Religious Liberty: (Not) For All

Freedom of religion is a central idea in the United States. Most descriptions of U.S. history emphasize flight from religious repression as the main motivation for colonial settlement. The U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea of freedom in the very first line of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Proponents argue that religious liberty means that everyone may participate in a free “marketplace” of religious ideas and practices. Neither atheists nor believers pay taxes to support a state church. Believers are free of taxes on property and activities associated with their church, temple, or mosque. In this open market, the benefits are said to be spread evenly – from the rich to the poor, from the 1% to the working class. However, institutional actions in the name of religious freedom can have negative consequences for working-class people.

No one seems to question whether individuals should be free to follow their conscience or to practice the religion of their choice (or no religion at all). But how should we evaluate religious freedom claims for institutions, especially when they involve workers, services, and public funds? Discrimination in certain employment practices is generally non-controversial. For instance, a church would not be subject to discrimination claims if it refused to consider rabbis as candidates for its pastoral leadership.

But other employment cases are not as clear cut. For example, in the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012), the Court not only recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, but extended it. Cheryl Perich, a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, filed suit claiming that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She became sick and was on leave for several months. Upon her return, she faced pressure to resign but refused to do so, and the school terminated her employment. In the court case, the school successfully argued that she functioned as a minister in that context. In the ruling, the court valued the religious freedom doctrine over Perich’s medical condition and ADA regulations. The long-term consequences of this ruling remain unclear. How much deference will the courts give to  religious organizations rather than to employees?

Courts have also applied the principle of religious freedom to for-profit corporations.  For example, Hobby Lobby, an otherwise secular corporation owned by Christians, won its bid to avoid providing contraceptive care to its workers. As I wrote earlier this year, “the application of the doctrine of religious liberty to Hobby  Lobby means that the religious beliefs of five corporate owners take precedence over the beliefs and interests of nearly 13,400 workers in 535 stores across the country. Further, the ruling grants religious freedom to the corporation, giving it legal status as a ‘person’ whose rights must be protected as well.”

Religious freedom cases also affect working-class people beyond the workplace. In April, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether a church was eligible for a grant from a state program aimed at non-profits. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Missouri sought a grant from a state program aimed at resurfacing playgrounds with recycled tires. The state initially denied Trinity’s application on the basis of Section 7 of the state constitution, which stipulates that “no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion.”

What could possibly be wrong with fixing a playground? After all, although it is on church property, children from the community around Trinity Lutheran may use it as well. Just the week before, on April 13, the new Republican governor of Missouri, Eric Greitens issued a statement supporting the church’s claim: “Before we came into office, government bureaucrats were under orders to deny grants to people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids… That’s just wrong… We have hundreds of outstanding religious organizations all over the state of Missouri who are doing great work on behalf of kids and families every single day. We should be encouraging that work.”

The controversy at Trinity Lutheran Church is much bigger than their playground. Will the Roberts court use this case, despite the governor’s announcement, to strike down Missouri’s bar on direct state aid to religious institutions – and in the process also overturn similar prohibitions in 37 other states? A broad ruling could have significant consequences, including direct public funding for private, religious schools – most of which are Christian. That may be one rationale for the suit over the playground grant. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Trinity’s legal representation, states on its website that the “Christian community gained growing awareness that the threats to its freedom were multiplying. The legal system, which was built on a moral and Christian foundation, had been steadily moving against religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. And very few Christians were showing up in court to put up a fight. By funding cases, training attorneys, and successfully advocating for freedom in court, Alliance Defending Freedom changed that.”

Trinity Lutheran Church is a member congregation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, a conservative evangelical denomination, well to the right (theologically and politically) of fellow Lutherans in the larger, more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Trinity’s physical location is a few miles from Columbia’s downtown but a million miles from its most economically challenged neighborhoods. The census tract in which Trinity is located has an average income of just over $78,000, while two census tracts to the east, average incomes barely reach $12,000. Trinity’s census tract is 86% white while Columbia as a whole is 77% white. The poverty rate for all of Columbia is nearly 25% against the state average of almost 16%.  In this case, the distribution of public funds is not only diverted directly to a church but a congregation that is already in an economically privileged neighborhood. The cost to refurbish Trinity’s playground won’t break Missouri’s bank. And perhaps the church does not minister only to its most proximate neighbors but also draws people from around an economically challenged city.

But this case suggests what might be heading our way: in the name of religious freedom, scarce public funds, those very funds on which the working classes most depend for public services, might be diverted toward private ends that benefit those who already have more resources, ends that may not enhance the common good. The case of Trinity Lutheran Church might only be a playground now, but it could be the plaything for those who want to redistribute public funds for the direct benefit of religious bodies. How will public institutions fare, the ones that working-class people depend upon most, if they are starved of funding as public dollars move into the hands of private institutions that are already unburdened by any taxation?

Religious liberty claims have been given significant deference in the United States. As these U.S. Supreme Court cases suggest, it has become very difficult to set limits on institutions that claim exemptions on religious liberty grounds. In the interests of individual workers and the working class in general, these limitations serve to preserve people’s well-being in the workplace and beyond. But the struggle to do so will be incredibly difficult unless economic justice can also be recognized in public policy matters. For now, though, private religious concerns are using the principle of religious freedom to set the public agenda.

Ken Estey

Ken Estey is an associate professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the author of A New Protestant Labor Ethic at Work. His research centers on the intersection of politics and religion with a particular focus on labor and Christianity.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Is Class Really Forgotten?: Working-Class Studies Association 2017 Awards

Over the last week, I’ve read a couple of pieces in which elite academics highlight their discovery of the importance of class, both noting how the topic has been neglected by academia and ‘the elite’. In a Financial Times interview with American Law professor Joan Williams, FT staffer Simon Kuper says that Williams’s recent book, ‘White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America’,  examines a topic that American progressives have ignored: class. The FT piece came quickly off the heels of an article in Harvard Review entitled ‘Harvard’s Class Gap: Can the academy understand Donald Trump’s “forgotten” Americans?’  In it Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, makes a similar point about the academy’s neglect of all things classed. Both articles are at once welcome and annoying for anyone in Working-Class Studies. Welcome because any attention to class in a mildly sympathetic way is a good thing, right? But it’s annoying to see our research on class once again be ignored, side-lined, or deemed not up to snuff.

But this is also the time of year when the Working-Class Studies Association announces its annual awards. Each year we attempt to find and reward the best examples of work in the field, which collectively show that writing and thinking about class is alive and well in North America and elsewhere in the world. Over five separate categories we recognise the academics, journalists, filmmakers, artists, and creative writers producing exceptional work on working-class life, history, and culture.  As past president of the Association, I had the pleasure of organising this year’s awards. I also get the pleasure of announcing the winners.

This year’s CLR James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences was won by Angela Stuesse for her book Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South. In their comments the judges described the book as ‘timely, beautifully-written, and deeply researched activism-based ethnography about the poultry industry in the American South.’ One wrote that ‘Stuesse demonstrates how workers are exploited and divided on the basis of racial and ethnic identities within the context of neoliberal globalization’, while another called the book ‘a model of engaged scholarship. Without underestimating the difficulties her research reveals that the basis for inter-racial working class solidarity among African Americans and Latinos in the South does indeed exist in the newest “new” South.’

The Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing recognized Workers Write: Tales From the Construction Site, edited by David LaBounty. Full of praise for Workers Write the judges commented that the book ‘gets at the very heart of what working-class art, working-class creative writing, looks like. It comes from varied perspectives, speaks in diverse voices, but both the perspective and the voices have at base an engaging depiction of work and the worker’s life.’ One wrote that

The short stories and poems in this collection are snapshots of the experience of work and its place in a wider social life. Scenes from everyday life, tangible descriptions of work, tales that blur autobiography and imaginative purpose – each story finds its own character through this theme. The writing is consistently good throughout, across a diverse range of styles, highlighting not just the talent of the authors but of the editor’s eye. It is a book that gives expression to working class creativity: its intrinsic relationship to having to hold down a day job and pay the rent, an expression of labor in writing, and a testament to the labor of writing itself.

Another wrote that the collection gave ‘voice to the working class in a clear, authentic way. These multi-genre selections are grounded in the reality of working-class existence.’

This year, the John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences is being given to Diana Garvin for her article ‘Singing Truth to Power: Melodic Resistance and Bodily Revolt in Italy’s Rice Fields’, published in the academic journal Annali d’italianistica. One judge called it ‘An ambitious interdisciplinary and intersectional project that centers the voices of working-class women in Italy during the Fascist period.’ Another described it as

A superb article, indeed one of the most compelling that I’ve read for some time. It is beautifully written, theoretically trenchant, and deeply insightful as it re-presents the archive voices of the Mondine women through a careful and compassionate scholarship that itself speaks truth to power through its account of the women’s singing of truth to the power of exploitative practices of productivity and womanhood under Italian Fascism. As such, this article – of all the excellent material submitted – occupies the unique space of working class studies as I see it: that is, it brings deep and humane attention to the material interconnections of gender, class place and history as they impact on lived experience, and it does so with an impeccable balance of creative awareness, persistently probing intelligence, and scrupulous outrage. Wonderful!

The Studs Terkel Award recognizes projects in Media and Journalism, and this year it went to journalist Gabriel Thompson for his article ‘Dark Meat’, part of a series called The Grind from the online magazine Slate. This series featured a number of excellent pieces, but the judges chose Thompson’s article for its ‘informative and engaging narrative’, which ‘brings home the personal side of poultry industry’s gaming of industrial accident rates and its efforts to increase line speeds via Dept. of Agriculture’s regulatory authority.’ Another noted how the piece ‘Makes the reader viscerally feel the pain of workplace injuries and overwork. Damning of the poultry and insurance companies and the workers’ comp system and OSHA. It illustrates how employers get away with mistreating workers with government collusion.’

Finally, this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation goes to WCSA conference regular Jackie Gabriel. Commenting on Gabriel’s dissertation, ‘Manufacturing Precarity: A Case Study of the Grain Processing Corporation (GPC)/United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 86D Lockout in Muscatine, Iowa’, one judge wrote, ‘I found this study on precarious jobs and precarious workers to be a fascinating and useful take on how job loss and re-employment works in the Heartland. The meteoric rise of the use of the offensive lockout by employers makes this case study of the longest lockout in US history to be especially appropriate for examination. It is a strong rumination on the relationship between workers, local unions and national headquarters.’ Another wrote that Gabriel  ‘had produced ‘brilliant work’, and said that ‘this is a classic tale of blue-collar workers being dominated by the power of the owning class, but in this case the workers held onto their dignity and, in the long run, their skills and their rewarding productive labor.’

Congratulations to all those who won awards this year and to the many others nominated for them. We created these prizes to mark the excellent work going on in Working-Class Studies and to make them more visible. Across the five awards, we received forty-five individual nominations. Each of these shows that there is a burning desire to reflect on class experience, inequality, and injustice, and that there is a substantial audience for work on class in varied media. Perhaps the more elite commentators who claim a silence on the topic of class should take the time and effort to discover the rich material reported on and recognised here.

Tim Strangleman

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Springsteen’s Born to Run: Memoir as “Repair”

Few rock music memoirs have caught the attention of esteemed novelists such as Richard Ford, whose New York Times review of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016) exalts the musician as not simply an extraordinary artist and showman but a literary writer who “paradoxically” hails from the “humblest” of American locales.  Over the last four and a half decades, Springsteen has been branded America’s working-class troubadour—at once an ‘every man’ and singular artist whose song catalogue has been compared to the best of Whitman and Steinbeck (not to mention Bob Dylan).  His boisterous tales of the Jersey shore and more intimate Guthrie-esque portraits of post-industrial America are beloved in no small part because they tell truths from Bruce’s own life story and give voice to largely forgotten communities. Given his music’s definitive autobiographical components, what does Springsteen accomplish by publishing a 500-page version of his life saga?

Born to Run reads as a challenging mixture of several memoir subgenres: 1) working-class life writing—specifically, a variant of deindustrialization personal narratives; 2) music celebrity memoir; and 3) disability life narrative.  Springsteen’s bombshell revelation of his long-term battle with what appears to be bipolar illness erupts a third of the way through the book, disrupting the familiar unfolding of his rise to superstardom. No one in his inner circle knew about his condition except for his manager Jon Landau and, eventually, his wife and band member Patti Scialfa. Yet while this destabilizes his autobiographical claims, it also frees him to double down on the rewards of autobiography as a tool for social change.  His vulnerability finally allows him—and us—to interpret anew the connections between his life, his art, and political resistance. As he becomes more comfortable with exposing his “brilliant disguise,” Springsteen comes to function as a kind of ghost writer for his own text. He confronts what has haunted him throughout his past and re-envisions his future.

As with nearly every other aspect of his life, mental illness is intimately connected to his father.   Doug Springsteen has achieved legendary status in his son’s music due to their acrimonious relationship, and his own untreated paranoid schizophrenia emerges as another potential ‘inheritance.’  This disclosure forces us to re-examine one central preoccupation of the text:  Springsteen’s rise from a “working man’s son” to a multi-millionaire icon. Working-class and disability life narratives merge in his depiction of that fraught transition as a material and psychological metamorphosis that never quite holds.

As his devout fans know all too well, the “Boss” rejected his father’s life path from an early age.  He hardly romanticized the grinding, often demeaning jobs available in Freehold, NJ.  But while his realized dream of rock stardom clearly serves as a central outlet for his manic energy and artistic ambitions, the memoir reveals that Bruce envisions musicianship as physical labor.  His sweat-drenched, four-hour concerts insistently announce his work ethic.  In the memoir, two striking boyhood memories invoke his father’s complex legacy in shaping Bruce’s liminal class position. The first recalls bringing a modest lunch to his father working on the factory floor, where the din prevents them from hearing each other.  The second functions as a rhapsodic ode to his father’s delivery truck, which makes a similar “metallic roar” as he proudly drives with his ‘pop’: “I’m riding with the king. My dad has taken me to work. Oh, what a world it could’ve been” (260-61).  These twin vignettes encompass both the estrangement and enthrallment of his classed identity formation, his father equal parts cautionary tale and proletarian hero.  As an adult, ‘putting on the working man’s shirt’ came to feel duplicitous once Springsteen ‘hit the big time,’ but he is repeatedly driven to revisit the neighborhood of his youth–not simply as a sentimental touchstone of his ‘past’ but, as he comes to see, a perpetual community that throbs inside of him.

As Tim Strangleman and Sherry Linkon note of deindustrialization narratives, the children of mid-twentieth century manual workers face a profoundly transformed local landscape and often describe their own grief, anger, and nostalgia over what their families have lost.  Born to Run functions in part as a working-class autobiography because his class heritage–and its literal erasure in his hometown’s closed factories–equally informs his polarized sense of self. The book’s photographs of Springsteen’s favorite local music clubs—his teenage haunts and stages–serve as their own kind of postindustrial memorials of workingclass cultural spaces that no longer exist.  As he looks back on the threshold of his profoundly transformed class circumstances, he recalls: “I didn’t want out. I wanted in. … I wanted to understand. What were the social forces that held my parents’ lives in check? … I was determined to be the enlightened, compassionate voice of reason and revenge” (264).

However, the memoir reveals that he only gradually reckons with the gendering of this ‘reauthenticated’ class self.  Studies of deindustrialized communities pinpoint the loss of traditional masculinity, along with class pride, when manual labor vanishes. Springsteen frequently associates being off the road with bouts of depression, and given his understanding of stage performance as a highly masculinized mode of labor alongside his E Street ‘brotherhood,’ he may also have experienced his non-touring life as a kind of emasculation.  He recalls his father’s taunts of being feminine or ‘queer’ when he was a long-haired, introspective teenager. “When my dad looked at me,” he writes, “he didn’t see what he needed to see” (28).  But he also recognizes that his father actually saw the qualities that he himself repressed due to normative gender codes that held sway at the mill and the tavern. Still, it takes him far too long—into his late thirties–to understand that women are actually human beings.

After retrospectively grappling with his illness, his fame, and his fear and disrespect of the feminine, the memoir finally foregrounds a narrative mode of healing–what Springsteen calls “repair”:

In my twenties, as my song and my story began to take shape, I searched for the voice I would blend with mine to do the telling.  It is a moment when through creativity and will you can rework, repossess and rebirth the conflicting voices of your childhood, to turn them into something alive, powerful and seeking light.   I’m a repairman.  That’s part of my job.  So I, who’d never done a week’s worth of manual labor in my life … put on a factory worker’s clothes, my father’s clothes, and went to work. (414)

Earlier in the autobiography, we glimpse what initially seems a far more literal mode of repair: young Bruce joins his grandfather for their weekly “trash night,” where they search garbage bins for broken radios to fix at his grandfather’s shop.  He watches the process—‘exchanging bad tubes for good’–and waits for the coming transfiguration:  “that instant when the whispering breath, the beautiful low static hum and warm … glow of electricity will come surging back into the dead skeleton of radios we have pulled from extinction” (8-9).  As Springsteen wistfully notes, in that space and moment, “the resurrection is real.”

The scene, however, also clearly anticipates a later, more arduous job of reclaiming apparent ‘detritus’ to rebuild a psyche, reclaim a life, from a multitude of “conflicting voices.”   Figuratively taking on his father’s uniform, Springsteen adopts the working-class practice and aesthetic of  “salvage,” drawing from a host of competing influences and experiences to “will” his own recovery into being—and with it, that of his familial and class community.  He “seeks light” by drilling down into the “darkness” of his private past and, most importantly, in his willingness to be publicly vulnerable about what he has found.  Turning once more to his father, he recounts the troubled lessons that propelled so much of his life’s arc:

The rigidity and the blue-collar narcissism of ‘manhood’ 1950s’-style.  An inner yearning for isolation, for the world on your own terms or not at all. You always withhold some thing, you do not lower your mask. … The rituals of the barroom. A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained (413).

Through telling the ‘underside’ of his life story—to his analyst, his wife, and finally his readers–the Boss comes to embrace the domestic, and ultimately self, intimacy he once found terrifying. Born to Run culminates in Springsteen’s most significant achievement: recognizing deep, unguarded emotion not as weakness but as a valuable form of knowledge, interpersonal ethics, and perhaps a more meaningful form of class politics.

Pamela Fox

Pamela Fox teaches women’s and working-class literature and culture at Georgetown University.  She has written about British working-class novels, American country music, and most recently, Jackie Kay’s transracial adoption memoir writing.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Will the British Working Class Stand Up and Fight Back?

I spent my teenage years in 1980s Thatcher’s Britain. Working-class people struggled in a grim environment. Three million people were unemployed, local services and the NHS were underfunded, and attacks were launched against unions (as a result of the miners’ strike). A culture of greed and excess characterised the City of London (the financial centre of the country). Life was hard, people suffered, many lost their homes and lived in cardboard cities in Central London. Towns faced pit closures and working-class people lost their main source of income and identity. Race riots broke out due to racism and police intimidation of Black Britons. The mainstream media’s coverage of the Falklands war whipped up xenophobia and nationalism. Angry people felt unheard by their elected representatives.

When I think back to the 1980s in my working-class neighbourhood, I remember unmaintained public housing, under-resourced schools, long waiting lists for medical treatment, heroin addiction, rough sleepers, and disenfranchised youth. Ideological attacks were launched at any ideas perceived as ‘lefty’ and empathy was withdrawn from people receiving welfare. This was a far cry from the clichéd pop culture imagery of the 1980s as big hair, shoulder pads, leg warmers, and Duran Duran (although pop culture offered some powerful responses to the times). Young working-class people felt alienated from parliamentary politics – who was listening to the unemployed youth and kids still in school facing such uncertain futures? No one, it seemed. Many of my peers lost faith in the main parties (including Labour). I don’t remember any of my friends talking about voting in the general election of 1987, when the Tories, still led by Thatcher, were returned in their third consecutive win.  Arguably, this election saw Labour move away from the left and towards the centre. But for the Tories to be returned so convincingly, many working-class people must have voted for them. Why did so many vote for a party that put their interests last?

I left the UK in 1992 and started a new life as an immigrant in Australia. But I still identify as British and have maintained my links to my homeland. I’ve been watching events there since I left and have felt particularly angry at how working-class people have been harmed by the policies the Tories implemented since they regained power in 2010. It feels like the 1980s again, but much worse. The unemployment rate may be lower (at 4.8%, from a high of over 11% in the mid-1980s), but it seems that the government has found ways to exclude people from the official figures, so the picture isn’t complete. And the prevalence of short term and casual contracts means high levels of precarity among those who do have jobs, who often earn minimum wages.

Savage cuts have hit public services hard, and an increasingly under-funded NHS is struggling to keep up with the demand for health services. Schools are in disrepair, local services are almost non-existent, with youth centres, libraries, and local programs designed to improve quality of life diminished or disappearing. Public housing is being sold off to private developers and tenants evicted. A cap on housing benefits has forced people on low incomes and receiving welfare to move out of London and relocate hundreds of miles away from family, friends, and support networks. Changes to rules for welfare have drastically reduced or even suspended people’s incomes. People cannot afford to buy food and must queue up for food bank assistance. Homelessness is on the rise, with the numbers of rough sleepers in cities increasing significantly – a reality that can’t be ignored, because they can easily be seen on the streets. Austerity measures have hit working-class people very hard.

What, then, will working-class class people in Britain do when the country goes to the polls on June 8th? Many commentators have analysed the rise of anti-politics and the increasing shift of support from so-called establishment politicians to their populist contenders. The Brexit vote, the election of Trump, and the increased vote share of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in Australia have all been blamed on disillusioned white working-class voters who feel ignored by the mainstream political parties. But the working-class is diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, and some analysts have suggested that the rise of populist politics globally is much more complex. For example, many Trump, Brexit, and One Nation supporters are middle-class and affluent (although they are predominantly white).

Will the British working class take stock of Tory policies since the 1970s and decide that enough is enough? Will they insist on being heard? Will they fight back through the ballot box? Can Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party provide working-class people with real representation? Has his party done enough to win back working-class voters? Most importantly, will working-class people actually enrol to vote and exercise their democratic right? I’m worried that if history repeats itself, working-class people who make it to the polling booths could once again vote in a Tory government. The consequences of five more years of austerity are too awful to contemplate. My greatest hope for Britain at the moment is that this time, working-class people stand up and fight back!

Sarah Attfield

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Predatory Lenders Making American Nightmares From American Dreams

Yes, Donald Trump is President, and he accomplished this upset in part by shattering the working-class firewall in long time Democratic, heartland strongholds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. We cannot respond only with resistance.  An effective defense, in the Rust Belt or anywhere else in the country, requires a deeply rooted offense focused on the traditional Democratic working-class base, and that requires organizations and organizers who will to listen and offer meaningful responses to real pain being felt by so many at the grassroots level.

Amid repeated promises from the White House and Republicans to cut from healthcare, Medicare, and other elements of the already tattered safety net, there are few issues so stark, or so predatory, as the credit desert that keeps working families from securing decent and affordable housing. This is a problem the Real Estate Developer-in-Chief should well understand.

Since the 2008 Great Recession, the devastation of foreclosures, for individuals and communities, has become well-known.  Less appreciated has been the banks’ response. As the subprime market ended, many lenders now demand higher credit scores, larger down payments, and higher minimum loan levels for mortgages.  Marginal financial institutions, specializing in predatory products, moved in, reviving instruments that had largely disappeared from urban home ownership markets with the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, laws that also ended redlining in minority communities.  Contract-for-deed, installment land purchases, rent-to-own, lease purchase, and other deceptively-named transactions lured families into hoping for affordable housing and home ownership into agreements that exploited them instead.

Worse, much of the housing stock involved was had been acquired from Federal National Mortgage Authority (“Fannie Mae”) auctions of foreclosed properties by hedge funds, Wall Street, and vulture financiers pyramiding one injury on top of another.  Companies like Harbour Portfolio embraced contract “sales,” while others, such as Vision Property Management, repurposed thousands of homes using rent-to-own scams.  More well-known operators, like Goldman Sachs, bought more than 26,000 homes to satisfy securitization settlements with the government, while Apollo has specialized in similar flip-and-trick in Memphis and other cities.  The National Consumer Law Center estimates that there are more than six million contract buyers in the United States now.  More shockingly, more contract sales were recorded in Detroit last year than traditional mortgage transfers.

Organizers with ACORN  and the Home Savers Campaign  have spoken with lower income working families in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, Detroit, and other cities as diverse as Memphis, Little Rock, and New Orleans. These conversations reveal huge issues that bring this emerging housing crisis into tragic relief and demand action and response.   The stories are heartbreaking.

A Harbour Portfolio buyer spoke to us from her couch, where she was recovering from a fall on a faulty stairway in Pittsburgh.  In Akron, another Harbour Portfolio purchaser told us about the ceiling in the shower falling on his sister, leaving her unable to work.   A Vision Property Management family in Pittsburgh told us of moving into a house after signing the papers only to find that it had no plumbing or electricity. They were forced to “camp” in their house for six months.  Vision’s callous indifference to the deplorable condition of the housing stock meant that one Youngstown family had been forced to move to a second Vision house because their first was ordered demolished by the city!  Many of the buyers were on Social Security or Veterans payments.  Meanwhile, one Harbour buyer was having problems getting the contract in his name — even though the payments were made from his pension.

Sadly, this story from Philadelphia is typical, as the organizing team’s notes reveal:

Maria Rodriguez and her husband “purchased” the house at 917 Sanger St., in the Frankfort section of Philadelphia for $65,500, almost 4 years ago.  They both worked:  he as a landscaper and she worked at a hotel doing housekeeping. . . .   They put down $2000, plus $465 as the monthly lease payment, $105 for real estate taxes, $30 for general liability insurance, or $2600 as an initial payment and $600 a month. The contract runs until August 2020.  $57.06, +2000 initial option, of the monthly payment is credited toward the purchase price.  Maria and her husband have put about $25,000 in the property because of huge issues like unpaid water bills, no heating or electrical system. They believed that at the end of the contract, in 2020, they would own the property and get the deed.  Instead, they will have paid $6,793 toward the $65000 house price.  On Aug 30, 2020, they have 3 options:  give Vision a check for $58,206, walk away, or convert to seller financing with a new contract for the remaining $58K.  Like all the Vision properties people we’ve talked to, this was a total surprise.

At the end of our visits with working families, we often left people enraged by anger salted with tears.

Laws to protect would-be buyers vary state-to-state, and many are weak. Are these “buyers” tenants, or are they owners without a deed?  Many they cannot connect utilities or get contractors to work on their houses because of the confusion.  Although contracts are required to be filed, they usually are not.   In Green Bay, Wisconsin Vision whistleblowers told television reporters that they were instructed not to pay sales taxes or transfer fees.  The city of Cincinnati sued Harbour for $335,000 of uncollected fines and penalties.

Some cities have taken action. Toledo passed an ordinance requiring contract sellers to obtain a certificate of occupancy and habitability before a contract was executed and a potential buyer allowed to move into a property. Lorain, Ohio, required the same, but only at the point of sale, which sadly may never happen.  In Pennsylvania, lawyers believe there is an “implied warrant of habitability” that should force sellers to make repairs before occupancy.  Other lawyers argue that none of these agreements can be valid contracts because their terms are “unconscionable” on their face.   The Uniform Code Commission is debating offering state legislators a model law to clarify some of the mayhem.

As the Home Savers Campaign and partner organizations get their arms around this issue, one thing is clear: these contracts are misrepresented and rarely understood by working families desperate to obtain affordable and decent housing with the opportunity of home ownership.  Millions of families are now caught in this dilemma. For them, the American Dream turns out to be an American Nightmare.

As our campaign against these predatory practices gains traction and the raw exploitation involved becomes even clearer, and as more working families demand justice, it will be harder for anyone or anybody to deny the exploitation at the root of these transactions.

Real estate is perhaps one thing that President Trump does understand.  The fight needs to move from these houses to the White House.

Wade Rathke

Wade Rathke is best known as Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN from 1970-2008, and continues to serve as Chief Organizer of ACORN International working in 13 countries.

Special thanks to Gary Davenport, former community organizer and currently with Mahoning County Land Bank for assistance in Youngstown work.  We’ll have more to say about Youngstown as we assemble the data later this summer!


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More than Cash: What It Really Takes to Address Poverty

What will it take to address poverty?

Photo by Mark Tuschman

If you build a school for girls in northern Nigeria or give a girl in the Philippines $2000, it might seem like you’re providing her with the things she needs to improve her life. But building a school doesn’t guarantee that girls will get access to an education, and giving them money doesn’t give them the power to use it in a way that will allow them to lift themselves or their families out of poverty. Instead, we’re putting a band aid on a broken bone.

Solving social problems is very different from treating their symptoms, especially if we are talking about problems at a global scale. Treating symptoms does not help you cure the cause. It’s easy to think that if a  village doesn’t have money, the solution is give them money, or if girls in the community don’t go to school, we need to build more girl-only schools, but the actual problem lies deeper. It is invisible and it extends through all areas of life.

If we cannot help change the context, including cultural attitudes, that contribute to these problems, we won’t be able to solve them. Girls in particular fall victim to these negative social norms. At the bottom of the pyramid in the global south, a girl’s needs are often not only unheard, but not even articulated, as she doesn’t know how to.

Across the world we find disenfranchised groups who are not included in innovators’ visions of ‘a better life’. Too often, we exclude refugees and immigrants who bear the weight of our unspoken, sometimes unrecognized negative biases. However, if we focus our attention at the bottom of the pyramid we inadvertently start creating change to the larger macro problems at the top.

Governing bodies across the world have recognised that empowering women and girls benefits not only them but those around them, because when you lift a girl out of poverty she takes her whole family and community with her. Once a family living in poverty experiences and recognises this, they are able to create new positive attitudes and norms towards women and girls that can be repeated from one generation to the next. However, there is resistance to this and it often comes from a girl’s  direct ‘gatekeepers’, not governments. For example,  a mother might need their daughters to stay at home and take care of the younger children so she can work  — a common  phenomenon across the global south. In places like Nigeria, a girl’s biggest ally is often her paternal grandmother, a woman who still holds sway over her son (the girl’s father) and who, as the mother of a boy, does not have set ideas about what the life of a daughter should be, which the girl’s mother oftentimes has.

Today the development sector increasingly understands poverty from this panoramic perspective. They understand that long lasting change requires two approaches, one that provides individuals and their communities with assets and services and another that aims to break down negative norms and behaviours and to build new positive ones. Solutions must not only provide girls with the assets and services they need, which give the confidence to ask for and use resources, but also solutions that help families and communities see girls as opportunities rather than as a cause or a burden. This means along with providing girls with the HPV vaccine and access to health clinics, we must inform and educate them about the benefits of health care. In addition, we must encourage families and communities to diminish the barriers that girls face. We can achieve these goals with projects that inform but also entertain. Better yet, when we infuse such projects with local culture and work with girls to develop the content, we may not only solve the problem of girls’ access to health care, we can also help them develop the tools and confidence to improve their own lives and help their communities.  

Although technology is increasingly becoming a threat to workers within the developed world, it provides an incredible opportunity for the global south. Technology, in particular mobile solutions, can become a medium to supply both approaches for girls and other disenfranchised communities. Today, almost two-third of the world’s population has a mobile phone, however 200 million fewer women than men own a mobile phone and more noticeably once they become connected they arrive in an online world that wasn’t built with them in mind. The lack of positive and empowering content and open social channels often leaves girls and women to be preyed upon. Big players in Silicon Valley, like Facebook, are taking on the challenge of ‘connecting the unconnected’ with programs like Free Basics that work not only to connect people but to also provide the unconnected with positive, empowering content and tools. Technology and mobile, whether provided by tech giants or smaller non-profits, can be a key tool for  ending global poverty.

Long term change and success takes exactly that — a long time. If we can combine the energy around the ‘on-demand’ innovations happening in both the private and developing sector for social good, with the 360 degree strategic approach of some savvy nonprofits, we will start creating solutions that not only give cash directly to those in need but also create an environment that enables individuals and whole families to use the money to improve their children’s futures as well as their own. Such solutions must include women and girls from the start.

Dominique Hess

Dominique Hess is a brand marketing professional based in London (UK) specialising in using storytelling to create positive social change.

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Universal Basic Income: A “Social Vaccine” for Technological Displacement?

John Kenneth Galbraith once said that the beginnings of wisdom were to never trust an economist. Those of us that spent most of our adult lives in deindustrialized communities understood his point.

As the mills and factories closed in working-class communities like Youngstown, an array of business and academic economists suggested that economic devastation was part of the  natural economic order known as “creative destruction.” Disinvestment, technological displacement, downsizing, and outsourcing were all necessary for corporate efficiency and dynamism, regardless of the “temporary” harm to individuals and communities. Capital, they explained, was simply being shifted from old to new investments, and new jobs would magically appear. Of course, workers would have to move or gain new skills in order to claim those jobs. Unfortunately, those predictions were wildly overstated. Capital was not reinvested in productive ways or moved offshore, many workers never found comparable employment, communities deteriorated. Over time, appeals to “creative destruction” were recognized not only as erroneous, but as a cover for capital getaway.

We should remember this story as we enter a fourth industrial revolution that will merge technologies and blur the lines between digital and biological spheres. In the process, these digital transformations will spread unemployment and increase precarity. As in the past, the digital revolution has been sold as part of modernity and progress, but increasingly technological change is proving more destructive than positive. The New York Times reports that some top researchers have already acknowledged that automation and robotics in manufacturing have resulted in a large net of loss of employment, declining wages, and disruption of working-class communities. The Times concludes that given unemployment levels, “there is no clear path forward, — especially for blue-collar men without college degrees.”

But it is not just working-class men in industrial jobs who are suffering. Automation also affects jobs in other economic sectors. In fact, 38% of all US jobs are at risk due to automation, including service sector work in fields such as  finance, transportation, education, and food services. Nor does is technological displacement limited to the working class. Middle-class workers also stand to lose jobs and wages.

Many corporate executives embrace this change, viewing automation solely in terms of profitability and suitability and ignoring the human costs. As Andrew F. Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants and Donald Trump’s original choice for Secretary of Labor, summed up this attitude in explaining why he would prefer robots over human workers: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.” To paraphrase, Harry Braverman, technology is not neutral. Rather, it enters the workplace as “the representative of management masquerading in the trappings of science.”

Technology leaders understand that their work contributes to displacement and inequality. In “The Disruptors: Silicon Valley Elites’ Vision of the Future,” Greg Ferenstein reports on a survey of tech leaders. He found that most agreed with Paul Graham, the highly influential web leader, that it is the “job of tech to create inequality…You can’t prevent great variations in wealth without preventing people from getting rich, and you can’t do that without preventing them from starting startups.”  This view reflects the self-interests of the industry, of course, but it also suggests deep-seated beliefs in technological determinism and the benefits of creative destruction.

At the same time, working people have become increasingly resistant to the uncritical acceptance of workplace technology, and this contributes to the populist backlash we’re seeing in the U.S. and across Europe. The Brexit vote, the rise of right wing parties in Europe, and Trump’s election all reflects people’s doubts about older economic paradigms and technological determinism, especially in older working-class communities. Alongside racism and xenophobia, these movements also reflect the anxieties of those who are being left behind by economic development.

Technological and political elites have good reason to worry about the potential for class rebellion, and some have started to rethink their faith in technology or, at least, to ask about how to mitigate the outcomes of technological change. For example, a group of science and technology leaders have established Singularity University (SU), which touts itself as a global community whose mission is “to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” It holds ‘summits” around the world,  underwritten by large international firms, such as Deloitte, that bring together researchers, entrepreneurs, institutions, and governments – most of whom believe deeply in the power of robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and powerful computing to transform work and improve lives. Yet SU’s approach is remarkable because it emphasizes the impact of technology on people’s lives. While SU takes a positivist and entrepreneurial approach, arguing that the world’s biggest problems are world’s biggest business opportunities, it clearly understands that any technological advance must take into account its impact on communities.

Silicon Valley firms also see themselves as potential leaders in developing strategies for a future where many workers will be displaced by technology. Some envision a more direct approach: the universal basic income, which Scott Santens describes as a social “vaccine” for the 21st century. Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator firm, has begun experimenting with this idea by providing a basic fixed income to 100 families in Oakland, California. Give Directly, a Silicon Valley non-profit, is testing the idea as a way of eliminating poverty by giving each individual in a small village in Keyna $22 a month for 12 years. The New York Times describes the project “as first true test of a universal basic income. Not just given to individuals but to a whole community for an extended period.” Of course, these approaches are not considered socialism; they are defined as providing an “income floor.”

The potential of these experiments has not been not lost on developed nations, where some see a universal basic income as strategy for ameliorating the impact of automation. The European Parliament, Korea, France, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, and Scotland are all considering a basic income as a strategy for managing a future without work. In the US, growing economic inequality, the rise of contingent work, and the defeat of the Republicans’ alternative to Obamacare had the unexpected consequence of restarting the discussions of expanding the social safety net. For example, the National Academy of Social Insurance is discussing the expansion of Social Security and Medicare and extending unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and unemployment and disability insurance as tools to balance the volatility of jobs and income as long-term, full-time, traditional jobs become ever more scarce due to corporate restructuring and technological change.  Importantly, these initiatives are gaining public and political support, especially single payer health care.

The economic displacement of the era of deindustrialization caused great harm to working-class people and their communities. Decades later, as technological displacement threatens not only the working class but many in the middle class as well, business and political leaders alike recognize that it is in their interest to pay attention to the consequences of economic change. Private and legislative initiatives around the universal basic income may not succeed, and some are meeting clear resistance. The European Parliament rejected a report urging them to “seriously consider” basic income as a response to “the economic consequences of automation and artificial intelligence.” Nonetheless, as political unrest grows as a result of technological change such discussions lay the foundation for the new social policies we will need for a future without good jobs.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor








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