Tag Archives: Working class

The Incredibly Shrinking Working Class? The View from the “Professional” Bubble

In a semi-sympathetic article about unions organizing professional workers, a Chicago Tribune/Los Angeles Times reporter last month provided the following, colossally wrong, picture of American workers: “Professionals account for 62 percent of the U.S. workforce, up from 15 percent in 1977.”

It’s true that “professional and related occupations” have grown a lot in the past 35 years when they were, as reported, about 15% of the workforce.  But today they are about 22% of the entire workforce (including part-time workers) and 24% of full-time workers – not 62% or anywhere close to that!

If nearly 2/3rds of all U.S. jobs were “professional” – with its connotations of well-paid autonomy at work, requiring high levels of education — the median annual salary of American workers would be in the $50,000 range instead of the $30,000 range.  And that would mean that income inequality would be dramatically reduced – from the top 10% getting half of all adjusted gross income now to them getting maybe only a quarter.  It would also be likely that 2/3rds of the adult population would have bachelor’s degrees vs. less than 1/3rd now, and it would mean that many more entry-level jobs would require that degree.  Now only 20% of jobs require a bachelor’s and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that isn’t going to change much in the next decade.

In other words, this report turns the American job structure upside down.  Michael Zweig’s most recent analysis of occupations, for example, finds that The Working Class Majority is now 63%, slightly larger than a decade ago.

This is a huge reporting error, and it’s clear in the context that it was not a typo.  I emailed the reporter, calling attention to the error, but haven’t heard back, and there has been no printed correction.   Factual misreporting like this occurs all the time in American newspapers, especially at second-tier outfits like the Tribune. Economist Dean Baker provides a delightfully smart-ass (and clear) daily blog, Beat the Press, that calls attention to errors of fact and reasoning in the top tier of newspapers – and he is never at a loss for material.  But there is often a pattern to these errors, one that reflects the limited worldview and social experience of both reporters and the “upscale” audiences advertisers encourage them to address.

Though I have rarely seen numerical misreporting of this sort, most mainstream and elite discussion of “the knowledge economy,” its “knowledge workers,” and “the creative class” clearly assumes this kind of disproportionate misunderstanding of the jobs most Americans actually do.  Likewise, President Obama’s repetitive (and uncontested) insistence on the need for everybody to go to college so they can do “the jobs of the 21st Century” must be based on a similar misunderstanding.  (For more detail on this see previous Working-Class Perspectives blogs by Sherry Linkon and me.)

The conspiracy-minded could make a good argument, I think, that our elite opinion-makers and leading politicians are deliberately lying to us in order to flood the labor market with college-educated workers who can then be paid less and bossed around more because their supply is so much greater than the demand for them.   But the scope and scale of such a conspiracy makes this hypothesis highly unlikely.     My guess is that the spectacular magnitude of this particular reporting error reflects the increasingly extreme class segregation of American life – not only in residential life, as dramatically documented in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, but in social interaction and experience.  Besides, it is almost comforting to think that our ruling class and its elite professional middle-class opinion-makers actually know the truth and are hiding it from us — rather than to realize that the captains and crew of the ship of state are navigating with such a faulty map of the actually existing American people and the work we do.

How could they, the “data-driven” best and brightest, be so woefully misguided?  Here’s my guess:

Imagine the children of two professional workers – a doctor and lawyer, for example, or a university professor and an accountant – who go to one of the many excellent public schools in the dozens of affluent (not rich-richy, just comfortably “middle class”) suburbs around most American cities.  Their highly dedicated parents schedule them for a wide variety of activities that cultivate social and cultural skills while insisting on their getting good grades in school.  These children, both the” over-achievers” and the just-plain-achievers, then go on to one of the better colleges and universities, which are populated for the most part by the offspring of professional workers from affluent suburbs like theirs.   Assuming they have done well in college, upon graduation these young people get entry-level professional jobs from which they launch careers that, like their parents, are both high stress and high reward.   After some years enjoying life in the city, they marry, have children and move to a suburb with an excellent public school.

This may be a bit of a caricature, but it is by no means uncommon.  Even adding some complexity, it will be very difficult for such people, particularly the high-achievers among them, to understand that America is mostly populated with people who are very unlike them.  Yes, there may have been working-class and even poor kids in their high school or at college, but they are a relatively small minority.  Likewise, at work they are aware of clerical workers and maybe even the janitorial staff as they leave work in the evening, but that’s not where their focus is as they go about their daily work routine.   At restaurants and in other leisure activities, they interact with non-professional workers, but they hardly notice the ones who are not directly serving them.   Everything in their lives fosters the illusion that their lives are “typical” or “normal” and that poorly paid nonprofessional workers who get bossed around are a small and declining group.

These professionals may be conservative Republicans or progressive Democrats.  They may be arrogant, self-absorbed, status-anxious climbers or large-spirited, generous and even nurturing leaders and mentors who do volunteer work among “the less fortunate.”  But what is there in their lives – in their direct observation and experience – that would challenge the idea that we are a “knowledge economy” full of well-educated knowledge workers?   And if they were a reporter, a copy editor, or a well-educated reader of the daily press, what would make them slap their heads in disbelief at the idea that a substantial majority of American workers are “professionals” like them?   Not much – and especially when our elite institutions of cultural production and reproduction (media, universities, politicians and their staffs) are peopled by folks with similar life trajectories who naturally recycle and confirm these professional notions of their own disproportionality.

Zweig’s The Working Class Majority is subtitled America’s Best Kept Secret, and despite the substantial attention the book received more than a decade ago, its recent new edition justifiably retained that subtitle.   But it and all the other work of Working-Class Studies are up against formidable cultural odds.  If the captains and crew of our ship of state are navigating with a terribly faulty map of who we are and what we do, only a large-scale and sustained mutiny can break through the professional bubble.  Hopefully, the newly protesting Walmart retail and warehouse workers and the spreading intermittent strikes of fast-food workers may be the beginnings of such a mutiny.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

Shout Working Class

Nearly 18 years ago, at the closing session of a conference on Working-Class Lives at Youngstown State University, we posed this question: if there were a Center for Working-Class Studies, what should it be doing?  We heard over 100 suggestions, ranging from “create a bibliography” to “start the revolution.”  Many of the recommendations focused on education, including a plea from a local steelworker for us to advocate for and provide a good education for working-class children like his.  Others emphasized public policy advocacy, working with unions, and helping to create spaces for working-class art and literature.

That year, a group of YSU faculty created the Center for Working-Class Studies, with modest funding from then Provost James Scanlon, who challenged us to get other faculty involved. Over the next dozen years, the CWCS organized five more conferences that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. We sponsored a lecture series that brought scholars, activists, and artists to Youngstown, where they spoke not only to the usual academic audiences but also to community groups, unions, and schoolchildren.  We collected oral histories with workers from the GM Lordstown plant, created an online archive of materials reflecting the many different ethnic and racial communities of the Mahoning Valley, called Steel Valley Voices, and published many articles and books about the working-class history and culture of this area.

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the Center was able to expand its programming.  Workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.  We created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies at YSU.  Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.

In collaboration with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, we sponsored an interracial, cross-class community reading group to study mass incarceration.  With the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, we helped lead community discussions on class and race. The CWCS also created an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations. We conducted opinion polls, helped journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities, and established this blog.

All of this might seem like bragging, but the point is simply to say that we have worked hard to make the Center for Working-Class Studies a dynamic, multidimensional project.  We’ve done some good and important work.

And now the Center is closing.  Over the past month, John and our administrative assistant, Patty LaPresta, with help from colleagues in the American Studies and History departments at YSU, have packed up the books, sorted through files, and moved dozens of photographs, posters, maps, and a/v materials to the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.   The Center is closing because we have left YSU.  Sherry began a new position at Georgetown University in August, and John just retired.

But the real reason the CWCS is closing is not that we left YSU.  It’s that YSU left us. The administration at YSU was not willing to provide continued funding.  Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work.  They chose not to do that.  Some have suggested that our visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision.  The official version is simply that the resources are not available.

We appreciate all of the kind words and support you’ve provided over the years, and we know that many of you share our sadness and anger at the Center’s demise. We hope you will also share our commitment to continuing to work with and for the working class.  As Jack Metzgar wrote in the fall newsletter of the Working-Class Studies Association, the Center may be gone, but Working-Class Studies is not.  Here’s what will continue.

First, we will continue to publish this blog, offering commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.  Since we began in 2008, the blog has received almost 300,000 page views, and it gets about 30,000 hits each week.  Last year, it was read by people in more than 100 countries.  It’s been listed as a Washington Post staff pick, cited in dozens of other blogs, and reblogged by the United Steelworkers, Portside, and others.  The most widely read piece, an early blog on “Stereotyping the Working Class,” has almost 18,000 hits – many more readers than anything we’ve ever published in an academic journal.  Put simply, people are listening, and we hope they will continue to do so.

Second, the endowment fund originally created through donations from many colleagues and supporters, as well as our own contributions, will now become the CWCS Legacy Fund.  It will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.  This ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you may do so by downloading and sending in this form.

Third, the Working-Class Studies Association has already taken on much of the work started at the Center.  The WCSA organizes annual conferences, publishes a newsletter, and starting in January, a new WCSA website will become home to many of the online resources we created at YSU.  If you’re not already a member, we urge you to join and become active. Better yet, organize a session for the WCSA conference this June in Madison, reaching out to colleagues who haven’t previously participated.  The deadline for proposals is January 14.

Finally, the most important thing any of us can do to ensure that Working-Class Studies continues is exactly what Joe Hill told us decades ago:  don’t mourn, organize.  Teams of faculty and local activists around the U.S. and beyond have the potential to create many more centers for working-class studies.  Begin with small steps.  If you’re a student or academic, invite a guest speaker to campus, or just show a film, and announce the event widely.  Get the names and contact information of everyone who attends, and get a discussion going about shared interests and possibilities. If you’re an artist or writer, follow the lead of folks like John Crawford and Larry Smith and organize anthologies or magazines to help make working-class voices heard – and send a link to your work to the editors of the WCSA website, so we can list it.  If you’re an activist or organizer, advocate for attention to class as part of local, regional, and national debates about policy.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, follow the advice of former Youngstown steelworker John Barbero, who explained that after the mills closed, he made it a point to keep “shouting Youngstown.”  Now it’s our turn.  Shout working class.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

Class and the Olympics

By the time you read this the Olympics and Paralympics will be over in London. Both sets of games have been very popular in Britain and have stimulated thousands of column inches of media interest.  In amongst the coverage of sport the issue of class has emerged in a number of different contexts.

Even before the games had begun Londoners’ ire was raised by the dedicated ‘Games Lanes’ dedicated to traffic of the Olympic ‘family.’ In amongst the grumbles was a noticeable critique that these transport arteries seemed to be more about ferrying elite members of the ‘family’ from their five-star hotels in West London and less about getting competing athletes to their venues –the West end of London has always been the poshest part of the city due to the prevailing winds.  Industry, and the majority of working-class communities who worked in them, tended to be planted in the East end where the Games were located. When challenged on this exclusivity, Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rather bizarrely claimed that his Committee were workers and that “We are working-class people.” Defending the IOC encampment in the Park Lane Hilton, Rogge made an argument about workers like himself and his colleagues  needing adequate conditions and was quoted as saying “I am sorry but in three-star hotels you will not find the facilities there are in this hotel: conference rooms, simultaneous translations- this is something only more upscale hotels have.” To be fair, I find the same myself.

Arguably the most interesting and deeper reflection on class came in the debate stimulated over the social and educational background of British medal winners, especially the over-representation of privately educated medal winners among the successes. This sparked a debate about the lack of opportunity of access less well-off children and young people get to certain sports, such as rowing and especially the equestrian events. While the privately educated make up 7% of Britain’s population, privately educated athletes at one point had won over 60% of the medals.  This proportion later improved, but not before Conservative politicians and media attempted to explain the disparity by claiming that this was proof that state schools discouraged competitive sport rather than structural and cultural issues around access to training facilities and equipment.

Class, or rather working-class history, was reasonably well represented in the Olympic opening ceremony. While it may have left most of the world’s viewing audience mildly bemused, the show included many nods to working-class politics and class struggle. Most obvious was the part of the performance where the utopia of pre-industrial rural England was swept aside by the industrial revolution. Stovetop-hatted capitalists gathered in small huddles surveying the creation of dark satanic mills, or at least their chimneys, tended to by a grimy faced proletariat. Again, some right-wingers saw this and other aspects of the show as evidence of left-wing bias, and the director being ‘anti-business.’ Even more interesting was the way this narrative of work and class was conveniently constrained to the representation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an amusing postscript to that aspect of the performance, the next day three of the volunteer actors who played the ‘factory hands’ in the ceremony were interviewed on national television. The curious interviewer asked the group what their day jobs were in real life. Their individual answers gave a fascinating insight in to the changing nature of Britain’s economy: the first was a civil servant, the second an accountant, and the third worked in ‘new media.’ So Britain’s industrial workers of the past were played by middle-class workers of the new economy.

There were, of course, many real workers on site during the opening ceremony, most notably at its climax where construction workers involved in building parts of the Olympic Park at Stratford formed a guard of honour for the Olympic flame as it entered the stadium. Of course, the comprehensive commentary didn’t mention that at least one of the construction firms working on the site is under investigation for blacklisting workers and compiling a database of those who raised concerns about workplace health and safety. These included trade unionists as well as non- activist workers who had particular concerns.  More embarrassing for the Conservative Party was that at least one of the firms involved in this illegal activity – Sir Robert McAlpine – was a substantial corporate donor to the Party.

One final aspect of class around the Olympics, and especially the Olympic Park itself, can be seen in the erasure of evidence of working-class culture and industry on the site.  Much of the commentary on the games focused on the role of regeneration of what was usually referred to as a “post-industrial wasteland.” This ignored the fact that many working-class jobs and working-class communities had been moved after the games were awarded to London back in 2005 in order to make room for the Olympic Park. While this erasure was not of the scale seen in Beijing, it was nonetheless notable. The immediate site itself and the wider Lea Valley area that surrounds it were home to a range of industries, including the manufacture of armaments, and this was  where gasoline was first refined. St. Etienne made a fascinating film about the area in 2005 called What have you done today, Mervyn Day? More historically but also ignored by commentators,  the games sat directly on the site of what was once the largest locomotive construction and repair shops in the world, where for a century and a half thousands of workers had built and maintained rolling stock for the Great Eastern and other railway companies. The local authority has an oral history section featuring some of those who worked at the site.

So class was strangely both absent and present at the London games in the summer of 2012. At times it was portrayed in graphic historical terms but not as something live in the present. Working-class culture, protest, and struggle were boxed off in a past represented by bygone industry, the parts of industrial workers played by members of the new economy. But for those of us who take the time to look, working-class culture surrounded both the sport played in the venues and the sites themselves.  In four years time it with be Rio’s turn to host the games, I wonder what stories of class will be told or left untold then. But as Jacques Rogge claims, the IOC are “working-class people,” so surely we can count on them?

Tim Strangleman

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

The Creative Class Joins the Working-Class

How is the so-called creative class faring in the ongoing economic crisis?  In three books published in the first decade of this century, Richard Florida argued that America’s future lay in metropolitan regions with a high density of “sexually diverse,” cultural, professional, and high-tech workers whose creativity would attract capital and spur future economic development. Recently, in articles in magazines like Salon.com and The Atlantic, critics have been debating whether the creative class is undergoing the same economic transformations as the working class.

 Undaunted by the economic crisis and the subsequent, continuing jobless recovery, Florida continues to suggest that the answer to post-industrialization lies in the continued migration of the so-called creative class to a few cosmopolitan urban areas. The transformation in economic geography would produce winners and losers both individually and regionally based on the ability of communities to develop and attract human capital. His Martin Prosperity Institute has contributed to a report ranking nations on the basis of their investment in innovation and technology.  Of course, all of this reflects Florida’s neo-liberal view that such changes are part of the “natural economic order,” and he has consistently attempted to normalize the new emerging economic order.

But despite Florida’s claims, the creative class is not necessarily winning in the current economy.  Like industrial workers before them, they are being affected by the past 30 years of neo-liberal economic reforms characterized by deregulation, marketization, and liberal trade policy that yielded significant corporate profits from the subcontracting, outsourcing, and the casualization of work in unskilled and semi-skilled industries. As the past decade has made clear, corporations and governments have used those same strategies to make employment for skilled workers, including those in the “knowledge industries,” increasingly precarious.

This has been aided by a different model and language of work, drawn from the so-called “creative industries” — those areas where employees, often in the arts and more recently higher education, were willing to give up stable employment in hierarchical organizations and embraced – or at least accepted – contingent employment involving self-directed, entrepreneurial, and cognitive labor. Florida provided much of the language and rationale for that shift, and his ideas had an significant impact on public discussions of economic development and urban renewal. Further, his view had great currency with the growing ranks of mobile, privileged, educated workers who were willing to embrace the high-risk/high reward employment/worker model.

But Florida had relatively little to say about the real working lives of members of the creative class and the changing organization of work produced by the changes he predicted. In fact, as Scott Timberg argues in Salon.com, the new creative class now shares the same working conditions as many on the other end of the labor market, especially those in the service sector that makes up the majority of today’s working class.  These conditions include uncertainty, temporary or intermittent employment, working in multiple jobs, and accepting jobs for which they are overqualified.  Creative workers, like many in the working class, are isolated from protective legal employment laws and are less likely to have benefits such health insurance, retirement plans, or paid sick leave. Put differently, young educated people, so popularly identified with the creative class, are suffering the same conditions as working and middle class families and could become what Business Week reporter Peter Coy has called a Lost Generation.

As work has eroded and become more episodic, not only does the creative class share the economic conditions of the working class, that group also now shares the working-class’s sense of alienation from American politics and antagonism toward the economic elite who have gained so much ground over the last decade. You need to look no further than the growth of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  On the streets of New York and in cities around the country, you see highly educated  young adults joining with displaced working- and middle-class people who believe the American Dream has become nightmare. They have been joined by public and private union members including 300 airline pilots marching in full dress uniform. All are rallying around their shared position as part of the 99% of Americans – a loose coalition much larger and more diverse than any single class.

What brings them together is a politics of resentment that is fueled by growing understanding and anger over the increasing economic inequality in the U.S.  While OWS has focused on Wall Street and government plutocrats, it is expanding and multiplying like an amoeba, in different directions politically and geographically. The issues driving people to occupy not only Wall Street but Public Square in Cleveland and a public park in Kansas City and a dozen other locations are not identical.  Each local group works independently, and they are focusing on issues ranging from the economy and war to agricultural and environmental policy,

As Kathy Newman said in Working-Class Perspectives last week, one of the great things about the OWS movement is its inclusivity. This should not be unexpected. Like the many middle class Americans, the creative class now shares the employment and economic conditions of working people and has shed their sense of difference and superiority over the working class. They now understand that despite the façade of self-direction and creativity, their economic position is every bit as uncertain and unfair as that of many retail, food service, and health care workers.  Just where this new amoeboid politics of resentment goes is anybody’s guess. But we can hope that it will become even more directed at those who are responsible for shaping the current national and global economic conditions that has now engaged and enraged so many people.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Movin’ on Down: CMT addresses the Working Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathy M. Newman

American History without the Working Class — Again!

As interesting and insightful as American Prospect reviewer Sarah Igo makes it seem, I am not going to read Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer.

According to Igo, Fischer is a “master of synthesis, sifting through hundreds of studies of local communities and the lives of ordinary men and women . . . to arrive at what he sees as the defining arcs of American culture from the colonial period to the present.”  And, she says, the book displays “sensitivity to the experiences of disparate Americans but also comfort with broad generalizations.”  As I will explain, the timing is perfect for such an effort.  And even if many of the “broad generalizations” turn out to be too broad, or even flat-out wrong, they should be usefully provocative for anybody who is trying to understand current American culture and who believes, as I do, that past is always prologue.

But Igo critically (if too forgivingly) reveals a key premise of Fischer’s “synthesis” that makes me dismiss this social history out of hand.  Fischer straightforwardly equates “American character and culture” with “middle-class culture” and makes no apology for doing so because, he says, “the American middle class lives and promulgates the distinctive and dominant character of the society.”

I’ve seen this before.  In fact, it is still a widely accepted academic convention that, as the authors of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life premised in the mid-1980s, if you understand the American middle class you understand Americans in general because “the middle class . . . has so dominated our culture that neither a genuinely upper-class nor a genuinely working-class culture has fully appeared.”  Books like American Manhood and American Cool make similar claims, often admitting a certain narrowness in their prefaces, but then proceeding recklessly to treat their version of middle-class culture as synonymous with the distinctively “American.”  Peter Stearns, for example, not only admits a middle-class narrowness in his introduction to American Cool, he further lets the cat out of the bag by granting that “[l]ike many studies of the middle class, it is biased toward evidence from Protestants in the North and West.”

I can see why publishers would not want more descriptive titles using unwieldy terms like American Middle-Class Manhood in the North and West, but this is more than a matter of deceptive marketing.  The actual practice of excluding working-class culture from the discussion is what Benjamin DeMott has called “middle-class imperialism,” which is less about actual economic and political domination than it is about middle-class scholars simply mistaking a part (their part, our part) for the whole, thereby maintaining their/our cultural domination.  The professional middle class in America is culturally dominant, in my view, even though we are economically subordinate to a ruling class and somewhat less politically subordinate but in a more complicated way.

Though I’m open to debate, I’m basically okay with the cultural predominance of the professional middle class.  If we have to choose among cultures, I’d choose – indeed, I have chosen – the middle-class one.  But middle-class imperialism that mistakes our part for the whole of American culture is the same kind of illusion as James Baldwin pointed to in the 1960s when he said, “If I’m not what the white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is.”  If working-class culture is not simply a discount version of middle-class culture, like hand-me-down clothes; if it has its own internal logic, constellation of values, and distinct history, as well as its own internal contradictions; if working-class culture influences middle-class culture as well as being influenced by it – then middle-class Americans misunderstand ourselves, as well as the larger society, when we mistake our part for the whole.

The concept of a “dominant culture” within a society presumes that there are other cultures different from the dominant one – Protestants in Italy, for example, or Catholics in England, Kurds in Iraq, or new and recent immigrants in all countries.  You cannot understand a dominant culture by excluding reference to the ones it dominates, how and why it predominates, and how it influences other cultures even if you think they have no influence on it.  What’s more, wouldn’t it be important in understanding middle-class culture to know what it is in the middle of – traditionally, between capital and labor, between a ruling and a working class?  Isn’t this middleness fundamental to its character and culture?

The standard scholarly convention does not dispute these, or any other, notions of social structure.  It just assumes that the other classes ain’t got no (genuine) culture that isn’t fundamentally defined by the middle class.  I don’t know enough about the ruling class to say how “genuine” its culture is, but if Working-Class Studies has done nothing else, it has shown that there is a genuine working-class culture that is very different from the middle-class one.  And as Barbara Jensen, Annette Lareau, Betsy Leondar-Wright and numerous others have argued, this culture has many valuable aspects that compare favorably to middle-class character and culture, as well as some that don’t.   Most of us in the field, whether in our family lives, as teachers, culture workers or activists, have experienced the kinds of culture clashes that would be impossible if there were only one genuine “American” culture.

Made in America is an attempt to restore the kind of “consensus” view of American history that finds unity in diversity at the very core of our national character.  The civil rights, women’s and other social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s destroyed this view, aided in academia by African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Queer Studies, the New Labor History, and others who insisted that attention be paid to those who had been excluded from the official understanding of our world.  This buffet banquet of diversity may by now have overemphasized our differences from one another, making it a good a time to try again to find what it is that unifies us, or could.  That’s why I was looking forward to this book when I first heard about it.  Though it is unfair to criticize a book I have not read, I know this isn’t the book I was looking for because you cannot find unity in diversity if you start out by eliminating most of the diversity – namely the majority of actually existing Americans who are not middle class.

Jack Metzgar. Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

On Poverty, Policy, and Real People

When the latest report was released last September, the poverty rate in the U.S. stood at 13.2 percent, the highest rate in 11 years.  Given the recession, the increase shouldn’t surprise us, and we’ll probably see higher numbers when the next report is issued in August.  I was surprised that the increase wasn’t more dramatic, but in fact the national poverty rate has hovered between about 10 and 13 percent for most of the past four decades.  While a few percentage points represent a whole lot of people, I was struck by the relative stability of the figures.  Clearly, today’s higher rate of poverty illustrates the effects of the recession.  But if we almost always have more than 10 percent of Americans living in poverty, then it’s clearly a persistent and troublingly-policy-resistant problem.

A conversation with a tour guide and another American tourist on a van in Argentina a few weeks ago got me started thinking about all this.  The tour guide was explaining that her government provides subsidies to families with children, and she was lamenting that some families choose to subsist on those government payments instead of entering the workforce.  The American tourist agreed that this was a problem.  She suggested that the right answer would be to “incentivize” poor people, so they would choose work over idleness.

Underlying the conversation were several assumptions about poverty and the role of government.  The first is that most people are poor because they choose not to work.  I suppose this is true for some, but I’m skeptical that laziness explains most instances of poverty.   According to a 2007 report from the U.S. Census, only 21.5 percent of people in poverty don’t work.  Today, the percentage may be higher, but given the unemployment rate, that’s not surprising, and we can’t read it as evidence of laziness.  Indeed, the New York Times has been running a terrific series on “The New Poor,” presenting stories and analysis of how a complex mix of accident and policies are driving people from the middle and working classes into poverty.  For a good example, read a recent report in the New York Times about how state cuts to child care subsidies are making it impossible for some low-income women to hold on to their jobs.  The women profiled in the story are far from lazy.  They want to work, but they can’t leave their children at home alone and have few options.

Second, we assume that if people are poor, it’s entirely their own fault.  Common wisdom suggests that poor people would be comfortably middle class if only they were smart enough or worked hard enough to take advantage of the opportunities this country offers.  Great myth, but in fact, upward mobility is less common in the U.S. than we’d like to think.  Most Americans remain in the social class in which they grew up.  Poverty is often situational and temporary.  Equally important, as we have noted here previously, the U.S. can expect to see the most job growth over the next few decades in low-income jobs, meaning that increasing numbers of hard-working Americans will also be poor.

A third assumption in that tour van conversation is that government’s role should be to push people to work hard, not support those in need.  Social welfare, the assumption goes, teaches people to depend on the government and thus increases, or at least perpetuates, poverty.  While tracing this correlation can be tricky, a study by Lane Kenworthy, Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona (who also writes for the conservative Cato Institute), found that Germany and Sweden, two European countries with the most generous state welfare programs, experienced lower levels of poverty than other nations.  Such programs don’t eliminate poverty, and the results are uneven across Europe and elsewhere, but they do seem to help more than hurt.  Based on his comparative study of the effects of social welfare programs, Kenworthy concludes that “relatively modest increases in benefit levels for programs that assist nonworking individuals and low-income workers might well be sufficient to bring the U.S. into line with at least a few of the other affluent nations in reducing poverty.”

Of course, we don’t address poverty only through direct supports.  Improvements in education, worker rights, and health care would create better opportunities for people in poverty to achieve economic stability and move toward prosperity, and many people and organizations are working on these issues, here in the U.S. and globally.  Yet such improvements are not only slow to develop, they are also – like most public policy – matters of intense debate.  What does “better education” look like?  What rights should workers have?  Is access to good health care a human right, and if so, how should we pay for it?  As the seemingly endless Congressional and media battles over health care demonstrated, solving the social problems that contribute to poverty is a cumbersome and frustrating process.

Much of the debate comes down to two big questions.  First, does the free market generate good social practices?  In other words, when corporations and business leaders pursue their interests, does that generate sufficient prosperity and opportunity to help the poor and working class?   Second, do we believe that society as a whole has an interest, either moral or economic, in supporting those who are living in poverty? Or do we view economic inequality as either a “natural” condition or a self-inflicted problem that should be left alone, either because we believe we can’t do anything about it or because we believe that those who are poor don’t deserve assistance?

Clearly, neither the American people nor our leaders agree on how to answer these questions, and because those on both sides are passionate and committed to their views, we may never reach consensus.  That means that policy debates will continue to be contested, and most likely, especially given the U.S. system of government (see James Fallows on this), the policies we develop will usually take moderate, often muddled and cautious approaches.

Policy solutions seem elusive, but we should nonetheless think carefully about how we characterize people in poverty.  When we treat them with disdain and suspicion, the result is the sort of demeaning, even dehumanizing legal and bureaucratic practices that Barbara Ehrenreich has been documenting.  Or we can view them as equal human beings, people worthy of not just our sympathy but our assistance and respect.  We can check our judgments and question our assumptions.  And perhaps most important, we can listen to their stories so that we can understand their experiences and perspectives.  When we listen to others, they become human.  They become part of “us,” members of our society whom we cannot so easily brush aside or condemn.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Where’s the Working-Class Web?

While Working-Class Perspectives aims to reflect the interests and experiences of working-class people, in truth we spend more time talking about the working class than listening to actual working-class voices.  But, it turns out, finding working-class voices online isn’t easy.

About a year ago, a reporter from the MinnPost called me to ask why so few working-class people have created websites about how to do things like plumbing or electrical wiring.  He noted that many creative professionals were writing blogs about how to manage their freelance writing, graphic design, and web development businesses.  He was frustrated that he couldn’t find a good site that would show him how to do things like fix a broken toilet, and he wondered why blue-collar work wasn’t more present online.  His theory was that working-class people lacked the education to use the web.  I suggested that the story might be more complex than that.  Plumbers might not view their work as anything worth writing about, or they might not see writing as either useful or enjoyable.  And maybe they’d rather we hire them to fix our backed-up toilets and clogged sinks.

While I was frustrated by his assumptions, he’s not wrong to note the relative invisibility of the working class online.  You’ll find good informational sites run by labor organizations, and several academic organizations, like the Center for Working-Class Studies, make resources available on working-class culture.  But after these listings a Google search on “working class” leads mostly to commercial ventures that use the term to denote something about their style.

A few sites do offer workers’ voices, though most are run by either cultural institutions or unions.  Take, for example, Working Stiff, a short-lived web project that collected workplace diaries, offered advice to workers on how to stand up for their rights at work, and even offered a “stress-o-meter” to help you measure how tough your job was.  It was a project of PBS’s  Web Lab, from more than a decade ago.  Not exactly a working-class operation, but a genuine and interesting effort to create a space for workers’ voices.

You can hear workers’ voices on some labor websites.  Change to Win, for example, has a page of worker testimonials about workplace issues.  Here, as in many of the websites that include statements from or interviews with workers, there’s an overt agenda – not worker expression for its own sake.

Some poetry websites includes poems about work, but again these are largely sponsored and created by more middle-class cultural institutions.  Poets.org has a great online exhibit on work poetry, “Overhand the Hammers Swing,” put together by Philip Levine.  One of my favorite poets of work, Tom Wayman, has some pieces online, and this week, with the latest mining disaster in West Virginia, is a good time to search out the poems of Diane Gilliam Fisher, who’s Kettle Bottom takes us deep into the lives of miners from the first half of the 20th century.

All of this, of course, defines “working class” entirely as a matter of work.  And as I told the guy from the MinnPost, it might not be that working-class voices are absent from the web.  They may just not be labeled “working class.”  Since people rarely use the term to define themselves – except in relation to their work – we don’t find websites about working-class family life, neighborhoods, churches, or community groups when we search for that phrase.  That doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

Here’s a good example.  A few weeks ago, my friend Ben mentioned that he had found a YouTube video about the history of a house and family on the south side of Youngstown.  631 tells the story of how a family made a home by renovating a run-down house in the late 50s and how, over time, as the community and the family struggled economically, they lost it.  The video features family photos and interviews, and while family members make a few references to their jobs, no one ever uses the word “class.”  Nonetheless, the film shows how class, race, and place together shaped this family’s life.  And I’d never have found it if I went looking for something on that theme.

You can find additional images of working-class life, created by working people, thanks to the multiple versions of unseen america, a photography project organized originally by Bread and Roses, the cultural branch of the Service Employees’ International Union local 1199.

Obviously, the web isn’t the only place to hear working-class voices.  The best place to look for workers’ voices, other than at a neighborhood bar or church basement, is in print.  For example, New City Community Press collects oral histories and organizing writing projects involving working-class people in writing and creating images of their own lives and getting them into print.  Bottom Dog Press has published a number of individual volumes of prose and poetry as well as several terrific anthologies about working-class life.  The Blue Cubicle Press also publishes worker writing, including a journal, Workers Write.

But that still leaves me wondering: where are the working-class voices online, the stories not just about work but about daily life, family, and neighborhood?  At the Center for Working-Class Studies, we already have links to a number of websites and museums, though most reflect the work of either academics or labor unions.  I’d like to add more links to websites, images, and videos created by working-class people about their own lives, so let me put the puzzle in your hands.  What are you seeing out there?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

The Political Parabola, the Media, and the Direction of Working-Class Populism

Media pundits regularly describe American politics in terms of a spectrum, from far right to far left.  It’s time to recognize that this simplistic model has lost some of its explanatory value. It’s convenient, but it doesn’t adequately describe what is happening politically in the country.

Rather, I have been using the term political parabola. For those who are geometrically-impaired, a parabola looks like the cables on a suspension bridge or half of the McDonald’s golden arches. In the political parabola of American cultural politics, the right meets left politically. The ends of the so-called spectrum – right and left — are closer to each other than they are to the middle. This concept clarifies much current political discourse as well as the way working-class people are represented and are participating in the debates.

People on the political margins have a lot in common these days. For example, many Catholics are at once anti-war and anti-abortion. Here in Youngstown, our former Congressman and newly-released prisoner, James Traficant, is a cross between a West-Texas populist and a member of Posse Comitatas.  Like many liberal commentators, he deploys class and cultural resentments over the economy, government bailouts, foreign policy and a myriad of social issues, often expressed in highly emotional terms.

Meanwhile, on the right, the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are increasing their populist rhetoric as they decry the impact of high unemployment and economic crisis on the working class.  O’Reilly goes in further in Who’s Looking Out for You? He begins by using economist Michael Zweig’s definition of the working class, according to which over 60% of US families are working class, and he goes on to claim that he, O’Reilly, is their best representative.

The result is a growing American style of populism that has a cross-class appeal and important political implications. As Frank Rich has suggested, “The recession-spawned anger that (Glenn) Beck has tapped into on the right could yet find a more mainstream outlet in populist revolt from the left and the center.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are aware of the growing politics of resentment on both ends of the parabola.  It’s hard to determine just how deep this discontent runs, just as it is uncertain how it could influence voting patterns.  At this point, both parties are trying to mobilize the discontent and influence current debates. But as many Democrats have faltered and caved to corporate interests on the health care debate and corporate bailouts, Republicans seem to be winning the battle for the populist hearts and minds. If nothing else, they’re making a lot more noise.  Just look at this summer’s tea parties and town hall meetings.

But where does the working class fit in this emerging populism?  While the protesters’ politics may seem conservative, their social class is not clear.  Some liberal commentators can’t seem to figure out whether to dismiss them as privileged elites (or would-be elites) fighting to protect their own tax breaks or as working-class dupes who don’t understand their economic interests.  Of course, no one asks about income, education, or occupation at these rallies, so it’s hard to know who’s really turning out.

Still, amid their high anxieties about Obama’s citizenship and socialist plots, they do have one thing right:  neither the political debate nor media reports are paying enough attention to how the economic crisis is affecting ordinary Americans.  A recent poll by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism indicates that economic news pays more attention to banking and finance, the auto crisis, and the stimulus package than to the impact of the economic down turn on housing, unemployment, and the lives of working Americans. To help improve reporting on the current economic crisis, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism has even initiated a new Nieman Watchdog project entitled “Reporting on the Collapse.”

Class confusion is nothing new in America, but given the current state of affairs, we need to keep in mind a few key points about working-class populism.  One, the working class is diverse culturally, politically, and geographically.  That means that the “working-class position” is always complex and contested.  Second, the recession has added large numbers to the working class, as people who once thought of themselves as comfortably middle-class struggle to recover from the loss of jobs, homes, and retirement accounts. Consequently, any analysis that views the working class as dupes or no longer relevant economically or electorally may be short-sighted. Today’s working class is probably both larger and better educated than at any point in American history. Third, as unemployment grows, working-class populists may push even conservatives to view government spending more positively. We’ve seen this recently with conservative politicians in Texas who initially refused to accept stimulus funds but are fighting to make get their share of public support.   Even conservatives know that hungry citizens can be dangerous.

John Russo

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