shows and videos. Recently in Pittsburgh, the rapper Jasiri-X wrote a crowd-energizing song for the Make it Our UMPC campaign called “People Over Profits.”

At the same time, in our creation, enjoyment and promotion of pro-union culture we cannot blind ourselves to the crippling role that labor law plays in the difficulties faced by unions, union organizers, and the tens of thousands of workers who want to join unions but cannot (yet) at Walmart, fast food restaurants, and Target. The worst thing about the Target video is not its slick production values or its horrible, falsehood-laden script, but the fact that it is perfectly legal for Target to force all of its employees to watch it on company time.

Kathy M. Newman

Better Jobs Drive Better Business

Good jobs are hard to find.  Hard jobs – entailing bone-tiring work, low wages, and limited or no advancement opportunities — are all too plentiful.  And in our country that’s been a big and growing problem dating back at least three decades.

HouseholdIncomeSince the early 1980s, job growth — and especially job quality – wilted in the face of intersecting economic, political, and demographic forces.  As usual, the short end of the stick is found in the hands of the working class and lower middle-income households.  Earnings stagnated for these groups as poverty jumped and un- and underemployment took and continues to extract heavy tolls.

These aren’t just statistics for me.  They are also my family story.  My father and two siblings worked for most of their lives in manufacturing.  I made it to college by working a few summers in a local plant.  I took away both a withdrawal card from the Machinists Union and many lessons about work and life.  But my career trajectory changed, and I went to work for a series of state and federal elected officials. This was an “up close and personal” viewpoint on how government – at the state, federal, and local levels – can expand opportunities for good jobs and stronger, more resilient communities.  But lately, I’ve grown pessimistic about the prospects for political or policy changes that might make a real difference.  Gridlock and paralysis spread – perhaps an expected result of a “conservative” governance apparatus.  Politics can be a noble calling and sometimes produces courageous heroes.  But recently, we’ve seen too much ignobility and too little spine.

That’s part of why I left the public sector.  Now I work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, as a program officer in a foundation. Much of my work and that of my colleagues at The Hitachi Foundation focuses on how foundations can use their tools and resources to address challenges and expand opportunities for low wealth individuals, families, and communities.

Most philanthropy targets social, educational, or support services, while others promote policy changes.  A third category aims at organizing or direct action at the worker, community, city, or even national level.  Each has its merits, and the sector makes almost $50 billion in grants annually. But only a fraction of that, about $14 billion, is targeted to the “economically disadvantaged.”  If you divided that into equal shares and only consider the 46 million people living in poverty in the U.S., it would only deliver $303 per person each year.  That’s not much of a supplement.

So philanthropy in general and our foundation in particular must focus our efforts.  The Hitachi Foundation is working on the role that good businesses can play in creating many more good jobs and improving opportunities for lower-wage workers to gain earnings and advance.  Many philanthropists, like many in working-class studies, are skeptical of the business world.  But our experience suggests that business leaders are not monolithic in their viewpoints.  If we provide evidence that “good jobs” can generate growth, profits, and happy customers, many more businesses can be spurred to take action that will benefit lower-wage and frontline workers.

Over the past five years, we’ve amassed compelling evidence that some businesses create social value even as they pursue a profitable and sustainable bottom-line.  Before we did the research, we expected that specific HR and training practices would be the generator behind significant gains in earning and career acceleration for frontline workers.  That was true in part.  But we were surprised to see that workers and employers made the largest gains when companies innovated in the products or services they offered, in the methods for producing or delivering good and services, and in HR practices and training programs.  In retrospect, of course, these strategies are interrelated. With new products or services and/or innovation in methods for producing them, there’s a premium on engaging and retaining workers with skills and experience.  And on top of that, the talent and skills grown by workers who are already in the business are often the best and most valuable fit.  All that can yield a larger overall pie that can be shared with workers.  Mutual Gain Bargaining has a history of pursuing similar ends in the context of a labor agreement.  Whether a plant is organized or not, gains aren’t always shared.  But where they are not, the workers’ incentives are poorly aligned with business goals.  Good workers with skills will be more inclined to look for other options and leave when they find them.

In the Good Companies @ Work program, we’ve collected stories of just under 100 firms that attribute their success to their frontline workers. These companies outperform their peers while providing quality jobs and pathways to the middle-class.  For example, Marlin Steel made a dramatic transition from old technology, a product in declining demand, and outmoded methods to become an innovative leader.  This Baltimore firm made baskets for bagel bakeries and stores.  But demand declined sharply according to the company because the rise of low-carb diets. Marlin quite literally “reinvented” their business and that made it possible to shift from making bagel baskets to supplying Boeing.  Today, Marlin has a more flexible approach to manufacturing a different set of products.  In part, they use some advanced technologies such as robotics and laser cutters.  The company did not make a wholesale change in their workforce.  Their core group of workers was with the company before, during, and now after the transition.  The company and the workers did invest in training, and that expanded their ability to manufacture higher quality products with less time from the initial order through design and manufacturing and on to delivery.  Another innovation at the company directly ties  wages of production floor workers to skills.  The more machines and processes they are capable of operating, the higher their hourly rate.  The firm also has a production bonus system that shares profits with workers, who can earn as much as 40% above their hourly earnings by meeting weekly team goals.

Good companies are more likely to generate good jobs.  But we’re not naïve.  Many – maybe even most – corporate or business directors are driven by short-term profit maximization.  But many are not. They bring their personal values beyond the plant gate or office door.  And those values help interest them in offering opportunities to improve wages and working conditions.  But values and motivation take business owners only so far.  We find good evidence that for many businesses, doing the right thing for and with frontline workers is not just consistent with the imperative for businesses to survive and thrive.  In many cases, it is essential to staying profitable and positioning the company for the future.

We will continue and deepen our efforts to help businesses make that connection in the years ahead.  And we’ll share what we’re learning, because we see communication as key to altering the dominant paradigm that profit margins require companies to put the maximum squeeze on labor costs.

Why focus on business to expand opportunity for low wealth, lower-wage people?  Because we believe that it works.  We’ve seen sustainable, profitable models in action. Equally important, business has more resources to create more and better jobs than either philanthropy or government.

Our goals include supporting and fomenting changes inside the plant gate, or with patient care teams, or in other settings. If we can do so that will create progress that is not dependent on the next grant or election cycle.  Neither the public sector nor the foundation world has a good track record for sustained focus and effort.  Causes rise and fall with the next crisis or new opportunity.  But strategies that yield real benefits to the bottom line and the front line, generating economic gains for companies and workers, have the potential to stick, expand, and spread.

Mark Popovich

Mark Popovich is a senior program officer at The Hitachi Foundation.  Following two decades focused on public policy as a staffer, researcher and advocate, he’s spent the last fourteen years working at the intersection of philanthropy and business.

Graduating College is Highly Overrated

That’s the headline I propose for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to attract public attention to its most recent projection of job growth in the next decade.   Though a tendentious conclusion from the BLS study, such a headline could draw the kind of bipartisan outrage that might lead to a more honest and accurate discussion of the relation between education, jobs, and income in these United States.

The BLS does its study of U.S. occupations every two years, showing the number of jobs in each occupation, its educational requirements, and how much it pays.   Though the specifics change, every two years the study shows that a large majority of jobs now and in the future require no education beyond high school.  And every two years the carefully compiled BLS data is ignored, leaving the field clear for everybody from the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to President Obama to proclaim that “education is the answer” to economic inequality, poverty, and low wages.

“Graduating college is highly overrated” is about as half-true, and therefore false, as “education is the answer.”  But each claim has some evidence to support it.

According to the BLS, in 2012 only 22% of all jobs required a bachelor’s degree or more, and of the more than 50 million job openings the BLS projects by 2022, only 22% will require a bachelor’s or more.  (In fact, if all you have is a bachelor’s degree, there are only 17% of jobs now and 17% of job openings projected by 2022 that require that degree and no more.)  Problem is that about 32% of the population over the age of 25 has a bachelor’s, and among young people ages 25 to 34, it is a bit higher at 34%.  In other words, there are only two jobs for every three persons who have a bachelor’s degree, and the number of people getting bachelor’s degrees is growing faster than the number of jobs that require that degree – or anything close to it.

Indeed, 26% of jobs in 2012 did not even require a high school diploma, and another 40% required only a high school diploma.  And the BLS projects that it will get worse by 2022, when nearly a third of all job openings will require “less than high school.”

There is a more ambiguous category of jobs that require some “postsecondary education,” whether an associate’s degree or some kind of specialized training certificate or simply “some college.”  But they are required for only about 11% of jobs now, and are projected to provide about 12% of job openings going forward.

The table below summarizes how overeducated our population is for the jobs we actually have.

Level of education

% of people over 25 with this level of education

% of jobs that require this level

Less than high school

12

26

High school diploma

30

40

Some college, A.A., or postsecondary

26

11

Bachelor’s or higher

32

22

We have an oversupply of jobs that require high school or less (66%) compared to the 42% of people whose education fits those jobs.  And conversely, we have an oversupply of people with some postsecondary education (58%) for the 33% of jobs that require something like that level of education.

Just looking at what jobs are now and will be available in the U.S. economy, graduating college seems highly overrated – and it might even be that “going to college is for suckers.”  If all you need for most jobs is a high school education, why bother with college?  That’s simple: wages.

A recent Pew Research Center study, The Rising Cost of NOT Going to College, looks at how income correlates with earnings.  As previous studies have found, high school graduates make $7,000 more a year than those who do not graduate.   Those with “some college” make an additional $2,000, and those who get bachelor’s degrees make $13,000 more on top of that.  The gradient could not be clearer: those with bachelor’s degrees have average incomes twice that of those without high school diplomas ($45,000 vs. $23,000).  What’s more, unemployment rates, poverty rates, and other things follow a similar gradient: the more education, the lower the unemployment rate, the lower the poverty rate, and the more likely you are to have full-time employment and employer-paid benefits.  Conversely, though there are and will be plenty of jobs for people who do not graduate from high school and for those whose education ends with a high school diploma, these jobs generally pay miserable wages – almost uniformly less than $30,000 a year, and most much less.

So, “education is the answer” has some evidence to support it, too.   But both statements are half-truths – not much education is required for most American jobs (now and in the future) and more education leads to higher pay and steadier employment.   It is only when you put the two half-truths together that you can see the whole picture.

If you are an individual 18-year-old, your only chance for a decent income is to go to college or to get some other form of postsecondary education.  Statistically, it will give you a 2 to 1 shot at a decent standard of living vs. a thousand to one for high school graduates and a million to one for those who never graduate from high school.   But if all 18-year-olds – or even most of them – play these odds by going to college, it will do nothing to remedy economic inequality, low wages, and poverty.   In fact, it would probably make all these things worse.

The increasing imbalance of supply and demand — more college graduates than jobs that require them — puts downward pressure on the wages of jobs that require higher education and ensures that more college graduates will be forced to take jobs that do not require college.  Pew found that more than one-third of the recent college graduates it surveyed were currently working in jobs that do not require any college.  Likewise, as more college graduates take jobs that require only high school, more high school graduates are forced to take jobs that do not require a high school diploma, and those who did not graduate from high school have great difficulty finding and keeping any job.   It’s a perfect formula for cheapening all labor.  More and more education is required to attain a decent standard of living, but as more and more people gain higher levels of education, they further flood those higher-paying job markets, leading to lower average wages and living standards for everybody.

The Pew study emphasizes the growing gap between the incomes of college graduates and non-graduates, but it also shows that the real wages of recent college graduates have basically stagnated since 1986.  The growing premium paid to people with bachelor’s degrees is almost entirely the result of 13% and 18% declines in real wages for high school graduates and those with “some college.”

Earnings

More formal education may be an answer for individuals – and I do all I can to convince my grandsons of that.   But it is not and cannot be any part of the solution to economic inequality, poverty, and low wages.   The remedy for all three is the same: higher wages, starting at the low end and reaching up to frontline supervisors.  To get higher wages, workers with and without college degrees are going to need the kind of organized, disciplined collective action that we are beginning to see the first glimmers of among fast-food, Walmart, warehouse, and many other workers.

Those of us in higher education can help by developing a curriculum that will be relevant to those one out of three of our graduates who will not be getting jobs that require college educations.   They need courses in the history of American social movements and courses that teach organizing tactics and strategies for workplace, community, and political organizing, complete with “service learning” internships.   Those are the skills that are needed to raise wages and reduce poverty for the vast majority of American workers.  If we taught those skills, then graduating college might be a bit less overrated than it is today.

Jack Metzgar

Advertising Work

I’m always interested in popular images of working-class life, but like most people, I barely see TV commercials anymore, so it took me a while to notice a recent trio of ads that use work as a marketing theme.  Advertisers use images to sell things, of course, and that’s part of what makes these ads so problematic – and so interesting.

The first ad, promoting Cadillac’s electric car, features actor Neal McDonough talking about how people in other countries think Americans are crazy for working so hard.  He begins outside an upscale home, standing hear a very nice pool, asking “Why do we work so hard?  For what? For this? For stuff?” People in other countries “stop by the café” as they “stroll home. They take August off.”  “We,” on the other hand – presumably not only white wealthy folks like the narrator but most of us – are “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believers.”  That’s what made it possible for us to go to the moon, and that’s why “we’re the only ones going back there.”  Americans are better, the ad suggests, because of the American dream: “It’s pretty simple: you work hard, you create your own luck, and you’ve gotta believe anything is possible.”

While Cadillac rehearses the old myth that anyone can succeed, economists are reporting that few Americans actually live that Horatio Alger storyline.  Upward mobility hasn’t declined, a recent paper showed; it’s been low for decades.  But as the ad makes clear, the myth of the self-made man still has resonance, both for those who might think the ad describes them but even more, I fear, for those who desperately want to believe that “anything is possible.”  If anyone can create their own luck, then the only reason anyone might struggle is that they didn’t try hard enough.  To promote this narrative while economic inequality is growing is cynical, arrogant, and mean-spirited.

The Cadillac ad is easy to criticize, since its message is so clearly problematic.  Two other ads offer more positive images of work and workers, which make them at once appealing and appalling.  Chrysler’s latest “Made in Detroit” Super Bowl ad features yet another white male pop culture icon: Bob Dylan.  In this year’s ad, Dylan touts American creativity and pride, and he encourages us to let Germany make beer, Switzerland make watches, and Asia make cell phones. “We will build your car,” he says, leaning down over a barroom pool table.  The ad features images of cowboys, cheerleaders, James Dean, Rosie the Riveter, old-style diners, and the American highway system, as well as images of auto plants and of Detroit today.  Here, the call to creativity isn’t illustrated by technical innovators but by someone getting a tattoo, by graffiti on a stone bridge, and by Dylan, turning a guitar in his hand, a move that is echoed in a clip from an old industrial film, showing a turning piece of machinery.  Like Cadillac, Chrysler is appealing to American arrogance, but with a more working-class approach.

The last ad appeals even more directly to working-class viewers, in part by focusing on  deindustrialization and manufacturing jobs.   It opens with images of an abandoned factory, as TV host Mike Rowe intones in a voice over, “At one time, I made things, and I took pride in the things I made.”  Then, “the gears stopped turning.”  But, the voice continues, “I’m still here” (ironically, this echoes a song by Si Kahn, “We’re Still Here,” written for a 1983 documentary about Youngstown steelworkers’ efforts to buy and run the mills that corporations had recently shut down – a connection the ad’s authors almost certainly didn’t know about).  As the images shift to someone sweeping an empty factory floor and then to laughing groups of workers, the narrator predicts that “we will rise again, and we will build things, and build families, and build dreams.  It’s time to get back to what America does best. Because work is a beautiful thing.”   It’s an appealing message, one that reflects some core values of working-class studies.  We believe in the power of work, we know what was lost in deindustrialization, and we want to see a return of good jobs that they offer a decent paycheck and a chance to feel proud of one’s work.

Then we see the closing title, showing that the ad is for Wal-Mart, promising to invest in new manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  This is just one of several ads Wal-Mart has put out that at least indirectly respond to widespread critiques of its poor treatment of workers.  In others, Wal-Mart workers talk about getting promoted, health insurance, and support for education, leaving out other “benefits,” like advice on signing up for public assistance.  Critics of the Wal-Mart business model and advocates for low-wage workers have viewed these ads with skepticism, but this latest one elicited an even stronger response, probably because Rowe is known for talking about jobs that are dirty, unusual, and traditionally working-class.  He has also formed a foundation to encourage people to pursue skilled trades rather than higher education.  Without talking about class directly, Rowe’s website suggests that working-class jobs can be good jobs, and that’s an important message, especially at a time when so many working-class jobs are so bad.  You can see how some might have expected Rowe to refuse to speak for the company most strongly identified with bad working-class jobs.

In response to the ad, Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a non-profit that aims to make the bad working-class jobs a little better, targeted Rowe in a letter-writing campaign. Thousands of people have written to encourage him to meet with Wal-Mart workers and challenging him to rescind what they see as his endorsement of the company. Rowe has posted a series of responses on his facebook page, accusing JwJ of misunderstanding his role – he insists he’s not a spokesman for Wal-Mart – and criticizing JwJ’s tactics.  If you care so much about workers, he asks at one point, why disrupt my Foundation’s efforts to help young working-class people find good jobs – jobs that are, he points out, significantly better than the ones held by the workers JwJ advocates for? Rowe also challenges JwJ: “But even if Wal-Mart falls short, don’t discount the power of a positive message in the mainstream media. We need more good messages around American manufacturing and hard work. . . . Why not encourage more messages around a topic that can actually help your mission and the people you represent?”

Good question. The message that we need more manufacturing jobs is, indeed, a good one – even though today’s manufacturing jobs don’t offer anything like the pay and benefits of the ones people lost when those factories originally shut down.  And yes, we do need more messages that make clear how good jobs improve people’s lives. We also want those images to be used in ways that really do promote workers’ interests.  The problem with the Wal-Mart ad isn’t the way it represents work and workers.  It’s that it uses those images to promote a company that we know contributes to the problems workers face.

Advertising works in part by creating illusions and by manipulating viewers, so we shouldn’t be surprised that advertisers are responding to economic inequality by capitalizing on the longing many Americans feel for economic hope. They know we’re nostalgic for a time when American made things and when hard work seemed to ensure a better life.  They know that we want to believe what the guy in the Cadillac promises – “anything is possible” if only we work hard enough. And they know what we would like to forget: that ads like this work.

Sherry Linkon

Inequality After Occupy

When the media became aware of the protest centered at Wall Street during the fall of 2011, a predictable line of questioning immediately appeared – whatever in the world are they protesting? “The cause . . . was virtually impossible to decipher,” intoned the New York Times, joining the bulk of the mainstream coverage of the protest in its early weeks, which together professed confusion at the sight of the rag-tag group of occupiers.

Of course, to crib Liza Featherstone, covering the protests for another NY daily, the opposite was closer to the truth: everyone who came near Zuccotti Park knew exactly why the protesters were there.  Given the scale of the economic crisis, Main Street’s bailout of Wall Street, and ongoing oligarchy, the “only surprise [was that it took] so long for the citizenry to take to these particular streets.” The graphic polarization of their chant, “We Are the 99%” made it all the more clear:  it’s the (unequal) economy, stupid.

In the years since the destruction of the occupations, this critique of inequality – one, broad part of what Occupy was all about – has only broadened and deepened in the US.  Occupy should claim credit for getting it on the map, while political iterations old and new have been keeping it there.  Today, the fight against inequality is taking greater institutional shape, and seemingly exerting more leverage, in places inspired by Occupy but moving beyond its initial tactics.

Studying Occupy Wall Street in New York from its inception and through 2012, my colleagues and I traced the “enduring impact” of OWS through various measures, including the ongoing movement participation of core participants and the proliferation of “Occupy after Occupy” efforts – what journalist Nathan Schneider described as a “productively subdivided movement of movements.”

Joining most observers, we noted that Occupy’s impact was most easily traced in the extent to which it had shifted the discourse in the United States.  “Income inequality” was suddenly in the headlines.  We included a graph that showed how frequently the phrase was invoked by the media pre-, during, and post-Occupy.  We found that news mentions of “income inequality” rose dramatically with the outset of Occupy, and in the aftermath remained substantially higher through the end of 2012 (up about a third from pre-Occupy levels).

I ran the numbers again this week, and I have to admit I was surprised by the results.

LexisNexis Academic Database, all news (English), United States

LexisNexis Academic Database, all news (English), United States

As we’d seen before, in the year after Occupy’s peak, the numbers stayed higher – 30-50% of the pre-Occupy discussion.  But beginning in the fall of 2013, the numbers reached Occupy levels again, and this time rising to over 2000 mentions of the phrase “income inequality” in December 2013 – over 50% more than Occupy’s peak.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see this rise. The occupations have gone away, but neither the crisis nor the resistance has disappeared.  Low-wage and precarious workers are at the forefront of the fights today, and they are keeping inequality in the spotlight.  This past fall and winter we’ve seen fast food strikes and the “Fight for $15”; other minimum wage fights around the country; Walmart workers demanding $25,000; university adjuncts organizing and striking.  Workers, unionists and Occupy veterans, through both traditional labor and “alt-labor” organizations are elevating the fights around income inequality and pushing for concrete change.  Tailing these developments, figures from President Obama and the Gap are now simultaneously pushing for (highly inadequate) wage increases.

Media attention to inequality reflects recent electoral shifts as well.  Mayors who ran left were decisively elected in New York, Seattle, and Boston.  (Occupations existed all over the country, but it would be interesting to probe the relationship between those Occupations and new electoral outcomes. Certainly, these three cities were home to sustained and popular occupations in fall 2011.) Labor’s candidates and initiatives did well overall, in the 2013 local election cycle; and in Seattle, Occupy activist and socialist Kshama Sawant was elected to the City Council.  While many of the core Occupy activists eschewed electoral politics, we nevertheless see the outlines of their critique emerge in race after race.

As important as Occupy’s inspiration has been as the carrot encouraging these new movements and electoral shifts, the ongoing crisis that working people are experiencing and the desperate straits that unions and other progressives find themselves in provide the stick. . Labor, in particular, has been working hard to shift course for many years.  Occupy’s eruption was a major shot in the arm, but many of the campaigns we see today have their roots pre-Occupy.

However, the energy and audacity in today’s movements are fueled in part by the experience of Occupy (and the organizers who started the occupations and emerged from them). Direct action and prefigurative practices inform many of the efforts that contribute to today’s groundswell, such as the strikes and walkouts.  But unions are also exploring worker cooperatives, community groups and activists are forestalling foreclosures through occupations, and activists are tying collective student debt refusal to the demand for free higher education.

The Occupy activists we spoke with two years ago continuously echoed each other, saying that the movement needs to “take the long view” and remember that change doesn’t happen overnight.  I haven’t spoken with enough of those activists today to know their assessment of the fights they see and are participating in today.  They are not out there, all day, all week, occupying Wall Street – and it wasn’t enough when they were. The scale of necessary social transformation remains daunting, and questions of both strategy and power loom large. But all day, and all week, more people are talking about inequality and directly fighting against it.  And workplace by workplace, franchise by franchise, ordinance by ordinance, council member by council member, co-op by co-op, the struggle continues.

Penny Lewis

Penny Lewis is an Assistant Professor at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, School of Professional Studies, CUNY.  She is also the author  of Hardhats, Hippies and Hawks, The Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory.

 

Paying Attention to the Precariat

As I wrote in October 2012, the precariat – the growing class of insecure workers whose wages and working conditions do not provide economic stability – ought to be getting more attention in American political discourse. I have urged mainstream journalists covering labor issues to use the term, which is increasingly being used in Europe.  Several reporters have told me that they don’t use precariat because readers would not understand it.  Writers think it’s clearer to refer to this group as the underclass or chronically unemployed. Of course, proletariat is verboten for mainstream journalists.

But last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks broke the pattern. In “The American Precariat,” Brooks tries to explain why Americans, who used to be willing to move in order to improve their economic position, are increasingly likely to stay put, even when that means passing up potential jobs.  According to Brooks, some people are trapped by homes that are underwater and workers have little incentive to move, since labor markets are pretty much the same everywhere, a change from the past, when different regions offered distinct opportunities.

But Brooks also suggests that the major reason Americans are staying in place both geographically and economically is a “lack of self-confidence.” Few workers today are willing to risk “the temporary expense and hardship [of moving] because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward.” Brooks also sees evidence that Americans lack self-confidence in declining fertility rates and in more people staying in the jobs they have rather than voluntarily leaving to look for something better.  He also cites evidence from opinion polls showing that an all time low of only 46 percent of Americans report that they expect their economic condition to improve.  “American exceptionalism,” he writes, “is basically gone.”

All of this leads Brooks to the idea of the precariat, “a concept that has been floating around Europe” for which he cites British scholar Guy Standing. Brooks sees Americans embracing an “uncharacteristic” fatalism, something we’d expect to see in Europe, but not here.

More conservative commentators and think tanks should pay attention to the American precariat. Clearly, the growing number of individuals who lack employment security, job security, income security, skill security, occupational security, and labor market security are threat to conservative benefactors. Among other things, the precariat is long past believing conservative promises, like trickle-down economics or the idea that having five jobs by the time they’re 35 gives young workers flexibility and opportunity.

But like Brooks, most conservatives would rather talk about how individuals lack self-confidence than address the real economic challenges facing many Americans today.  Rather than offering substantive policies, some conservatives suggest that moving vouchers would help poor people pursue opportunities (an approach that would also reduce the kind of the concentration of insecure workers that led to Occupy Wall Street). Their analysis ignores how Wall Street and global corporations have changed work practices and benefit structures, stigmatized the unemployed, and championed the loss of public assistance. Moving vouchers and appeals to self-confidence won’t prevent the precariat’s growing resentment toward the 1% and their apparatchiks.

Like journalists, the academic community has been slow to join the discussion of precarity. A few institutions have hosted Guy Standing as a visiting scholar, and some scholars have organized panels on the topic at disciplinary conferences. But two upcoming conferences suggest growing interest among academics. At Georgetown University, the Lannan Symposium Living in a Precarious World will feature writers, scholars, workers, and activists discussing questions such as “How does the struggle to get by shape our lives, our relationships, and our social institutions? How do we challenge the rise of precarity, and what, if anything, does it offer as the basis for resistance?”  Yale University will host a conference in April on the Conditions of Precarity: Life Work, and Culture, focused on how the humanities can provide “the space to describe current phenomena of precarity, situate what is new in the context of a long tradition of human experience and critically engage with this tradition.”  Both events take an interdisciplinary approach, linking the humanities with political and economic analysis. The Georgetown conference also goes beyond academic talk about precarity.  Its opening panel will include adjunct faculty, low-wage workers, and activists organizing in both the formal and informal economy.

Interdisciplinary analysis of precarity should be expanded beyond elite universities, but academics must do more than talk about precarity.  They should also study and collaborate with community and labor groups like the Excluded Worker Movement that is organizing the precariat, including millions of farmworkers, domestic workers, tipped workers, guest workers, and day laborers. It collaborates with other organizations on campaigns to win immediate improvements in the conditions facing excluded workers; to strengthen and expand the labor movement; and to develop a new framework to transform and expand workers rights to organize in the 21st century. Journalists should be covering these efforts, and academics should be studying them and joining them.

In a world in which we are all increasingly expendable and insecure, we need to join forces. The precariat will not be fooled into blaming themselves for lacking self-confidence. If David Brooks does not believe this, he should notice the empty desks in his newsroom.  Better yet, go talk with the many displaced reporters who cannot find work as journalists and have become part of the precariat.

John Russo

Learning about Labor in London

I have been living in London for a month, as part of my university’s study abroad program.  (It’s a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.)  As it happens, I am a Brit and lived here decades ago between college and grad school, before moving to the US for most of my adult life.  It’s good to be back, as a sort of native foreigner, and with a group of American undergraduates for whom it is all new.  They’ve figured how to cross the road without getting killed, how to bag their own groceries, how to say “cheers” instead of thank you, and they seem to be enjoying the younger drinking age.  But they were floored by the recent strike on the London Underground, which they have learned to call “the tube.”  Commutes to class that normally took forty minutes now took two hours.  Why wasn’t everybody else outraged?

Of the cities I’ve known, London has the most efficient and rider-friendly transportation system (also the most expensive).  Trains and buses are clean, comfortable, and safe, arriving every few minutes, from early morning until late at night.  Electronic signs at stations and bus stops inform you when the next will arrive.   The “Oyster card” makes for easy movement through the turnstiles, and there is usually someone to help if they jam or you’re lugging a large suitcase. Clearly, smart investments have been made by Transport for London (TfL), the “public private partnership” instituted in 2003 under former Labour mayor Ken Livingston, known as “Red Ken.”

The tube carries 3.4 million riders a day, so even without a strike it can get crowded in rush hour, as I discovered recently at Victoria station.  The platform was packed with people from the wall to the tracks, with more filing in through the access tunnels, and another file trying to make for the exits in the opposite direction.  Trains arrived a minute or two apart and the front layer of people would push on board each time.  I was amazed by the orderliness of the scene, maybe a thousand people waiting, taking turns, no-one apparently complaining or freaking out.  So this is in fact possible: the tacit solidarity of strangers for the common good.  In this case, keeping safe and getting home or to dates with who- or whatever.

Although during the strike most Londoners – who are used to these biennial disruptions – seemed to “keep calm and carry on,” the strike did expose fractures in this apparent solidarity.  What looked initially like a political contest over control of public resources, and of the workforce that sustains them, turned out to have roots in class conflict as well.

The simple version of the cause of the February 2014 strike is unionized tube workers’ objection to proposals by TfL to close station ticket offices at a cost of about 950 jobs, for a saving of £50 million a year.   The unions involved – the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – obviously have an interest in protecting their members’ jobs, but there are also issues of safety at stations with only one staff member on duty to help passengers in need or respond to emergencies.  Too, the unions argue that not everyone has access to the smart phones and credit cards — that TfL says will replace ticket and information booths.  RMT claims the cuts will have a “seriously adverse impact on women, older and disabled people and the BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] community.”

The UK tabloid press, which makes no distinction between news and opinion, quickly lost sight of those issues and instead set the story up as a melodramatic power struggle between Good Old Boris Johnson, the mayor, and Bad Old Bob Crow, leader of the RMT.  Elected in 2008 and again in 2012, Johnson is a fully vested member of the old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated set that once again rules this country (Prime Minister David Cameron has the same pedigree).  With his artfully tousled blond mop and clownish wit, Johnson conceals a nimble right-wing opportunism.  Bob Crow is a Cockney Socialist, whose union was “disaffiliated” from Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 2004 in a clash between RMT’s left alliances and New Labour’s pro-business agenda.  According to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, Crow “sees himself as waging class war in his job every day.”

Johnson appears to be much the better PR man.  He has deflected attention from the inconvenient fact that he campaigned against former Mayor Livingston on a platform that included “no ticket office closings” – and won.  Now he says, everyone has iPhones so technology makes the offices redundant.  Johnson has instead made much of that fact that Crow, who earns $145,000 as head of his 70,000 member union, lives in a Council (i.e. publicly subsidized) house.  Crow, of course, would claim that this allows him to stay connected to the working-class community he came up in.  Johnson, meanwhile, makes $250,000 a year for his weekly column in the conservative Daily Telegraph, which he uses to lambast Crow and his union for their attempt “to paralyse the greatest city on earth.”

Crow did score a point when he invited Johnson, on a radio show, to sit down and settle things, which Johnson has repeatedly refused to do.  “He’s met 86 bankers since he’s been mayor. But he won’t meet the trade unions,” Crow pointed out.  Labour MP Emily Thornberry had this to say to Johnson: “How mad is it that you haven’t spoken to [Bob Crow] for five years? He has to call you up on LBC to talk to you. It’s not right.  It’s nonsense why the leader of London is not talking to the leader of the Underground union. It’s just the most ridiculous bit of willy-waving I’ve seen.”  Compounding Johnson’s failure of leadership is the fact that as mayor he is also Chairman of the Board of Transport for London and sets its budget.  These are his proposals that he is refusing to discuss, in pursuit of the Tory’s anti-union agenda.

So the first 48-hour strike went ahead, February 4 – 6, with about 30% of trains running, thanks in part to strikebreakers who were skillfully rebranded as “ambassadors” (to evoke the spirit of the 2012 Olympic Games here, when such volunteers helped visitors find their way around).  A second strike planned for the following week was called off after TfL agreed to halt implementation of the proposed cuts pending consultation with the unions and passenger groups over a range of future issues impacting safety, cost-saving, and job security, including ticket-office closures, “lone working,” and 24-hour service.

For my students, coming from a culture in which unions are often demonized as a greedy special interest, this is a great learning opportunity.  They can study the class conflicts that underlie London’s business-as-usual, which get exposed when it is disrupted.  They can also study the reasons for “industrial action” and glimpse the possibilities for beneficial outcomes: the chance, at least, of cooperation between local government and labor organizations in the interest of a safer, more efficient public transportation system staffed by people whose expertise and right to a decent livelihood is respected.  That, anyway, is what I will try to teach them.

Nick Coles

Benefits Street, or the Road to Poverty

I got wet last Thursday, very wet.  I was standing on a picket line at my university outside the central administration protesting yet another below inflation wage offer. A one per cent pay raise will mean that my colleagues and I have lost between 10 and 15 per cent of the value of our salary through inflation since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Meanwhile the top pay in the university sector has been rising steadily.  My own Vice Chancellor has been awarded a 1.8% raise this year, but that borders on the hair-shirt compared to her peers where double digit increments are not uncommon.

While comparative pay rates in higher education are obviously important to those of us who work in the sector, the question of pay both at the top and bottom of society more generally has come to the fore in the UK over the last few months. What matters about this debate is how it is rolled up in a whole series of other factors central to the contemporary working-class experience – the link between work, welfare, wealth, and poverty.

In their recent report, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlighted the fact that for the first time on record the majority of those in poverty were in working families, not registered as unemployed or retirees. This trend began to increase in 2003, and the increase in poverty within these working families halted the more general progressive trends to reduce poverty over all. As a result there are more people in poverty in working families than in workless and retired families combined, and that undermines government ministers’ claims that work itself is some kind of silver bullet cure-all for the poor. The problem isn’t simply a lack of work; it’s also about low pay. In 2012, there were around 4.6 million low-paid jobs in the UK, and 39 per cent of these workers were under 30. This means roughly one in six workers in the UK economy lives in poverty.

Low wages contribute to poverty, but so does the structure of contemporary employment, and the JRF report highlights the growth of insecure work and underemployment.  In 2012, an estimated 250,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts (where workers are not guaranteed a fixed number of hours).  This figure has varied over the years, with a low of 110,000 people on such contracts in 2004.  Drill down into these figures and we find that the average hours worked has declined from 28 hours per week in 2000 to 21 hours in 2012.  Of course, these are averages, with the actual hours worked oscillating one week to another. In addition, 620,000 people who desired permanent contracts are on temporary ones.  They want and need permanent status rather than ‘choosing’ the flexibly of temporary work as a convenient economic lifestyle. These features of the labour market — low pay, in-work poverty, zero-hours, and temporary contracts — are all working-class issues.  All corrode the elements of settled living that gave some semblance of stability to working-class communities in the past.

Some social scientists in the UK have interpreted these features as evidence of what Guy Standing has labelled the ‘precariat’ (see John’s Russo’s blog about the book here). More recently, UK sociologists Mike Savage and Fiona Devine have developed a widened class schema with a group at the bottom that they also call the ‘precariat.’ In both instances, what unites this new group of disparate people is their common experience of various forms of labor market instability. Their existence has a powerful disciplinary role on others in more secure work. Knowledge that firms might outsource roles to contractors, or off-shore it altogether, leads individual workers and their collective representatives to temper demands for higher wages and better conditions of service.

These findings start to puncture some big holes in the popular political and press accounts of the causes and consequences of the recession. Worklessness (people without work regardless of whether or not they are officially unemployed and drawing benefits) is not the great cause of poverty politicians would have us believe, and intergenerational worklessness – where two or more generations of family members are out of work – is a more marginal issue still. When asked about welfare, most survey respondents think that benefit fraud is a massive problem accounting for large chunks of the welfare bill.  In fact, it represents less than 1% of the total. Surveys also show that most people believe that unemployment benefit makes up the largest share of the benefits budget, when in fact pensions are the greatest cost. The real problem is with the real level of wages and how employment is structured.

Unfortunately, the political and press rhetoric around welfare in the UK is if anything ramping up, with a pernicious demonization of those on benefits. The UK based Channel 4, for example, has come in for a great deal of criticism for its TV documentary Benefits Street, which is based on what the producers describe as one of the most welfare dependant addresses in the UK. They have been attacked by residents of the street, including one couple who had been extensively filmed and who alleged that their in-work status meant they didn’t fit the dependence narrative of the series and were subsequently left out of the program. Listening to a recent BBC radio piece reflecting on Benefits Street, I was struck by the different ways of talking about the people there. While politicians and journalists used the phrases ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘benefit dependent,’ the residents themselves used the term ‘poverty’ to describe conditions in their area.

This rhetorical distinction perhaps holds the key for a more informed and progressive debate about the lives of working people, one where we shift the vernacular from ‘welfare queens’ and ‘benefits cheats’ on to the terrain of poverty. Reading Jack Metzgar’spiece a couple of weeks ago about SNAP recipients in the US, I am struck by the similarity in debates about the ‘deserving’ and especially the ‘undeserving’ poor. On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians’ reluctance to talk about poverty, its causes and amelioration, creates a vacuum that more reactionary commentators are happy to fill. As the lead character in the HBO show The Newsroom laments, in the past, “We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.” Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, we need to shift the vernacular more than ever.  There’s an idea worth getting wet for!

Tim Strangleman