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

Sing Out! Lessons from the Extraordinary Life of Pete Seeger

Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.

Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the South, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.

Embrace the relationship between music and social movements. Seeger believed that if you could get a crowd to join in a song, you could get a crowd to join in a movement. Like his father, Charles Seeger, who argued that “to make music is the essential thing—to listen to it is an accessory,” Pete Seeger believed that song brought the individual out of the self and into something larger: “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in—as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Of course, Seeger could have chosen other vehicles for participation, but he believed that there was something special about songs. “Songs,” he explained, “are a way of binding people to a cause.”

It’s OK to be middle class. Seeger came from a family of “doctors, shopkeepers, and intellectuals.” His parents were also classically trained musicians who divorced when he was young. But even Seeger’s step-mother encouraged him, noticing that he had a special talent for “song leading.” Seeger went to a boarding school in Connecticut, and, later, Harvard, which he did not like. After Harvard, Seeger made the transition from scholar of working-class culture to maker/participant. The Almanacs were so named because every working-class home had two books: a bible for the next life and an almanac for this one. Seeger’s next band, The Weavers, was named for a play by German author Gerhart Hauptmann about a group of Silesian (now Poland) weavers who rebelled against the mechanization of their craft in the 1840s. Seeger, who was not from a working-class family, was a champion of workers, workers’ folk traditions, unions, the labor movement, and the dignity of work. Moreover, he was embraced by workers wherever he went, from the CIO struggles in Pittsburgh and Detroit in the 1940s, to the postal workers organizing against the hiring of non-union workers in 2014.

Make stuff with your own hands. On the other hand, perhaps, Seeger might have been a voluntary member of the working class. In the 1940s, he bought a piece of land next to the Hudson River for $1700.There he built his own log cabin. It took him several tries to get the giant stone fireplace right, but as he was finishing it he placed a few of the rocks thrown at him in the infamous Paul Robeson/Peekskill riots in the structure as a reminder. To build furniture for the house, Wilkinson writes, Seeger scavenged the wood from abandoned packing crates in New York City on his way home from singing gigs. By mastering the world with his hands, Seeger was able to connect the future of the human race to the future of the planet: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

You have to choose sides, but you can have as many causes as you like. Seeger embraced every progressive American cause, from the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, to environmentalism, the anti-war movement, the AIDs epidemic, and even the 2011 Occupy Movement. There were songs that explained how to negotiate and use a union to improve your life on the job (Talking Union Blues) and songs about union towns, their smog and their devotion to the CIO (Pittsburgh). There were songs about how to build stuff with your own hands (If I had a Hammer) and songs about how to keep hope in the face of racial oppression (We Shall Overcome). There were songs about heroic and legendary black workers (John Henry) and songs about women union organizers (Union Maid) and songs about how America belongs to all of us (This Land is Our Land). There were songs about the Hudson river, which he was instrumental in cleaning up (Sailing Up my Dirty Stream), and songs about the Vietnam war (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy), and even songs condemning Stalin (Big Joe Blues).

You can have a long, productive life if you do not define your success according to the market. Seeger famously testified in front of HUAC in 1955, refusing to answer any questions that violated his right to religion, free speech, and association. He has jokingly called this moment a “relief,” because the fame he was experiencing with The Weavers was overwhelming him. By contrast, for most blacklisted artists, the 1950s were a nightmare. Some betrayed their former friends and comrades, others died from the stress. Some left the country, some wrote under false names, and many languished without a steady livelihood for years. Seeger was undaunted by more than a decades’ worth of rebuff from HUAC, anti-communists who canceled his performance contracts and picketed his concerts, and TV executives who refused to let him perform on television. Seeger simply kept singing, accepting invitations from any group that would have him, year after year, until mainstream American culture finally accepted Seeger’s unique sound.

Think small. Perhaps you are a union organizer, trying to get a little more justice for your members. Perhaps you are a graduate student writing about worker struggles, or worker culture. Perhaps you have a bit of talent on an instrument, and you perform for money or just gather with friends to raise your voices in unison. Whatever you are doing, no matter how small it might seem, it matters. Seeger tells us: “Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Instead, he insists, “The world will be solved by millions of small things.”

Kathy M. Newman

Reading Capital: Books that Shaped Work in America

I teach American literature and media history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and for many years I have taught a course called Capital Fictions—a class in which we examine the ways in which literature shaped, and was shaped by, the US economy at the turn-of-the-last-century. Though I never teach all of the same novels twice, we often read The Jungle, Sister Carrie, House of Mirth, and William J. Weldon’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Of course, as a Marxist/Feminist/Public School Activist at Carnegie Mellon University, I often feel like an outlier—a radical humanist on Andrew Carnegie’s 21st century techno-robotic campus.

So I was pleased, and rather surprised, when I saw that the U.S. Department of Labor—in honor of its one-hundred-year anniversary—is assembling a list of books that shaped American ideas about work. DOL officials, after seeing a 2012 “Books that Shaped America” exhibition at the Library of Congress, were inspired to make a similar call for books about work in order to emphasize the “significant role published works have played in the shaping American workers and workplaces.”

In drawing attention to the DOL’s project on our blog, I am falling into the public relations trap expertly laid by Carl Fillichio, the senior advisor for public affairs and communications at the U.S. Department of Labor. While his book project seems progressive on the face of it, it has also been great public relations, as the mainstream media has done more than a dozen stories on the DOL’s project. Fillichio himself is a capitalist intellectual, coming to the DOL from Lehman brothers, where he was a senior vice president in charge of promoting the firm’s “thought leadership” and philanthropy.

The list of books that shaped American labor is long (102 so far) and eclectic, featuring such classics from children’s literature as Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Doreen Cronin’s radical story of barnyard animals that go on strike, Click, Clack, Moo. Some of my “Capital Fictions” are there, including The Jungle and Sister Carrie. Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women, is there (perhaps an odd choice, unless, like me, you decided to pursue the profession of WOMAN WRITER after reading it), along with the poetic Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In addition to some radical works there are some classics that staunchly defend capitalism, including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, William Bennet’s The Book of Virtues, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

It is worth asking how books like these have shaped our ideas about work. Take Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. This novel gives us the perspective a young woman, Carrie Meeber, who comes from a small Midwest town to the booming city of Chicago in the late 1800s. Carrie tires quickly of factory work, and we see her struggle to find and keep a job. But then we chart her good fortune as she lucks into a career on the stage. She ends the novel a Broadway celebrity—successful, but still unsatisfied. The novel makes my students wonder: what is the secret to happiness? Is it hard work? Is it good fortune? Is it the ability to buy pretty things? Or is it relationships, education, and a search for deeper meaning?

Another classic on the list is also about turn-of-the-last century Chicago, The Jungle. My students recoil at the story—so grisly it is hard to believe that everything that happens in the novel could happen to a single family. A powerful worker, Jurgis, is brought down by injury and prison time; his strong friend and relative, Marija, is reduced to prostitution after many hard years in the packing plants; Jurgis’s youngest relatives become haggard, and, eventually die from factory work, and Ona, Jurgis’s wife, is raped by her boss and later dies in childbirth. But the students find themselves immersed in Sinclair’s world, and they respond to it with intelligence. When I let them pursue creative assignments, as I did this last fall, one student made a brilliant version of Monopoly based on The Jungle, and another student made a movie trailer for the novel that emphasized the dramatic sweep of the plot.

My students at CMU are from privileged backgrounds, and they often enter the classroom cynical about the plight of workers in the present and uniformed about workers in the past. But I find that through the reading of stories they become more open and more critical—of both the past and the present. Stories like Sister Carrie and The Jungle help to nurture their empathy, give them deeper understandings of place, and allow them to dwell in different times.

What do you think should be on the list? The project is accepting suggestions for additions to its list.

I hope you will agree that we need stories about work in order to understand what work means to us today and what it has meant to us in the past. We also need these stories so can decide what work will mean—and be—in the future. As Karl Marx (none of whose books are yet on the list at the DOL) reminds us, “the point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

Kathy M. Newman

Jobs and Safety Nets

Teaching macroeconomics with a group of union stewards and local leaders last month, I had just finished explaining the enormous economic stimulus the combination of “food stamps” and unemployment compensation is providing to our struggling economy.  When you include the “macroeconomic multiplier effects” of these “automatic stabilizers,” it was about $260 billion in 2012, and that was enough to create or save some 3 million jobs – “possibly including yours.”

Having taught this subject many times before, I was ready for somebody to complain about having seen a “food stamp” recipient use their SNAP card to buy caviar or lobster at the Jewel.  When nobody did, I smirkily recounted my past experience with students anyway, because that experience has caused me to wonder if this widely reported occurrence might be an urban legend.  Over the years most students, when questioned, hadn’t seen such an incident themselves but had been told about it by a relative or friend.  Once I asked, “Do they even sell caviar at the Jewel?” – and nobody knew.

At break David, a youngish Teamster truck driver, told me about a SNAP recipient he had seen buying steak, which troubled him because “we have to stretch every dollar” buying groceries.  He asked: “So you’re saying this shouldn’t bother me because it’s stimulating the economy and creating jobs?”

With what seemed like half the class gathered to hear my answer, I pulled out my standard response: “Yeah, basically that is what I’m saying.  But it depends on the magnitude.  If it was widespread, it might be a problem, but there is no evidence that it is.  Besides how would the government enforce something like that?  It could cost $1,000 to catch someone buying a $20 steak!”

My answer, with its rough-and-ready cost-benefit analysis, satisfied a large group of students, who walked away to go on break, but not David: “But it’s still wrong.  It costs a lot to investigate murder too.”  At which point an older Teamster driver from the same local intervened: “What do you give a shit if somebody has a little steak?  It’s not murder!  More like speeding on the toll way.”  Being the professor, I went all Socratic on David: “What kind of steak was it anyway – London Broil or filet mignon?” (inadvertently implying that London Broil was like speeding while buying filet mignon could be like murder!).  This shut David up, as it was clear from his facial expression that he didn’t know the difference between high-priced and low-priced steak, and it occurred to me that he and his family might never themselves have enjoyed a steak.  The older Teamster put his arm around David and jibed as they started out for break, “Don’t be an asshole.  That steak was probably delivered in a truck.”

On reflection I regret opening this door about what SNAP recipients should be allowed to purchase (they are and always have been allowed to buy steak and lobster) and what they actually do purchase (which nobody knows, but I’m guessing is almost never steak and lobster).  I’m trying to teach about how deficit-spending and the high-powered multiplier effects of social-safety-net measures are crucial for reducing unemployment in a depressed economy.   And I end up in a discussion about whether some poor soul buying a slice of London Broil is “taking advantage” of us hard-working taxpayers.

As a middle-class professional who often eats steak (including filet), I don’t get how anybody might see a  SNAP recipient being a bit extravagant (or even a lot extravagant) as a moral challenge to a policy which creates or saves 3 million jobs – that is, 3 million “livelihoods,” such as they are.   We could argue about the size of the multipliers – or about the potential downsides of deficit-spending.  But the fact is that the $135 average monthly SNAP allotment, especially when combined with an average $300 weekly unemployment compensation check, is nearly as valuable to the rest of us as it is to those who receive them.  These meager individual amounts spread across millions of recipients inject consumer spending power into an economy that greatly needs it because we live in a society where most income flows to the top 10% or 11%.  Without these welfare-state “transfer payments,” unemployment would be much worse and, as a result, real wages and median household incomes would be declining even more than they have been.  And as Benjamin Friedman’s classic The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth exhaustively documents, these minor individual ameliorations correlate with more peace, less war and less crime, as well as with more prosperity for everybody.

I have learned, however, not to be indifferent to the moral concern some people have about cheaters and slackers “taking advantage.”  Even a handful of people gaming the system challenges the hyper-vigilant work ethic of many settled-living working-class people, especially white men, but not only them.  Like David, who is Latino, they tend to be a certain social type: They live frustratingly on the edge of a cliff doing work they often hate and struggling every day to keep themselves together, incessantly delaying gratification, “stretching every dollar,” never “letting themselves go” lest they fall off that cliff, taking their families with them.

There are a lot of people on that cliff, and a large group of them seem to think that a stern prejudice against “the poor” helps sustain the integrity of their own characters.  Along with a superstition that “bad things do not happen to good people,” they hope their good characters will protect them from falling into poverty.   A recent Hamilton Project study documents that at least one-third of working-age families with children (with incomes of up to $60,000) are “one major setback” away from “economic chaos.”   Neither poor nor comfortably middle class, this group is dubbed by the study as “America’s struggling lower-middle class,” what many of us would call “working class.”  It is also roughly the same income group ($30,000 to $75,000, in this case) that is most likely to blame the poor for being poor.

It is something like this complex social psychology that Republicans play into when they seek to justify cutting “food stamps” and extended unemployment compensation.   Their latest efforts are especially hypocritical.  A recent Fox News video of a surfer lad exuberantly buying lobster with his SNAP card evoked the cheaters-and-slackers meme.   But the actual cuts Republicans have achieved and additional ones they are now seeking just cut benefits across the board and lop people from the program without any attempt to distinguish the cheaters from the frugally hungry.  Surfer lad will still be able to buy lobster while bad things will happen to good people.

Worse to my mind, however, is the recent argument Republicans make for not extending unemployment compensation for the long-term unemployed.  On the one hand, they insist that the $25 billion it would cost to fund for all of 2014 “be paid for” with cuts from somewhere else, thereby undermining the stimulative job-creating impact it would have.  On the other, they insist on the need to address “the real problem: to find these people jobs.”   Though some Tea Party crazies may not be aware of it, the GOP leadership group surely knows that, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and one of their own economic advisers (Moody Analytics), unemployment compensation has a multiplier effect that creates five times more jobs than corporate tax cuts do.  The only federal government job-creation proposal from either party that has a larger macroeconomic multiplier effect, and thus creates more jobs, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

I have about as much contempt for welfare cheaters as anybody on a cliff, but even surfer lad is a moral paragon compared to these guys.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Out of a Different Furnace

When I first saw a print ad for Scott Cooper’s latest film, Out of the Furnace, I was excited that someone had made a film of Thomas Bell’s 1942 novel, Out of This Furnace.  While the film, set in Braddock, focused on a local steelworker, and written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, has much in common with the novel, the differences reflect not just different historical moments but also different ideas about working-class life.

Cooper claims that he didn’t know about the novel when he came up with the title for the film.  Once he learned about it, he kept his title despite the possibility of confusion, because, he explains, both the community and Christian Bale’s character “come out of the furnace.” Other than the usual images of decaying buildings and abandoned plants that have become iconic in documentaries and fictional films set in deindustrialized places, we see little explicit evidence of how Braddock has been shaped by the rise and decline steelmaking.  Bale’s character, Russell Baze, is represented as embodying the positive values fostered in working-class communities.  He “comes out of the furnace” with a firm commitment to family and an inner strength that serves as the film’s load-bearing beam. But in the novel, what emerges from the furnace is not just tough individuals or a strong sense of community, but something far more important: a union.

The pivotal moment in the film, when its narrative shifts from tracing the slow decline in the lives of two working-class white men in a declining steel town into a tale of revenge, is a fairly quiet scene at the police station, when Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker) explains the challenges that he and New Jersey police face in tracking down the menacing Appalachian drug boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Barnes doesn’t have jurisdiction, and in rural western New Jersey, there’s a long history of suspicion of and resistance to law enforcement.  Regardless of whether this claim is realistic, the explanation highlights the limited power of institutions. Working-class men are, the film seems to suggest, on their own, and the last third of the film follows Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) as they pursue DeGroat on their own.  Once they track him down, law enforcement steps in, only to reveal its inadequacy again.  As DEA agents in full gear march toward the now-abandoned drug house, DeGroat is shooting up somewhere else.  In the end, Russell insists on doing the job himself, luring DeGroat to Braddock, tracking him through an abandoned mill, and finally shooting him with a deer hunting rifle.

Law enforcement isn’t the only institution that doesn’t work in this film. Corporations care only about getting cheaper steel, while the U.S. Army ignores both the economic and emotional needs of soldiers like Rodney, and unions are not even mentioned.  The only institution that works at all is the local bar, and even there, the only help available is corrupt and ineffective. The bar owner’s loans support Rodney’s gambling, and the fights he arranges accomplish nothing except getting himself and Rodney killed, which sets up the revenge plot at the end of the film.  The idea that institutions are ineffective in supporting working-class people is not new.  As John Russo and I argued in writing about local responses to deindustrialization a decade ago, that explains why working-class people don’t trust institutions. Jennifer Silva finds a similar attitude in her recent study of young working-class people, and a recent entry in the New York Times’s series on inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz notes that people have lost “faith in a system that seems inexorably stacked against them.”

In a way, of course, that do-it-yourself attitude reflects working-class culture.  Psychologist David Greene highlighted the centrality of self-reliance in an essay on the “matrix” of working-class identity: “Whatever one needed, whatever the situation or task called for, you could make do. . . . If you needed it or wanted it, it was up to you to find it, fix it or build it.”  Cooper makes a point of this in a scene where Russell engages some low-level drug dealers by way of an admiring conversation about their restoration of a classic car. That self-reliance is also central to Russell’s character. Early on, when he learns that his brother owes money to the bar owner, Russell steps in to pay off Rodney’s debt.  We also see it when Russell is released from prison after a manslaughter conviction; one of his first acts is fixing up the house he and his brother have inherited from their father.

We’re a long way from Out of This Furnace, which celebrates not only the resilience and family commitments of steelworkers but also the potential power of collectivityAfter describing how steelworkers and their families survived poverty, mill accidents, and illness through internal strength and mutual support, Bell ends his novel with the formation of the Steelworkers Organizing Collaborative in the late 30s.  Writing in 1942, he couldn’t have known how much unions would improve the lives of steelworkers, nor could he have predicted the demise of the industry or the union’s inability, ultimately, to protect workers and their communities, like Braddock, from the ravages of deindustrialization.  By the time Cooper conjures up the story of the Baze brothers, not only is the local mill about to close but the union is so irrelevant that it is never mentioned.

Both Bell and Cooper recognize the commitment to family and the strength of character that might emerge from economic struggle and hard work. Both recognized that working-class people can’t count on employers to look out for them.  But Bell believed that workers and their communities could protect themselves by standing together, while Cooper suggests that self-reliance is the only option, even if it isn’t a good one.

Out of the Furnace is not a great movie, and reviewers have noted a variety of flaws, including its reliance on working-class stereotypes and the emphasis on violence and revenge.  But it’s worth watching, especially alongside a reading of Out of This Furnace. 

If we read the film in light of Bell’s romanticized vision of working-class collectivity, we recognize that what has been lost is not just jobs and opportunity but the basis for hope.  If we read the novel with the film, we might be reminded that the only real hope lies in people working together to stand up for the right to a decent life.

Sherry Linkon