Category Archives: Understanding Class

The Lunch Bucket Award

One of my grandsons won the Lunch Bucket Award on his high school football team a couple weeks ago.   And his father’s reaction to it and mine surprised me, especially for what it showed about class differences across generations.

The Lunch Bucket Award is given each week to the player who made the greatest contribution during practice in the week leading up to the Friday night game.   My grandson is a third-string running back on a state-ranked top 20 team, and he seldom gets into the game unless his team is way ahead – and sometimes, not even then.    He was proud to get the award and, as required, to carry a somewhat rusty lunch bucket to all his classes for the week after the game.   His father, my son, was dismissive of it, calling it “the tackling dummy award” and suggesting that it should have been humiliating to lug an old-time lunch bucket around for a week – signaling to all his classmates that he was not first-team.

My grandson is an exuberant, talkative, sort-of-flashy 16-year-old who both teachers and coaches have designated as “very coachable.”   He’s not that interested in academics, and school has never come easy to him, but he works hard and brings home good grades and is diligently prepping for his ACT test so he can “get into a really good college.”   As an athlete he has some natural ability, and he’s a really good wrestler, but his main assets even there are self-discipline, the ability to learn and improve, and his willingness to work hard so he can do a good job.

His job as a practice-squad running back is to learn the offensive scheme of each week’s opponent, and then run it as good as he can to prepare the first-team defense for what they will face Friday night.   It is potentially a highly confusing intellectual assignment, learning a new set of plays each week, followed by running hard and being tackled by the hardest hitting players at his school.   It seems like highly honorable work to me, where the “dummy” part of “tackling dummy” is clearly not appropriate.   But even more honorable is the grit it takes to do it at all, let alone to do it well “when nobody is watching” (except, of course, his teammates and coaches, who gave him an award for it).

Sports iconography is, of course, full of working-class imagery about “blue-collar” players who “simply show up for work and do a good job,” and who get little or no recognition for what they do – unless, of course, they do it badly.   The old-time barn-shaped lunch bucket is a particularly powerful symbol of this steady, reliable, just doing-your-part work ethic — especially when your part is dirty, distasteful, or dangerous, or maybe just monotonous in a way that middle-class people sometimes call “mind-numbing” or “soul-deadening.”  Most work that needs to be done in our society is like this.  Even though what is often called “unskilled work” almost always requires a wide variety of skills to actually do a good job, these jobs also require a daily kind of self-sacrifice that is hard, very hard, to do day in and day out – and that is actively disrespected in our mainstream culture with its celebration of the best and the brightest, the entrepreneurs and the innovators.  Sports is just about the only place in America that ever recognizes and celebrates the value of those who “simply show up every day and do a good job” at the kind of work upon which everything else, including all of us, depends.

My wife and I were raised in families that carried those kinds of lunch buckets to those kinds of jobs, and though once upon a time we did, too, for a while, we’re both glad we never had to find out whether we could have summoned the everyday courage, the true grit it takes to do it for a lifetime.

We were well on our way to becoming thoroughly middle class by the time our son was our grandson’s age, but even as well-educated grown-ups we didn’t know how to properly raise middle-class children —  in what sociologist Annette Lareau calls “concerted cultivation.”  Our son knows that and, while he’s very forgiving of us, he’s bound and determined to raise his children in that way – to make sure they have the education and skills they’ll need to avoid lunch-bucket jobs and to cultivate that never-settle-for-second-best achievement-orientation that so many middle-class people think is essential to living a good life.  He has a middle-class job at which he earns a very good living, but just as our fathers did, he hates both the work itself and the kind of work he does.   He wants better than that for his kids, and for him the Lunch Bucket Award somehow seemed to challenge that aspiration.

Our grandson needs no help from us in pushing back against his father.  When asked if he was demoralized at not getting much playing time, he said, “No, I’m a big part of this team.  On the practice squad I help the first team get better – and that puts me out there on the field even when I’m not actually out there.”   I got a little too emotional in trying to congratulate him for his Lunch Bucket Award by referencing my grandfather (his great-great grandfather) who, as he knows from family legend, walked out of a steel mill in 1916 “on his own” right after losing both arms in a rolling mill.  I said something like, “That’s an award for character, buddy, and that will be with you long after you can’t juke and jive anymore.”  He said, “Huh?”   Followed by a polite, though possibly comprehending, “Thanks, Pap.”

I understand that sky-high, you-can-do-anything aspirations — even when palpably illusory – can spur young people onward and upward in healthy ways.   I also understand why parents often fear low expectations for their kids.  But finding out what are realistic aspirations and expectations for ourselves and our children is a tricky business, and it will not help to believe that “you can never aim too high.”   Most of us are going to need some lunch-bucket mentality for some or all of our lives.  We’ll need the steady will to do what we have to do to earn a living and to have the personal integrity to do a good job even when we don’t feel like it and nobody is watching.  I loved my job as a teacher, but even on my best days at work I brought that mentality with me just in case I needed it — and because I couldn’t shake it if I wanted to.    My son is a maniac helicopter parent who hates his job, but he does it conscientiously and well more than five days a week.   His son undoubtedly has noticed that.

Sometimes, for both good and ill, parents teach their children less with what they say than with what they do.  For parents, somebody is always watching.  Congratulations, Max, for finally getting our family a Lunch Bucket Award.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

From Syria to Salford: How We See the Working Class

On the BBC a couple for weekends ago, I heard an expert on the Middle East describing how the civil war in Syria was worsening by the day. He said something like “Some of the opposition are not nice middle class liberals you know.” The clear implication was that working-class rebels were the really bad ones, the ‘other,’ that ‘we’ had to fear.

I thought about that quite depressing vision of the working class the next day, when I visited a fantastic and soon to close exhibition at London’s Tate Britain art gallery of the work of twentieth century artist L.S. Lowry (1887-1976).  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been an unexpected blockbuster with rave reviews. Importantly, most of those reviews have made specific reference to the working-class focus of both this curation and Lowry’s work more generally. Walking through the six large rooms of this powerful retrospective, an observer can’t ignore class, nor the places where the English working class lived and toiled. Lowry was a painter of industry and labor, and the notes to the exhibition quote his explanation of his work:  “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I got it.”

Lowry painted ordinary life on the streets of his native Lancashire, including Salford in the North West of England where a fantastic gallery bears his name and highlights his work. Ordinary life for Lowry had industry as its backdrop – factories and mills that his trademark matchstick men and women tumble into or out of as their shifts changed. Even his paintings of working-class leisure, depicting football matches and street entertainment, are dominated by the prospect of work and the smoke-belching chimneys that defined northern England at that time. Lowry does not shy away from the grimness of working-class life.  His painting reflects street brawls, house repossessions and those crippled by industrial accident and disease, as this video shows.

Where the exhibition is especially powerful in its juxtaposition of Lowry’s art with a series of quotes from commentators, some directly addressing the artist’s craft and others offering more general insights into the working-class world he painted. These included poignant extracts from books like Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy as well as quotes from a John Berger essay. I was reminded just how good the prose in many books about working-class life in the middle years of the twentieth century was. The writing was thoughtful and reflective but pointed. But above all, it was attentive to the working-class experience, a lived experience rooted often in poverty or the fear of it. Consider, for example, this quote from Hoggart’s book, embossed on the wall of the gallery, reflecting simple points about the use of working-class language:  “Today if I hear someone using words like ‘sorrow’ and ‘misery’ freely, they usually sound slightly archaic. To my grandmother they were regular words, together with ‘care’ and ‘hardship.’ When she spoke of someone ‘taking the bread from her mouth’ she was not being dramatic or merely figurative.”

These excerpts give the exhibit visitor pause, as they were designed to do, of course. Lowry’s art and the contemporary writing from and about the working class contextualize each other.  Each art form mirrors the other’s subject matter, the one leveraging understanding of the other. As a working sociologist, I was brought up short by both the paintings and the writing. In just these four writers – and there were others – we see a focus on working-class subjects from Orwell in the 1930s, Hoggart in the 1950s, Berger in the 1960s, and finally Robert’s writing from the 1970s. A four decades span in which working-class life and prospects improved immeasurably even as more popular attention was paid to the lived experience of class and the vision of further improvement. These were writers whose books sold widely in paperback or whose essays were read and helped to form a shared understanding of class matters and a common sense of citizenship. It was perhaps no accident that British sociology and cultural studies expanded in these decades following the Second World War and, early on at least, class was central to its calling.

The exhibition begged many questions about our own age. Lowry’s canvasses recorded a bleak world that few if any would long to return to. If Lowry represented the poverty of working-class life and the heavy price industry demanded of the people and places where it was based in its heyday, then these same paintings in turn raise questions about these inner cities in Northern England now. But above all the exhibition for me prompted consideration of the presence of the working class in popular art and writing now. Lowry’s art has always been popular.  What must have been a cheap reproduction hung in a corridor of my primary school, for instance. But his art also often graced the covers of books about the working class in the decades after the Second World War when serious attention was being paid to them by the likes of Berger and Hoggart. For sure, the working class was often presented as an object of fascination; as ‘different’ from the middle class who researched or wrote about them.  There was, though, a care in that attention and an expression of humanity and recognition in the encounter between classes.

So while there has always been a distance between classes, at times in our history this gap has been narrowed. The geographic distance between Syria and Salford is a long one, but perhaps the void in class understanding may be greater still.

Tim Strangleman

Of Bankers, Pundits, and Hillbillies

Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong

Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

                     –Bruce Springsteen

What does Rolling Stone’s bad-boy investigative reporter Matt Taibbi have in common with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly?

That might sound like the lead-in to an off-color joke, but I’m serious. Despite their different forums and ostensibly different political orientations, both men reflexively invoke images of poor people—desperately poor people from Appalachia in particular—as cautionary tales, supposedly vivid representatives of what is wrong with our country. For good measure, both toss in “war on drugs” rhetoric to seal the scary deal that “hillbillies”—Taibbi’s word, not mine—are not only economically bankrupt but morally bankrupt as well.

Poverty in Appalachia has been harrowing for well over a century. Moreover, that poverty was planned. At the end of the Civil War, both black and white Appalachians were trapped in the subsistence practice of sharecropping, a struggle to wrest the barest of livings from someone else’s land that shared much with the economic system of slavery. The speedy industrialization and subsequent regional over-production that followed—most famously coal mining, but also timber, textiles, and chemical production—not only bequeathed the exploitation and unsafe working conditions depicted in John Sayles’s movie Matewan, but also had a lasting and deeply detrimental effect on the region’s economic health. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Appalachia hard by the 1920s, when Southern politicians managed to prevent domestic and agricultural workers from qualifying for Social Security benefits so as to keep them from moving even incrementally closer to economic independence. In the 1960s, when the Johnson administration pushed Appalachian poverty into the national line of vision, one in three Appalachians lived in poverty. More recently, mountaintop removal mining has had a devastating effect on the region. 2008 census figures showed that Appalachia was home to 13.3 million people living in poverty. In some areas, as many as 16.8% of homes are classified as substandard, which means that the house has more people than it has rooms and lacks indoor plumbing. Rates of poverty among children in Appalachia range from 17% in some counties to 56.4% in others. 13.6 million Appalachians have no health insurance (which renders the “hillbilly teeth” sold on Halloween considerably less funny). Last month hundreds of miners gathered in St. Louis to protest both the economic and mining practices that contribute to poverty in Appalachia (stealing retirees’ pensions and stripmining) on the part of Arch Coal, the second largest coal company in the U.S.

When O’Reilly, in a 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer, discussed these economic realities, he disparaged Appalachians as ignorant drunks willfully keeping themselves stuck in a “culture of poverty,” calling the region’s children “hopeless” because of their parents’ innate lack of ambition. As might be expected, the interview generated a great deal of furious response, both from people within the region personally hurt by this application of stereotype and from others outside who were repulsed by this latest articulation of Fox News’s contempt for the poor. With all this in mind, it’s both galling and bewildering that Matt Taibbi, groping in an otherwise instructive piece about the chicanery involved in the bailout of Wall Streets moneyed interests for an analogy to communicate how seemingly ad hoc crisis measures have been institutionalized, writes, “We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.”

At best, Taibbi is being lazy here, reaching for a slur that is near to hand to squeeze shock value out of a hateful stereotype: Appalachians are poor because they deserve to be. At worst, he is rearticulating the Reagan’s disgusting image of the “welfare queen” who takes and takes but is unwilling to contribute to society. In doing so, Taibbi knocks at the door of a ringing defense of 21st century capitalism, wherein the poorest people endanger a healthy economy, and the better-off are at risk of contagion from them. It’s particularly frightening in the context of American history to put forth, as Taibbi does, an image hinging on how dangerous it is when the wrong people get into your neighborhood.

Taibbi’s starkly punishing “war on drugs” language deploys this vocabulary of invasion to identify a group of people who supposedly cook meth because they’re rotten at their core (and sleep nine to a bed because they’re tacky). This demonization of addicts is all too familiar to me. Having watched heroin ravage the neighborhood I grew up in—at least four dead, including my brother, on my old block alone—I am accustomed to encountering language that blames people who just don’t want to better themselves and get off drugs, darn it. Sometimes the language is coded, but sometimes it’s not: the meth Taibbi invokes is frequently referred to as “hillbilly crack.”

The concrete relationship between meth and the rural economic wastelands of the United States is depicted in a moving way in the 2010 movie Winter’s Bone, in which even the landscape is empty and bleak. There’s no work to be had, so people cook meth. They are resigned to the fact that sometimes they will die doing it. “When it’s either the mine or the Kentucky National Guard,” sing Old Crow Medicine Show in their 2008 song “Methamphetamine,” “I’d rather sell him a line than be dying in the coal yard.”

But the most important word in Taibbi’s cruel put-down might be one of the shortest and most common: “we.” In my teaching life, I often wish for a rubber stamp to print certain comments I find myself writing over and over. “Who is this ‘we’ you’re writing about?” is one stamp I’d order up to simplify my job. Obviously, Taibbi’s “we” is not simply “Americans,” because some people are being pointedly excluded. “Decent” Americans? Suburban Americans? Educated Americans? The mental exercise of filling in that blank—who is “we” to Taibbi and O’Reilly, and who are the outside invaders trashing up their well-manicured front yards—is painful.

It’s a shame, really, because Taibbi has shown the potential to make Rolling Stone halfway relevant again. If he could learn to set aside his class bias, a lot of what he writes is insightful and deep. “Taibbi’s too smart and wickedly funny to opt for the hillbilly default button,” historian Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia, among other books, told me. “When it comes to banking machinations, he should turn off ‘Buckwild’ and take a cue from Anne Royall, the hillbilly muckraker–the original American muckraker that carved out Taibbi’s literary niche nearly two centuries ago–who single-handedly took on the corruption of the Bank of the United States.”

Ultimately, I mourn the way Taibbi has surrendered the rhetorical battle. The wonderful radical Appalachian poet Don West pointed out more than half a century ago the great American sleight-of-hand to which Taibbi contributes: somehow convincing a broad swath of Americans that it is the poor who are to blame, not those who have made millions after bloody millions from institutionalized racism, from environmentally reckless industrial policies, from mass incarceration and the drug laws that facilitate it. Taibbi owes Appalachians an apology, to be sure. And his readers need to refuse to be part of Taibbi’s “we,” and instead join the community on the lawn—they’re not cooking meth, they’re Occupying.

Rachel Rubin

Rachel Rubin is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Immigration and American Popular Culture (with Jeffrey Melnick).

The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon

The Trouble with Work: Rethinking “Working Class”

Last month, I blogged about the challenges of teaching an analysis of the US class structure that recognizes our sizeable working-class majority and critiques the myth of the broad inclusive “middle class.”    I closed by questioning what’s at stake for us in posing this analysis and how effective it can be in the present moment for teaching and political organizing.   A number of you responded, including a forceful reminder that Karl Marx had some important things to say about classes.   A point well taken, since Marxism still provides, I believe, the most comprehensive account of how class operates in society, including culture, politics, and economics.

By leaving Marx out, I sidestepped his analysis of how class antagonism arises within the relations of production under capitalism, based on the exploitation of workers’ labor power.  I also avoided the complicated question of the status of middle classes in a Marxist account — a topic addressed, as another respondent reminded us, by sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who has written about the “contradictory location” of the middle classes, who share properties of both capitalists and workers.   Another commentator, Richard Butsch, described a college sociology course in which the concept of “ownership of the means of production” is used to explain relative class positions and life chances.    This approach would make clear that even workers whose income provides a middle-class “lifestyle” are working-class in relation to the means of production, which is owned by capitalists.

This is the case made by many of us in Working-Class Studies for the importance of deploying an accurate class vocabulary.  In “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” Jack Metzgar wrote that the “task of working-class studies should be . . . to constantly probe what users [of the vernacular] mean when they say ‘middle class,’ and to use ‘working class’ consistently and rigorously to refer to all those purported members of the middle class who are not middle-class professionals.” Metzgar argues that this confusion over who is middle class matters because it negatively affects working-class interests in politics and public policy. I would add that the American class vernacular tells us little about how classes are formed and maintained within capitalism, much less about why class relations need to be radically transformed.   For that, we need the concept of the working class.

Using the term “working class” has important benefits, but I also want to pose some difficulties arising in its stress on “working.”

A prime benefit of the term is its recognition of the position of the working class as both a creation of capitalism and a source of resistance to it.  The key idea it contains is that this is the class that actually does the work, producing the goods and services society needs.  In Marxist terms, the working class sells the labor power from which the owners of the means of production extract the surplus value that becomes capital.  The workplace is then the primary location of the exploitation of human labor and of the subordination of the worker to the will of the capitalist.  Consequently, as Michael Denning puts it, “The workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society.”

By the same token, it has also been the site of resistance through the collective refusal to work or the demand to alter working conditions.  Always, at work, whether we know it or not, we are engaged in a political situation, a struggle over power and freedom.  We are better able to explain this systemic class conflict, the argument goes, when we recognize the position of the working class within capitalism.

But are there also difficulties in our use of  “working class,” apart from its lack of currency in the popular vernacular?  “Working people” are after all not the only people who work: members of the professional middle class work pretty hard, as, I imagine, do some hedge fund managers.  Some of my students draw the ready conclusion that all who work are by definition working class, and conversely, that those who don’t are not.  Stressing the “working” status of this majority class can obscure the fact of joblessness and the distress it causes, as a recurring hazard of being working-class.   Furthermore, because unemployment often leads to poverty, unemployed workers become aligned with “the poor,” who in the American class vernacular constitute a separate non-productive class at the bottom of society. As Metzgar puts it, “The poor are in fact part of the working class, and poverty, near-poverty, and the fear of poverty are an endemic part of working-class life.”

Beyond this problem, there is a deeper difficulty with the concept of working class as it affects our capacity to imagine alternatives to the current regime of capitalist production, with its attendant unemployment and precariousness.   By naming work as the primary source of identity and value, we adopt the work ethic that legitimizes that regime, and we reinforce the subordinate position of the working class within it.   Working is what workers do; when they are not doing it they are deficient in their identities and in their social contribution.  Our personal worth is thus massively over-identified with the work we perform.  Conversely, the focus on the work we do delegitimizes the many other activities (cultural, social, familial, sexual, political) through which we create value, pleasure and freedom, for ourselves and others – all of which require time away from work.

Kathi Weeks develops this critique of the “work society” in The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011).   Weeks asks, “Why do we work so long and so hard?”  –  particularly when most jobs are boring and repetitive, unfairly remunerated, and coercively bossed.   In addressing this question, she looks not only to the exploitive relations of production Marx analyzed, but also to the Protestant work ethic and its contemporary incarnations.  She shows how deeply the work ethic is embedded in our social thinking and how it serves the interests of capital by promoting our allegiance to work as “a basic obligation of citizenship.” She also demonstrates also how a “laborist” version of the work ethic has been adopted by the working class, to the extent that socialism came to represent “a vision of the work society perfected rather than transformed.”  In envisioning alternatives to the regime of the wage labor society, therefore, Weeks finds it “difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.”   Similarly, “it seems unlikely that socialism can serve as a persuasive signifier of a postcapitalist alternative.”

In place of class struggle, Weeks proposes a struggle over the politics of work itself, which would encompass the goals of both freedom in work and freedom from work.  Since, as Marx wrote, “waged work without other options is a system of ‘forced labor,’” the solution to current economic problems would not then be full employment, on either a capitalist or state-socialist model, but in Weeks’s terms, “an alternative to a life centered on work.”   Resources for such “antiwork politics” and “postwork imaginaries” can be found, she suggests, in the theories and projects of European autonomous Marxists and their “refusal of work,” and of 1970s American feminism with its critique of the gendered labor of social reproduction – which, although unwaged, is essential to capitalist production.

Weeks is also interested in rehabilitating the practical usefulness of utopian thinking. She discusses proposals that offer alternatives to a life dominated by work, such as the 30-hour work week and the provision of a guaranteed basic income to all.  These proposals are utopian in that they envision a profound transformation of the work society in the direction of greater equality and freedom.  But they are not therefore impractical.  I don’t have space to recite the times and places in which these projects have been proposed and tested – a Google search took me well beyond Weeks’s examples.  But clearly there is not now – if indeed there ever was – an authentic need for all capable adults to engage in long hours of alienating labor.  Advances in technology and productivity suggest that basic needs could be met if all those who wish to work worked far fewer hours and if the products of their labor were more equitably distributed.    But then, what would the working class (and the middle class for that matter) do if they weren’t working (or looking for work) all the time?  Imagine the possibilities!

Nick Coles

Stereotyping the White Working Class

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs here, here, and here, Democratic politicians led by President Obama have consistently claimed that they are resolutely for a catch-all “middle class,” even as Democratic political strategists, operatives, and pundits publicly worry about losing too many votes among a “white working class” that has no place in the politicians’ messaging.

They worry because, within a simplified racial + class breakdown of the electorate, the white working class (typically defined as white folks without bachelor’s degrees) is both the largest group of voters (about 2 of 5 in 2008) and the one that votes the most lopsidedly Republican.

Democrats typically win people of color by huge margins (about 80/20, or by 60 percentage points in 2008), while losing the much larger group of whites by smaller margins (about 12 points in 2008).  Among white voters, Dems have recently been coming close to breaking even among whites with bachelor’s degrees (Obama lost by only 4 points in 2008 among this “white middle class”), while continuing to lose the “white working class” by much larger margins (18 points in 2008).  If the President does too much worse than that among working-class whites (say, getting only 35% of their votes vs. 40% in 2008), Mitt Romney will be our president.

This three-part breakdown of the American electorate is much too simple, of course, and it is disheartening for those of us who dream of (and have worked for) the kind of working-class solidarity that could change basic economic and political power relations in this country.  But simplified conceptual schemas are inevitable and necessary in organizing the overwhelming complexity of social reality, and this crude combo of race and class is better than the schemas that preceded it, which grossly overestimated the size and suburban character of the “educated middle class.”  It at least recognizes that there is a working class and that not all whites are middle class or affluent.  It is also practically wise for Democrats to be concerned about winning a larger slice of this part of the electorate.

But there’s the rub.  Democrats cannot do better among working-class whites if they envision them as a uniform group that thinks and feels the same way everywhere, as the political pros quite often do.  That is, an overwhelmingly middle-class and upper-class set of politicians, operatives, and pundits appear to have so little direct experience of working-class people of any color that they consistently fall into stereotyping that clouds their vision and often insults the voters they are trying to persuade. At a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, President Obama articulated the stereotype with unusual clarity (and nuance if you listen to the whole speech) when he expressed some empathy for those who “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment.”

There are white workers who cling to their guns or religion or their racism and nativism – I could give you some names and addresses!  But there are many others who do not.  It seems as if sophisticated, very well-educated people whose vocation involves electoral politics should recognize that within a demographic category including nearly 50 million voters, not everybody thinks and feels the same way.   Start with the 40% nationally who vote pretty consistently Democratic in presidential elections.  Why do they do that?  How are they different from those who vote consistently Republican or the group that goes back and forth?

These are the questions Andrew Levison recently addressed in an article posted on the Democratic Strategist blog, “The White Working Class is a Decisive Voting Group in 2012 – and Most of What You Read About Their Political Attitudes Will Be Completely Wrong.”  Using the 2011 Pew Political Typology survey that asked voters to choose between “liberal/progressive” and “conservative” policy statements, Levison found that about 26% of white working-class voters were “progressive true believers” and 27.5% were “conservative true believers.”  The largest group, at about 46%, however, is what Levison calls “ambivalent/open-minded.”  These may be congenital “moderates” or “low-information voters,” but Levison focuses on something he has directly observed among white workers – a willingness to acknowledge truth in both of two contradictory positions.  These are people, he says, “who do think quite seriously about issues, but do so in a fundamentally different way than do ideologically committed people.”  He calls them “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers (emphasis added).

The answers in the Pew survey are interesting and insightful in themselves, but Levison’s willingness to wade into the complexity of white working-class political thinking and to come out with a clarifying (if necessarily simplifying) analysis is especially rewarding.  There is rarely a clear majority of those who “strongly agree” with either of the two statements presented by Pew, but there are some.  For example, 53% strongly agree that “Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and healthcare,” while another 53% strongly agree that “Business corporations make too much profit” and 70% that “Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.”  Levison finds that the largest group of working-class whites are “cultural traditionalists,” but that “The genuinely consistent white working class conservatives – the Fox News/Talk Radio” hard-line ideologues – represent only about one fourth of the white working class total.”

Stereotyping is always based on taking a part to be a whole.  It is often said that there is “an element of truth in stereotypes.”  There is not.  Rather there is a subgroup within the stereotyped group that fulfills the stereotype.  It may be large, even a majority, or it may be small, but it is always a mistake to think that any part is the same as the whole.  Once committed to a stereotype, observers tend to see only those parts that confirm the stereotype and to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit the expectation. That’s why Levison’s analysis is so valuable.  It confirms that a large part of the white working class fulfills the “culturally conservative/economically populist” stereotype popular among political pundits, while never losing sight of the part that is progressive both culturally and economically and the part that is consistently conservative on both fronts.

The one thing I would add to Levison’s analysis: these different political types are not equally distributed across the country, as any national survey and reasoning about it tend to suggest.  The size and character of the white working-class vote varies greatly from state to state.

Nobody cares, for example, that whites without bachelor’s degrees gave John McCain 6- and 10-point majorities in California and New York in 2008 – first, because they are a relatively small group in those states (27% and 29% respectively vs. 39% nationally), and second, because these states are safely Democratic based on strong majorities among large groups of voters of color and whites with bachelor’s degrees.   Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the part of Virginia where many national media workers live are similar.  My guess is that the national media tends to mistake these parts for the whole.  They don’t mistake Alabama’s average-sized white working class, which gave Obama only 9% of its vote in 2008, for the whole.  But they do tend to project their parts of the country onto many other parts where it does not fit.

Most importantly, in the Midwest battleground states – Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin – whites without bachelor’s degrees were the majority of voters in 2008.  Democrats cannot win in those states with Alabama-type margins going to the GOP, and they will struggle with California/New York-type margins (as they did in Missouri and Ohio in 2008, losing the first and winning the second by narrow margins).  Fortunately, working-class whites in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin not only do not fulfill the racial + class stereotype, in 2008 they reversed it.  In all three states, President Obama won majorities among this group, as he did in 11 other states, including important “leaners” like Oregon and Washington.

I’m hoping Levison’s analysis, placed as it is in an important source of independent Democratic strategizing, may pull Democratic politicians and operatives away from their stereotypes of working-class whites.  Levison urges Dems to focus on the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers and to make their case fully and frankly, and I would add, in some detail.  This rather than bobbing and weaving so as not to offend a “typical conservative white worker” who is but part (though admittedly often a loud part) of a much larger and more complicated whole.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies



A Class on Class

I recently graded 32 final projects from my course on working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  The assignment had invited students to use whatever forms of writing or other media would allow them to express what they had been learning in the course and how it applied to their lives.  These projects were (mostly) a pleasure to read, but they also offered insights into the perplexing question of what my students think about “class” and how that may or may not resemble what I think I have been teaching about it.

For instance, family history projects often included stories of hard work and sacrifice paying off for future generations, leading to claims about core working-class values.   “The Struggle from Pain to Pride” was one title, “Working Class Has Class” another.  Some of the workplace narratives, on the other hand, demonstrated powerlessness and exploitation on the job: “Accident at the Mill” and “Late Shift,” for example.  Some of the cultural analysis essays treated class as a matter of “lifestyle,” unrelated to work and readily changeable by choice or circumstance.   In one or two papers, students described class as a system that in fact works: societies need hierarchies and class ranking provides the incentive for upward mobility.

In many projects, there was quite a bit of slippage in students’ use of the concepts “working class” and “middle class.”  This is hardly surprising given that 24 of the 32 students identify as middle class, according to a survey I gave early in the term, on which their choices were poor, middle class, rich, working class, or other.  The 8 who did not check “middle class” nuanced their responses as follows: 4 as “working middle class,” 2 as “poor working class,” and one each for “upper middle” and “99%.”  No-one checked “rich.”

The class terminology I have deployed in my courses draws on Michael Zweig’s analysis in The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, the second edition of which was published in January 2012.   Looking at occupations and the economic, political, and cultural power, or powerlessness, of the people who perform them, Zweig identifies three major classes: a US working-class majority of around 63%; a middle class of professionals, managers, and small business owners making up about 35%; and a capitalist class of 2%.  In Zweig’s updated analysis, the working class now includes a large number of nurses and teachers, whose labor has been substantially deskilled through corporate management practices.

Of course, class is much more than a position within a structure of inequality.  It is also an experience lived out within a specific set of relationships, as E.P. Thompson explained in his introduction to The Making of the English Working Class:

[Class is] an historical phenomenon. . . something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.  And class happens when some [people], as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other [people] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which [people] are born — or enter involuntarily.

The linked ideas that class relations are necessarily antagonistic — based on opposing interests and feelings — and that people are implicated in class experience “involuntarily” are often resisted by my students.  And their sense of being largely middle class may have a lot to do with this resistance.

For even in a course on “working-class literature,” they are likely to share the belief we find everywhere else in the culture: that if there was a working class it is now largely “history,” having been replaced by a vast middle class, with a small sector of the rich above and the poor below.  This is serious distortion of the actuality Zweig describes.  But, as Jack Metzgar has pointed out in his important article “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” the myth of the broad middle class has massive appeal and impressive staying power. As he explains, “The egalitarian ethos inherent in this notion of middleness has been seen as peculiarly ‘American’ and essential to democracy by political sociologists from Alexis de Tocqueville to Alan Wolfe.”

It appears again, for instance, in Time magazine’s July 2, 2012 issue, which features a lead article by Jon Meacham on “The History of the American Dream.”  In it Meacham recycles the claim that 90% of Americans self-identify as middle class.   This claim is likely based — Time does not cite its sources — on a finding published in the mid-1990s by democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.  According to Metzgar, the notion of a 90% middle class was thoroughly debunked by S.M Miller in his 1995 article “Class Dismissed,” in which he pointed out that surveys do not usually offer “working class” as a possible self-identification.  Metzgar notes that, when given that option, in surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, 46% of respondents identify as working class and 46% as middle class, with 5% “lower” and 3% “upper” class.

The American class vernacular is routinely re-inscribed in popular consciousness during election seasons, as we are seeing again this year.   I just received another fundraising appeal from Barack Obama, urging me to join him in reclaiming “the basic bargain that built the middle class and the most prosperous nation on earth.”  In fact, according to the Legatum Institute’s 2011 index, Norway is the world’s most prosperous nation, if prosperity is defined to include both wealth and wellbeing.   By this accounting the US comes 10th, behind Canada and all the Scandinavian countries.   Whatever the facts, it is clear that the nationalistic concern with being the greatest nation on earth – as if geopolitics is a sport and what matters most is our standing in the league tables – is deeply linked to the myth of the inclusive middle class, and that this class is assumed to have a right, as Americans, to expect increasing prosperity.

As Zweig, Metzgar, and others have pointed out, the trouble with the myth of the vast inclusive middle class within our national imaginary is the resulting disappearance from public view of the actually existing and vastly diverse American working-class majority.   This is in fact the population that has been so battered by the Great Recession and by the neoliberal political and economic tide that fostered it.   These are the “folks” Obama tells me he hears from every day “who are out of work, have lost their home, are struggling to pay their bills, are burdened with debt, are underemployed or worried about retirement.”

In a typically mis-titled article in the November 2011 Atlantic,Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”  Don Peck points out that from 2007 through 2009 employment levels for the professional middle class remained essentially unchanged, whereas 1 in 12 non-managerial (i.e. working-class) white collar jobs disappeared, along with 1 in 6 blue collar jobs.  Meantime, according to Peck, “from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two” dollars — and this effect has only accelerated since then.  On this evidence, it is the working class that needs to be saved, or to save itself.

And yet, in her important new book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011) Kathi Weeks draws this discouraging conclusion about the radical potential of a political critique founded on the concept of the working class:

The problem is that while the oppositional class category of the industrial period—the “working class”— may accurately describe most people’s relation to waged labor even in a post-industrial economy, it is increasingly less likely to match their self-descriptions.  The category of the middle class has absorbed so many of our subjective investments that it is difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.

Given that we always have this uphill battle to establish the salience of the term working class, I’ve been wondering lately whether it is worth the effort we expend, in our scholarship and teaching, in repeatedly pushing the boulder to the top of the hill, only to see it roll down again.  What’s at stake for us in posing an analysis based upon a more accurate accounting of US class structures and relations?   How viable is such an analysis as a resource for political critique and action in the present moment?  And how useful is it for teaching students about their place in the world and the prospects for their interventions in it — starting with, but not limited to this November’s elections?

Next month, I’ll take up these questions in light of the challenges to class analysis posed by Weeks and others.   In the meantime, commentary from readers would be most welcome.

Nick Coles

Talking with the Press about the Working Class

Over the last three months, I have done interviews with and provided assistance to dozens of national and international reporters about various working-class issues, including the American Dream, manufacturing, education, the recession, displaced workers, local and international trade, and, of course, white working-class voting patterns.  A few weeks ago, George Packer, staff reporter for The New Yorker, was a visiting scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies, doing research on book project, and he spoke as part of our annual lecture series. So, obviously, I have been thinking a lot about journalists and reporting on the working class.

Packer titled his lecture, Do Journalist Care About the Working Class? His response was basically, “No!” He argued that the American public is more concerned about celebrity and success stories that often reinforce the American Dream.  While job loss affects people of all classes these days, readers seem more interested in stories about hedge fund managers losing half their fortune than in profiles of manufacturing or service workers losing their jobs.  In part, these attitudes reflect the confusion most Americans have about class.   When asked the open-ended question, “what class do you belong to,” most Americans say they are middle class.  But if given four options — lower, working, middle, and upper class — about 45% choose working class, and about the same percentage identify themselves as middle class.

Packer also points out that hard-nosed, urban, ethnic, and street-smart reporters like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, or Mike Barnacle, many of whom had working-class roots, have been replaced by metro journalists, most with college degrees, who identify themselves as professionals and spend most of their time with people like themselves. Packer quotes Pulitizer Prize winning columnist, Connie Schultz, who has noted that, especially in big cities, reporters have increasingly become privileged by their professional education, social connections, and access to internships and have become a “self-perpetuating” class. As a result, journalists don’t have contacts among the working class or much sense of working-class life and culture. Add to this unsympathetic editors who are more interested in selling upscale readership to advertisers, and journalists these days have natural hesitancy to pursue working-class stories. Put differently, as I heard as a panelist at a Society of Professional Journalists Conference say, there is a high degree of self-censorship among journalists themselves.

In the end, Packer suggested that the recession and the centrality of white working-class voting in electoral politics have made the working class more interesting to some newspapers. I can attest to that, but if my recent interviews are any indication, reporters are generally confused about who is working class, and they don’t understand the political and economic views of the working class.

Most journalists covering electoral politics define the working class as those without a college education. That definition is widely used, not only by reporters but also by some scholars and political analysts, in part because it’s easy to measure. I caution reporters that if they use this definition, then the working class seems to be shrinking as more people attend college.  While some commentators have suggested that this shift makes the working class less important politically, I argue that this is simply a statistical shift.  These days, many working-class people have at least some college education, and the working class continues to matter in American politics. In part because of that, I try to help journalists understand why class is not just a matter of education.  It also has to do with occupation, income, wealth, and – among the hardest aspects to measure – culture.

At the same time, I remind reporters that class is not the only identity that might affect how people view political candidates and issues.  For example, white working-class men might well view economic and policy issues differently from white working-class women or black working-class men. I also try to help journalists understand that the working-class varies politically by region and state, in part because other issues, like race and types of employment, shape working-class cultures.  When we add religious affiliations and social values, things become even more complicated, but that’s the point.  I want to encourage reporters to get beyond their assumptions and stereotypes when they write about working-class voters and issues.

Journalists often ask me to explain why the working class supports Republicans, a pattern that seems to go against their own economic interests. It’s true that a majority of white working-class voters has only supported a Democrat in a presidential election once in the last 50 years, voting for Johnson in 1964, so this isn’t a new phenomenon.  We can’t even tie it to the so-called “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. A number of historians and political scientists have studied this trend, but rather than focus on theories about why the working class votes for Republicans, I point out that the trend is shifting. White working-class support for Republicans has been dropping in the northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the far west, and it will probably drop further  — because of Republican policy formulations.  For example, Republicans want to cut the deficit by slashing entitlements, but many working-class voters believe that such cuts would have a disproportionate impact on them.  While the Republicans put down the Occupy movement, many in the working class, both conservatives and liberals, support its economic and social populism and agree with its claims about injustice, unfairness, and inequality.

Packer is right, both that today’s journalists don’t really understand the working class and that the economy and the election mean that reporters will have to cover the working class anyway.   One of the goals of the Center for Working-Class Studies is to help journalists do a better job of telling working-class stories.  I think we’ve had some influence, largely because we take the time to do more than answer a few questions.  We meet with reporters, help them make contact with other sources, take them around Youngstown, and discuss what they hear from area workers and what the statistics about employment, class identity, and political perspectives really mean.

We all complain about and critique media coverage of class issues.  If we want the media to do a better job, more of us need to be willing to talk with journalists. When the phone rings and reporter asks you to comment on how the recession is affecting the working class, or why white working-class people support certain candidates, or how working-class students will be affected by interest rates on college loans, don’t duck.  Take the time to not only answer the question but also, when necessary, challenge the reporter’s assumptions and help him or her understand the working class more fully.  Think of it as teachable moment.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Chavs and the Working Class

A great new book has appeared recently about the working class in the UK. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones, has received a lot of well-deserved attention. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘chav’ has become a catch-all term of abuse for either the working class or elements of the working class. The term itself is not especially new and has a variety of roots. Whatever its origins, the label is one that is now used interchangeably with prole, feral underclass, scum, hooligan, the poor, or those who live in public housing. It captures dress codes, social and moral attitudes, child rearing practices, and even the way people stand on the sidewalk. What links all of these caricatures is that this is a way of talking about the white working class. Indeed many critical commentators, Owen included, have argued that the whiteness of those labelled chav is central to its use and therefore represents the last form of acceptable discrimination allowed in ‘polite’ society. The denigration of the white working class can be seen in a variety of cultural texts, from newspaper opinion pieces through publications such as The Little Book of Chavs and television comedies to a host of truly vicious websites that incite hate against the working class. Type in ‘chav’ to a search engine of your choice, but be prepared!

This breadth of coverage is important in understanding why this label has become so widespread and pernicious for debates about the working class. The heavily classed term chav is — rather ironically — inextricably linked to the rhetorical rise of the idea of classlessness, the notion that we are all middle class now. Essentially the term serves several roles.   It has become shorthand for the new underclass while simultaneously placing the respectable working class somewhere in the middle of society alongside the bulk of ‘us’ or ‘we’. At the same time it allows those who use the phrase to demonize those in the underclass simply for being there. Chav, therefore becomes an ideological and moral way of categorizing the poor – portraying them as unfit parents, workshy and generally feckless. Jones quotes a stream of right wing pundits who are horrified at this new working clas,s such as Carole Malone, who wrote in a piece about council estate (local authority housing) dwellers: “People who’d never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had-not to mention their drink, drugs and smoking habits … [Their] houses looked like pigsties-dog crap on the floor (trust me, I’ve seen it), putrid carpets, piles of clothes and unwashed dishes everywhere.”

The second related function of the term is that it encourages people not to identify themselves as working class. This has obvious parallels with what Jack Metzgar calls the “class vernacular” of the US, which assumes that the great bulk of the population occupy an imaginary middle class that stretches from multimillionaires down to those struggling to get by.

Jones’s book and a wider and growing critical commentary are beginning to call out this class hatred and discrimination for what it really is. In the process, we are seeing a growing willingness to explore the undoubtedly profound changes in working-class life and culture over the last thirty years. One of the most telling points Jones makes is that the working class has gone from being respected –and at times even feared — for the political and economic clout it once possessed to a position where they are derided and at times feared as almost representing a different species.

At the heart of this shift have been the changes in the economy over the decades, especially the collapse of many industries that once supplied jobs to both the skilled and unskilled working class. Worklessness, or more properly precarious employment, is at the root of this problem. Access to good steady jobs acts as a wedge dividing working-class people and their communities. The rhetoric of chavs widens this divide by pushing some to identify with the ‘nice’ middle rather than the ‘rough’ working class. To work, ironically, takes you out of the working class!

Of course this development is not entirely new.  The divide between the ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ (hard living and steady living) working class is as old as industrialization – indeed some historians have seen those labels as more insightful that working and middle class categories. What is new is that this contemporary manifestation of working-class division occurs at a time of massive and growing economic inequality where the super rich are enjoying unprecedented increases in their wealth, and London has become the most unequal city anywhere in the developed world. The label chav helps to hide growing inequality within society by focusing attention – and blame — on those at the bottom. Labelling some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society in this way portrays economic inequality as a question of individual morality responsibility rather than as a wider question that society at large needs to address.

The hope in all this is that books like Jones’s provide a powerful and growing counter narrative to the unthinking use of terms like chav. What is striking is the way those of us interested in working-class issues are collectively drawing on and contributing to debates that show the real nature of economic and social inequality that is too often ignored by politicians and tabloid opinion formers. It shows us that to fully understand class we have to see how it operates on economic, social, and cultural levels. In doing this kind of work, we can perhaps start to recognize the shared humanity and value in working-class community and in turn challenge powerful myths about class more generally.

Tim Strangleman

Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods

Teaching Unequal Childhoods

As an adjunct I teach two Working-Class Studies courses – one for adult union leaders and staff pursuing a master’s degree and another for (mostly) traditional-aged undergraduate students.   In both classes I use Annette Lareau’s wonderful study of how child-rearing practices vary by class, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  It’s a great text for parents, but also for anybody who’s ever had child-rearing done to them!

It’s one of those sociological studies where the researcher hangs around a family at home and on the road, taking careful notes about what everybody says and does.  Most of the book consists of case studies of the various middle-class, working-class, and poor families Lareau (and her research assistants) hung out with in an unnamed northeastern city, probably Philadelphia.

It’s not a book students necessarily love and, in fact, some really hate it, but everybody reads it, gets engaged, and comes to class ready to talk about it – including often intimate details about how they were reared and, for those who are parents, how they are rearing or did rear their children.  It’s a high-stakes topic, as everybody realizes that who they are and how they are is strongly influenced by how they were raised – and, of course, even the most exemplary parents easily slip into guilt-trips or defensive bragging about their kids, often in the same sentence.

I’m not going to summarize Lareau’s various findings, except to say that she finds a categorical difference between middle-class and working class child-rearing approaches, and relatively small (though not unimportant) differences between blacks and whites of the same class or between working-class and poor families.  Her first two case studies, of 4th-graders Garrett Tallinger and Tyrec Taylor, present strongly positive examples of each of the categories.

Garrett has two very dedicated parents with professional jobs who are highly engaged with their children, with lots of challenging dialogue and with a demanding schedule of activities their three children enjoy but which are also educational in one way or another.  This concerted cultivation, Lareau says, is characteristic of a middle-class child-centered approach.  Tyrec has loving, though separated, working-class parents who see their parental duties as providing food, shelter, and moral guidance but otherwise leaving their children free to find their own way in life through natural growth.   Whereas Garrett spends little time outside of adult-structured activities with children exactly his own age, Tyrec is much more free “to make his own fun” with children of different ages, both within a large extended family and in his neighborhood, and mostly outside direct supervision by adults.

After students read the first 103 pages, including these two case studies, the very first questions I ask are:

  • Which child-rearing approach makes for a happier childhood?
  • And which child-rearing approach better prepares children to succeed as adults?

I’ve done this with four classes now (two each with adults and late adolescents), and with very few exceptions, students answer as if it were obvious: The working-class way makes for a happier childhood, but the middle-class way better prepares children to be successful adults.

Eventually, the personally high-stakes part of our conversations turns everybody toward Aristotle’s golden mean, resolving to mix a little bit of happiness with a little more adult-prep.  But there is also a recognition of what a tragic situation this is: What kind of society requires us to sacrifice the creative spontaneous joys of childhood so that we can “succeed” as adults?

From there everybody has a different take on nearly everything – including whether it’s such a good idea to “succeed” as adults.  Many do not fit neatly into Lareau’s categories, but an amazing number do.  Adult students who are parents and even some of the traditional-aged students engage in richly dialectical reflections on their parents’ approach and their own.  Many more students in both teaching venues come from working-class backgrounds than middle-class ones, but precisely because the topic is so high stakes, students (who can often be quite harsh in disagreeing with each other) are especially tactful, polite, even delicate with one another.  In general, though Lareau is rigorously and refreshingly neutral on which class culture is better, both kinds of students tend to favor the working-class way.

Lareau’s broader thesis is that schools are excessively and unconsciously middle-class institutions that assume that working-class kids (and parents) arrive not with a different culture, which has its strengths as well as weaknesses, but with cultural deficits that must be filled in and bad habits that must be broken.  This not only puts working-class kids at a disadvantage, but often leads to a conflicted and adversarial relation of both parents and kids toward teachers and, even more so, toward the institution of “the school.”  Among other things, she counsels greater class-cultural awareness by teachers, including learning and teaching how to “code-switch.”

The basically opposite child-rearing approaches are readily recognizable in people’s real-life experience. More contestable is whether they neatly coincide with class positions and whether race and poverty play as small a role as Lareau claims.  These, of course, are issues that make Unequal Childhoods a great text for teaching Working-Class Studies.  More important, however, is how her richly reported case studies personalize class issues and dynamics, allowing both adult and traditional-aged students to see how class plays a role not just in society at large, but also in our own immediate experience, including our hearts and minds.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies