Who Wants to Be Rich? Working-Class People Would Like Their Share

A recent crop of TV shows — Maid, Succession, Squid Game — have demonstrated that being rich doesn’t lead to happiness. Family, friendship, and other aspects of life are more important. If the world of the rich is filled with misery and loneliness, these shows seem to ask, then why not stay poor and happy?

Representations of unhappy rich people aren’t new. Think about the rich villains in soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty in the US, or on a less super-rich scale, but very wealthy compared to everyone else, the ‘big house’ owners and the factory bosses in UK soaps such as Emmerdale and Coronation Street, and even the boss of Lassiter’s Hotel in Australian soap Neighbours. All mean, all unhappy. We also see rich people with murderous urges and terrible secrets in British crime shows such as Midsomer Murders and hapless and down on their luck types in sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek, who struggle with downward mobility but eventually realise that there is more to life than money.

In the Netflix drama Maid, the central character, Alex, cleans the houses of rich people. The show is based on a memoir by Stephanie Land who worked as a cleaner to put herself through college and wrote about the people she cleaned for. While the adaptation doesn’t focus so much on the actual cleaning or the clients, one does feature. Regina is a lawyer who lives in a stunning house with water views, but who is thoroughly miserable. Her husband leaves her, and she is lonely and alone with a new baby. Her sadness makes her unpleasant,  and initially she treats Alex poorly. But the two eventually form a friendship, and Alex helps her settle into parenthood and provides a sympathetic ear. Yet while Alex accepts Regina’s help when she needs legal representation, she does not want the emptiness of Regina’s existence.

The HBO family saga Succession is another portrayal of unhappy rich people. Its dysfunctional family are constantly scheming over who has control of the family empire. No one trusts each other, nor are they enjoying life despite their wealth. Even the aesthetic of the show is designed to make being a billionaire seem unappealing, with rather cold and unhomely sets.

The Korean horror show Squid Game mostly focuses on its poor and desperate contestants as they compete in deadly games to try to win a huge cash prize. But it becomes clear that rich people behind the scenes have set up the games to bring some excitement to their lives. The identity of the game’s creator is not revealed until the end of the series, but it clearly suggests that money is corrupting. The rich turn to brutality to amuse themselves, but poor people (as represented by the main character Seong Gi-hun) have the upper moral hand.

Do these shows lead audiences to feel sorry for the rich characters? Maybe not so much in Squid Game due to its brutality (although it might still be possible, due to the twist that means all is not as it seems and sympathies might have grown unwittingly). Some viewers might feel sorry for Successions Roy family as the offspring of media magnate Logan Roy appear starved of any parental affection. Maid does invite us to pity Regina.

What is the effect of such depictions? Do stories about unfulfilled rich people encourage working-class audiences to feel relieved that they don’t have to suffer the miseries that come with too much money?

While money might not necessarily guarantee happiness, many working-class people would say that it sure does help. It’s hard to enjoy life when money is tight, and financial hardship causes tensions within households. Not knowing if the rent can be paid, or how the car will get repaired, or whether the kids can have new shoes means a constant sense of worry and dread that undermines health and general wellbeing. And research shows links between poverty and depression – something that many who have experienced poverty would attest to. These series may make wealth look like a source of misery, but many working-class people would love some financial security.

Maid does the best job of making this clear. For Alex, poverty is definitely not better than being rich. It isn’t just that Regina is a sad and lonely wealthy person, suggesting that Alex would not be more content if she had Regina’s lifestyle. We also see that Alex’s happiness improves when she has somewhere decent to live and some money in her pocket. What Alex needs is some financial security to allow her to achieve her aspirations (to go to college) and to be safe. Maid demonstrates that poverty is bad, being aspirational is good, and poor people need not be envious of the rich.

Shows like this might remind working-class people that owning a media empire or living in a massive country estate isn’t the secret to happiness. But trying to convince viewers that being wealthy only brings misery deflects criticism of the super-rich. It hides the reality that wealth is being hoarded by a small number of people. If wealth was properly distributed then these extremes would not exist. It’s common to hear people say that they’d rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney

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Building Back Better?

As we await U.S. Senate action on President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, it is worth reflecting on what the past few tumultuous months have meant for U.S. workers.  Much has happened in the short time since the summer drew to a close.  Collective and individual actions have worked together to create new leverage for both organized and unorganized workers that didn’t exist six months ago.  Workers are expressing higher levels of discontent than we have seen in years.  And the federal government has taken a more pro-worker and even pro-union stance than most living Americans have ever seen before.

To begin with, an unprecedented number of workers have quit their jobs in what we have taken to calling the “Great Resignation.”  A record 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August, according to the aptly named JOLTS (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary) survey.  Many economists predicted that number would decline in September as children returned to in-person school, relieving working parents from the difficult balancing act they had maintained during the pandemic, when managing online schooling forced many, especially women, to leave their jobs.  Instead, workers broke the record again in September as 4.4 million quit.  The unprecedented willingness of workers to say “Take This Job and Shove It,” as the old David Alan Coe song put it, has produced something rare in U.S. history: a worker-created labor shortage that has hit sectors that offer low wages (like fast food) and terrible working conditions (as in trucking) especially hard.  Plenty of people who could flip burgers or who hold trucking licenses are choosing not to.

John Deere employees picket outside John Deere Davenport Works Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Davenport, Iowa. Over 10,000 John Deere employees began their strike at 11:59 a.m. Wednesday. (Meg McLaughlinQuad City Times via AP)

Workers’ increasing willingness to quit bad jobs has in turn strengthened the hands of unionized workers, who have decided to take advantage of this moment to stage walkouts.  A spate of strikes at John Deere, Nabisco, Kellogg’s, and Alabama’s Warrior Met coal company, among others, led observers to coin a new portmanteau — “Striketober.”  The last U.S. strike surge happened in 2018, when more workers went on strike than in any year since the mid-1980s.  But that surge was driven almost entirely by public sector workers. Almost 80% of strikers in 2018 were teachers, #RedforEd strikers in West Virginia, Arizona, and other states, or the “Bargaining for the Common Good” strikes led by the big teachers’ unions in LA and Chicago.  Private sector workers sat out the 2018 strike wave.  Since Ronald Reagan famously broke the 1981 air traffic controllers strike, the strike rate among private sector workers has continuously declined.  In 2020, there were only eight major work stoppages in the US (down from a postwar high of 470 in 1952)—and only two of those involved the private sector. 

While the recent “strike wave” is tiny in comparison to past instances of worker militancy, it reveals a growing discontent among workers that may just begin to rouse unions out of the defensive crouch they have been in recent years.  John Deere strikers twice rejected tentative agreements between their union, the United Auto Workers, and management before finally agreeing to a contract that included an immediate 10% wage hike.  After rejecting a tentative agreement with their university after a monthlong strike in the spring, members of the Columbia University graduate workers union walked out again on November 3.  Perhaps most significantly of all, the 1.4 million-member Teamsters union recently chose new leadership.  By an overwhelming 2-1 margin, Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman defeated Steve Vairma and Ron Herrera for the Teamster’s top offices after running a campaign that criticized the leadership of outgoing president James Hoffa as too business-friendly

But the change isn’t just happening among workers. The federal government has taken some remarkably pro-worker actions lately compared to those of administrations of either party over the past half-century. In successive weeks in October, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited a John Deere picket line in Iowa, and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh joined Kellogg’s strikers in Pennsylvania.  For decades before this, even putatively pro-union cabinet members embraced neutrality during strikes, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Alexis Herman, did during the 1997 UPS strike, when she demanded that “everyone involved must show greater flexibility and willingness to compromise.”

The Biden administration’s efforts haven’t been merely symbolic, though.  On November 5, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a sweeping temporary emergency standard meant to protect workers from exposure to COVID-19.  Unlike other OSHA standards, it covers only employers of at least 100 workers. While many private employers have required vaccines, this policy allows workers to opt for testing instead. Although it is currently being challenged in the courts, it constitutes the boldest single workplace safety intervention in U.S. history.

And then there is the Build Back Better (BBB) initiative itself.  To be sure, the version passed by the House fell short of the grandest hopes of Sen. Bernie Sanders other advocates, yet both media coverage and inept Democratic messaging have unfortunately obscured the magnitude of the House’s accomplishment.  The $2.2 trillion ten-year package includes unprecedentedly generous support for child care, paid leave, and new health benefits, important investments in a just transition toward an eventually carbon-neutral economy, and place-based investments in working-class communities that have suffered most during recent decades.

The fate of BBB now rests in the hands of the nation’s least democratic elected body, where a single Democratic party holdout can sink or dramatically weaken the bill and the filibuster gives Republican senators — elected by only 43.5 percent of the nation’s population — the power to veto any law that cannot be put through reconciliation.  That’s what happened to the desperately needed Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, suggesting that the BBB might well fare poorly in the Senate, especially as its opponents raise alarms about the recent spike in inflation. 

Yet the events of recent months suggest that the problems of working people, which have moved increasingly to center stage in our political discourse over the recent months, will not soon recede — no matter what happens to BBB. That workers, both individually and collectively, have begun expressing their hopes and demands for a better future has the potential to be even more important than a landmark bill like BBB in this troubled time.

Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University

Joseph A. McCartin is Professor of History and Executive Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor & the Working Poor at Georgetown University. 

Posted in Issues, Joseph A. McCartin, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | 4 Comments

How Class Cultures Work

Across my lifetime, I’ve lived within and between two class cultures that work together in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Broadly, middle-class professionalism emphasizes aspiration, achievement, and becoming.  Working-class culture, on the other hand, prioritizes authenticity, character, and belonging.  One culture assumes people will live within careers, the other that they will have jobs that are sharply separated from the better parts of life.  Working-class culture is more parochial and present-oriented, whereas middle-class culture is more cosmopolitan and future-oriented.  The middle class is much more individualistic and anxious about status.  The working class tends to be contemptuous of status hierarchies and more comfortable with mutual dependencies.

This is broad brush, but even in this summary description, you can see how these differences in values, dispositions, and expectations can lead each culture to misunderstand and misinterpret the other.  To take a possibly too-simple example, middle-class professionals often define their worth by pointing to their accomplishments.  To a working-class person, however, that can seem a superficial way to evaluate yourself. For them what counts is who you are and how you act day in and day out. What matters is not what you’ve done but the kind of person you are.

I describe and evaluate these two cultures and consider how they clash with and complement each other in my new book, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society. The book sets these differences in the historical context of my own life – 30 years of extraordinarily shared economic prosperity for the working class followed by nearly 50 years of stagnation and decline for workers, of growing inequality of condition, and of isolation between the working and middle classes.

I was born in 1943 into a steelworker family in an insular Appalachian mill town and grew up during the best 30 years for any working class anywhere at any time – more so for white men than others, but also true for all colors and genders within the working class.  That period also saw the largest and fastest growth of professional jobs in our history, creating a new class of wage workers with professional credentials, salaries, and prerogatives.  I was part of that when, in 1977, I got my first professional job after spending more than a decade earnestly educating myself to become middle-class.

I and my generation were very fortunate.  During our formative years, standards of living and working conditions improved steadily and dramatically for the working class (real wages doubled, for example).  Meanwhile opportunities to get professional middle-class jobs increased 5-fold (from 5 to 25 million jobs and from 11% to 26% of the workforce by 1980). So upon graduating high school, someone like me could improve their life by getting a working-class job and gradually earning more money or by pursuing education and eventually getting a professional job.  Either way, we had a 90% chance of having an improved and improving life

That all began to change in the mid-1970s when the standards and conditions of working-class life began slowly but steadily declining while the growth of professional middle-class jobs slowed substantially. Today, a high school graduate has less than half a chance of doing better than their parents.  And two out of five college graduates will get a job that doesn’t require a college degree.  

What does all this personal and economic history have to do with class cultures?  First, despite these economic changes, there is continuity in the class cultures across this time span. The basic cultural patterns, and the differences between them, are the same now as they were in 1945.  But how the cultures are lived changes with economic circumstances.  During the shared prosperity of the 30 years after World War II, for example, both cultures were stronger in themselves and more aware of each other than they are today. Both were working on their own terms, and because there was more equality of condition, people interacted more, and the positive qualities of each culture often complemented rather than clashed with the other.

Today, the two classes have much less interaction with each other, and both cultures are more cramped and crabby than they were when both experienced prosperity and growing equality. Today, the inevitable misunderstandings between cultures are increasingly more likely to turn into hardened stereotypes that make communication, let alone cooperation, more and more difficult.  As the class that dominates the culture, we middle-class professionals tend to dismiss the working class as uninformed and ignorant. Worse, even when we’re generous, we tend to focus strictly on helping them become more like us, which they mostly don’t want to be.  Working-class folks, on the other hand, tend to see us as phonies, lacking in authenticity and integrity, not “real” or, possibly worse, not “real Americans.”

Economics does not determine culture, but it certainly shapes how cultures are lived and practiced in different conditions and how they relate to each other.  In my view, both working-class and middle-class cultures are productive and valuable, but they tend toward extreme versions of themselves in bad economic environments and when they are out of contact with one another.

As conditions deteriorate for the working class, for example, the gap between good jobs and bad ones widens, and the growing awfulness of so many working-class jobs intensifies the middle-class fear of falling, rendering life in general, and child-rearing in particular, more tense, anxious, and narrow.  In better times, when the middle-class aspiration to build life around a career was both more likely to be achieved and much less punishing if it was not, middle-class professionals had broader horizons that included the daily enjoyment of different kinds of people, unobstructed by purposeful activity.

Conversely, much in working-class culture is geared to help people endure, adjust to, and find enjoyment within difficult circumstances. In deteriorating conditions, these cultural expectations help people survive and “hold themselves together,” but they also tend to undermine a stronger sense of possibility and working-class agency.  In constantly improving conditions like those I grew up in, however, the working-class capacity for “taking it” enables people to see and pursue real possibilities for changing their circumstances – without requiring them to change classes.

In Bridging the Divide, I argue that we don’t just need to understand each other better. Rather, if we want each culture to open up and explore the best aspects of itself rather than trying desperately to hold onto what each of us already has, we need the kind of shared prosperity and growing equality of condition we once had.  To achieve that, we need to imitate what worked back in the day – strong unions, sharing the gains from productivity growth, and steeply progressive income (and wealth) taxes to fund a greatly enhanced social wage.  These are not just working-class issues, but remedies that might allow us middle-class professionals to be both more open to other ways of seeing and being and more like ourselves.  We need the kind of rough equality of condition within which these cultures of class influence each other without changing the basics of how each envisions living a life.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is emeritus professor of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a founder and past president of the Working-Class Studies Association. Working-Class Perspectives readers can get a 30% discount on Bridging the Divide at cornellpress.cornell.edu using the code: “09FLYER”.

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Will Democrats Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth?

This has been a month of bad news for the Democratic Party. The conflicts around the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills and the November election results make clear that Republicans hold significant advantages with voters on critical issues including border security, crime, national security, and the economy.

As bad as the news has been, however, Republicans and their corporate benefactors may have recently handed Democrats a gift that will enable them to get off the mat and actually pick up seats in the House and Senate, take control of state legislatures, and evict Republicans from governor’s mansions—if they are smart enough to unwrap and use it.

The gift comes courtesy of the 25 GOP governors who earlier this year opted not to accept billions of dollars in fully federally funded supplemental unemployment benefits authorized by the American Rescue Act. As a result of their callous decision more than 4 million involuntarily unemployed Americans lost $300 in weekly payments they desperately needed.  The Century Foundation estimated that families crushed by the COVID-19 pandemic would lose an average of $6,000 as a result of the benefit reduction.

Why did the governors put so many of their citizens at risk and stop more than $15 billion from flowing into their state’s economies? Because Corporate America, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Foundation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, and other trade groups told them to. As far as the business community was concerned, the people sucking up the extra benefits would sit on their lazy butts as long as the government largesse was rolling in. Just kick them off the dole and watch them take whatever job was offered, the Chamber said.

The GOP governors were more than happy to oblige, even though most studies showed that a variety of other factors including family-care responsibilities, school closures, an imbalance of available jobs, fear of COVID-19, poor working conditions, and low wages were discouraging people from returning to the workforce — not the supplemental benefits.  

Ohio’s Mike DeWine was one of the governors who ignored the facts in order to serve his business supporters. On May 13, 2021 announced would cut off the supplemental payments because the extra $300 a week was “certainly discouraging people from going back [to work].”

As many expected, DeWine’s business buddies and fellow Republicans gave him a standing ovation for denying 230,000 working and middle-class Ohioans $900 million in benefits that would have enabled them to pay their bills while strengthening the state’s economy. What was not expect was the reaction from Ohio Democrats and the labor movement: crickets, nada, not a word. The silence was deafening, the inaction infuriating and frustrating.

So, the DannLaw and Advocate Attorneys legal team took up the gauntlet by suing DeWine and the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services on behalf of Candy Bowling and other workers who lost the supplemental payments. They argued that under Ohio law DeWine was obligated to accept the funds. To date, the Ohio Common Pleas and Appellate courts have agreed and the case is now awaiting a hearing before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Particularly important in this process were the messages from people impacted by the benefit cutoff began pouring into DannLaw’s Facebook page and email inbox the day the suit was filed and continue to pour in each week. Hundreds of people have shared heart-wrenching stories that expose the business community’s narrative about the supplemental payments for what it is: a cynical lie meant to divert attention away from the real reasons Americans are reluctant to return to work.

Those epistles from the heartland are also why we believe DeWine and his cohorts have handed the Democrats an incredibly valuable gift. Along with their stories, people are directing their outrage and anger at DeWine:

DeWine’s pride is standing in the way of helping 200k+ Ohioans pay their bills and feed nearly a billion dollars back into the economy It’s a damn shame that election season is still a year away. How else can you hurt us DeWine?

We should all start a petition to get Mike DeWine fired so that him and his family can see how it feels to have everything on the line…he doesn’t care because he doesn’t understand the people of Ohio.

Mike DeWine is outta there! He is a horrible human for this! When his people needed him he left us out to dry with our families I don’t trust him with anything!

Similar sentiments are being expressed in every state where benefits have been cutoff, including those like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Maryland that Democrats must win in 2022 and 2024. All the Democrats need to do is identify the millions of working and middle-class folks who have drawn a target on their governor’s back, organize them, mobilize them, and get them to the polls. There are 230,000 of them in Ohio, millions more across the country eager to take revenge on the Republicans who hurt them and their families.

Will the Democrats and their allies in the labor movement exploit the opportunity they have been handed? If Ohio is an indicator, the answer sadly, is no. In the four months that have passed since the original suit was filed, not one Democratic officeholder, party official, or labor union has joined the fight in court or the court of public opinion.

Their inaction stands in sharp contrast to the aggressive posture adopted by the business community as demonstrated by the groups that have filed amicus briefs against the lawsuit: The Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Business Roundtable, the Ohio Restaurant Association, the Ohio Hotel and Lodging Association, the Ohio Grocers Association, and the Ohio Trucking Association.

While dismayed by the lack of support, many Ohio Democrats are not surprised. As we have written in this space multiple times, the corporatists who control the Democratic Party have rendered it nearly indistinguishable from the Republican Party on economic and working-class issues. They have bought into the false narrative that economic stimulus and development only occurs when billions of dollars are handed out to corporations. We are not shocked that the party that reacted to the housing crisis by doling out hundreds of billions of dollars to the big banks while allowing 10,000,000 people to lose their homes is reluctant to fight for the jobless. No wonder they sit on the sidelines and refuse to fight for families who desperately need a helping hand.

The callous and cynical decision of Republican governors to turn down billions of stimulus dollars that could have helped their states’ economies creates a great opportunity. Democrats could not only mobilize the workers who were screwed over by the decision. They could also build a new narrative about how government is being held hostage by its corporate masters. Denying support to working-class people who can’t find good jobs should be exhibit A.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads DannLaw, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. He is also a founding partner of Advocate Attorneys. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist. They were part of the team that sued DeWine and the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.

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Dirty Jobs, Essential Workers, and the Infrastructure Bills

Current negotiations over the second infrastructure bill may remind a lot of people of Mike Rowe’s oddly popular series Dirty Jobs.  Which makes sense.  Watching a man stumble around inside a sewage tank as he gags loudly and directs us toward closeups of turds, rancid grease balls, and darkly bubbling sewage can clarify a lot about infrastructure negotiations. 

That isn’t a sarcastic comparison.  Rowe actually talks directly about infrastructure in Dirty Jobs, and the kinds of jobs he highlights and what he ignores can help explain recent disagreements over what qualifies as ‘real’ infrastructure.   For some, infrastructure means material structures:  bridges that allow traffic and goods to flow smoothly.  For others, infrastructure includes workers who support society at its base, such as meatpackers who provide goods moving over those bridges, or day-care workers who help parents find time to actually have a job.   

Clearly, how we define infrastructure and essential workers reflects our attitudes toward jobs that society needs in order to function but all too often considers dirty work:  labor tinged with social and/moral taint.  Everett Hughes’s “Good People and Dirty Work” and Eyal Press’s recent Dirty Work both discuss such morally tainted work: debt collectors, prison and concentration camp personnel, sex workers.

But when we think of infrastructure, we’re more likely to think about the kind of jobs that Ruth Simpson, Jason Hughes, and Natasha Slutskaya consider in Gender, Class, and Occupation: Working Class Men Doing Dirty Work. These jobs are physically dirty: refuse collection and street cleaning, butchery, coal mining.  This sort of dirty work is the central core of Rowe’s Dirty Jobs.

Running for nearly 10 seasons, Dirty Jobs offers viewers both specific examples of dirty work and a broader understanding of infrastructure. Both the show’s content and Rowe as its narrator gained wide-spread popularity, particularly among blue-collar workers eager to see their labor displayed up close and personal.

Yet that popularity contains an inherent social paradox.  While we know that dirty jobs have to be done, we usually try not to notice work that offends us, especially jobs that are morally tainted.  But Dirty Jobs argues that we should see this work, especially that involving physical labor. It actually revels in displaying dirty jobs, visualizing such work fully and in detail, even as the series is properly “cleaned” to exclude morally compromised topics.

In short, Dirty Jobs features jobs high in “ick” factor but relatively low in ethical complexities.  As in gory horror films, scenes are intended to shock and disturb by laying bare the permeability and deeply fluid nature of the human body and its related activities.

Equally important is Rowe’s attention to boyish, even grade-school humor material:  things that are inside of or come out of bodies in various ways, some natural some decidedly not. Fecal matter — human crap, worm poop, bat guano; bodily corruption—roadkill, animal slaughter; and jobs connected to sex—artificial insemination; all loom large in early episodes of Dirty Jobs, setting its tone from the start. As Rowe himself notes, episodes are regularly “repulsive, repellant, raunchy, and rank.”

Such forms of physical dirt and bodily leakage are usually taboo, so they are either hidden or publicly visualized only in ritualized form.  The standard pattern of episodes of Dirty Jobs makes it both a formalized practice and a delightful form of rule-breaking, further enhancing its boyish good humor.

To no small degree, that humor is key to defusing disgust. Rowe stands in for the audience, with his amateur performances and ongoing commentary working on many levels:  pulling back the curtain, allowing both direct participation and physical distance, visually enacting horror, disgust, and enough humor to smooth the dangerous edges on all those reactions.

Rowe is also careful to insert respect, genuine or appalled, for the people who perform these jobs.  That stance not only contributes to his popularity, it also provides insight into how we think about infrastructure. These jobs are usually hidden from public view because they are unpleasant, but Dirty Jobs argues they should be recognized and valued.  Rowe’s visualization and valorization of dirty work forces us to take a useful and necessary look at our attitudes about dirty work and essential workers.  

Unfortunately, Dirty Jobs also unintentionally reveals some deeper biases hidden in dirty work.  For many, the dirty jobs that count as infrastructure require physical strength, have elements of danger, are ‘tough’ and demand a corresponding toughness and mental control.  But what separates a job cleaning sewage tanks from a job wiping the asses that produce that sewage?  They’re certainly united through the same by-product.  Is there a messier or more important social job than child-rearing?  Nursing?  Caring for the elderly?  Not really.  But we don’t see much of that in the series.

These dirty jobs are probably considered uncinematic: too ‘quiet,’ too lacking in dramatic action and large-scale physical effort.  When Rowe cleans things, they usually aren’t hotel rooms.  Instead, he cleans elevator shafts, waste holding tanks, bridge girders.  These dirty jobs are entertaining because they visually enact the physicality associated with masculinity, as opposed to forms of labor seen as feminine or even ‘women’s work.’

Dirty Jobs thus offers a double reveal.  It shows and admirably lauds dirty work too often kept “out of sight and out of mind,” as Rowe puts it in one episode.  But it also unintentionally reminds us that some forms of dirty work – especially those done primarily by women and immigrants – remain hidden and deeply undervalued. Most of the workers featured on the series are white and male.

Not surprisingly, these doubly hidden biases are echoed very closely in the infrastructure bills.  The initial infrastructure plan focused on fields dominated by men—building and highway construction, waste treatment, railways, the power grid.  As was true for Dirty Jobs, this bill succeeded by reinforcing traditional, masculine notions of hard, dirty work. 

Jobs dominated by women—childcare, health, early education—were put off for the second bill because they didn’t fit outdated notions of infrastructure.  Is there a way to change those outdated notions?  Can we imagine a Dirty Jobs II that shifts cultural thinking about essential work?  One thing we do know: such a series will have to show that the labor of caring for others is not only hard, dirty work, it’s important work, work as essential as new bridges or smooth roads.  That really shouldn’t be too hard a job to tackle.

James V. Catano

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, James V. Catano, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

How Government Statistics Define the Stories of the Working Class

One of my favorite media criticism works is British journalist and media professor Brian Winston’s “On Counting the Wrong Things.” He argues that the categories we use to count can themselves lead to misleading conclusions. Deciding to count the number of violent acts on television in the 1970s, for example, implied that any depictions of violence are bad. But it didn’t help us consider the meaning of violence, who commits it, and who its victims are.

Getting an accurate count is important, but deciding what to count in the first place may be even more important. This applies to our economic metrics. What we count defines the stories journalists tell, or don’t tell, about work and the working class.

In the U.S., the primary measurement of our economic health is the monthly “jobs report” issued by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Our obsession with these metrics stretches back to the Great Depression, when unemployment rose to 24.9 percent in 1933, making the need for a better way to measure unemployment “especially acute.” The monthly unemployment survey was created in 1940. It became the responsibility of the U.S. Census Bureau in 1942. It has since evolved into the BLS’s Current Population Survey jobs report.

CNN’s Christine Romans, October 8, 2021

On the first Friday of each month, at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Time, the BLS releases its “Employment Situation Summary.” The report, informally called the “jobs report,” includes national labor force gains or losses from the previous month and the unemployment rate, each reported for various demographic characteristics. It also notes gains or losses in the labor force, hours worked, and earnings by industry.

It’s a lot of data, but the top story each month, reported breathlessly by the news media every Friday morning, focuses on employment numbers and unemployment rates (and does so despite longstanding concerns that the numbers grossly underestimate unemployment). Whoever writes press releases for the BLS seems to understand the appeal of that data to the news media and puts that information in the first line of the document. The press release from Oct. 8, 2021, began this way:

Total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 194,000 in September, and the unemployment rate fell by 0.4 percentage point to 4.8 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today.

For the rest of the morning, the news media spun the interpretation, issuing the monthly verdict on the economy, often with little nuance:

CNN: Another disappointment: US economy adds only 194,000 jobs in September

New York Times: Jobs Report Offers Little Reassurance on U.S. Economy

NBC: What’s behind the lackluster September jobs report

Wall Street Journal: U.S. Job Growth Falls to Slowest Pace of Year

Headlines aren’t always so direct. The Associated Press and Washington Post offered more complex takes:  

Associated Press: EXPLAINER: 5 key takeaways from the September jobs report

Washington Post: America’s unemployed are sending a message: They’ll go back to work when they feel safe – and well-compensated

As these headlines show, our national fixation on the unemployment rate crowds out attention to almost any other economic measure – including metrics that would tell us more about workers’ experiences. Consider the “quits rate.” As the BLS explains, “the quits rate is the number of quits during the entire month as a percent of total employment.” Because quitting is voluntary (unlike layoffs and firings), this figure can tell us something about workers’ level of dissatisfaction with their jobs, particularly within a certain industry.

Quits rates were in the news recently because the August 2021 quits rate of 2.9 percent was the highest since data were first collected in December 2000. Quits were especially high in the leisure and hospitality sector, at a rate of 6.4 percent. Trade, transportation, and utilities hit an all-time sector high quits rate in August, as well, at 3.7 percent.

The quits rate is released a week after the jobs report each month as part of the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) report, but that report gets almost no attention. Although the quits rate is reportedly Secretary of the Treasure Janet Yellen’s favorite economic indicator, it is rarely used to tell stories about American workers. In fact, a search of the Nexis news database (eliminating any stories about cigarette smoking) finds that in more than 20 years, only 20 New York Times stories used the term. During the same two-decade period, the Times published 3,971 articles on “job report” or “jobs report.”

One major economic metric is not enough. As the quits, protests, strikes, and walkouts over the past few years have illustrated, there is much more to know about our economy than the unemployment rate. A person can have normal temperature but have many other signs of illness. We need better ways to diagnosis our economy, too – especially data that would reveal the fuller experience of working-class people. The BLS could promote other data with the same gusto as the jobs report, and journalists could dig deeper than the easiest economic story of the month.

For example, every month the BLS provides data on average hourly earnings and productivity rates. Why not analyze the two together each month, to track the relationship between earnings and productivity? Why not bring more attention to the monthly rate of women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s? Or the rate of earnings for Black and Hispanic Americans compared with white workers’ wages? What about the rate of workplace injuries and fatalities, or the rate of compensation meeting or exceeding cost-of-living expenses in each region? What about monthly rate of health care coverage and the cost of health care to workers?

I know what some statisticians and journalists might be thinking: This could be boring – the same story every month. Yet, these measures could highlight the many things the working class lacks – opportunity, mobility, fairness, compensation keeping pace with productivity, jobs with living wages. We need to hear the truths of those stories every month. The lack of progress is itself a story. These are some of the things we need to count, to make workers’ experiences visible and keep the powerful accountable.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is a professor of digital journalism at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (ILR/Cornell University Press).

Posted in Christopher R. Martin, Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Blue-Collar Babies: Why America’s Working Class Needs Affordable Child Care

In Netflix’s must-see new series, Maid, Alex (Margaret Qualley) flees a violent boyfriend with her two-year-old in tow, only to discover the gordian knot of being an impoverished, unhoused, single mom. Affordable child care is at the knot’s center.  Alex must have a pay stub to qualify for subsidized housing, but first she must have child care to earn that paycheck. While she scrubs wealthy people’s floors, Alex depends on babysitting from her mentally unstable mother (played by Qualley’s real-life mom, Andie McDowell).  She eventually finds a subpar daycare that accepts her government voucher, but when her daughter gets sick from their mold-infested subsidized apartment, Alex must stay home and forfeit the paycheck.  Maid, based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, brilliantly illustrates how America’s entire social contract is stacked against working-class parents, especially mothers, and how affordable quality child care is an essential fix.

The Biden Administration’s proposed American Family Plan would be a game changer for parents like Alex who struggle to find a safe place for their babies and young children while they work.  Families who earn up to one and a half times their state’s median income would pay no more than seven percent of their income for child care, and the most impoverished would earn free care.  It also would make preschool universal for all three and four-year olds while also raising the pay and training level for preschool educators. 

America’s current level of child care support is laughable compared to that of other industrialized nations.  Rich countries pay on average $14,000 a year to support a toddler’s care; the U.S. pays just $500.  Though this country’s public education system for grades K – 12 set a global standard, the U.S. has long neglected care for children in the years before kindergarten.  How did the U.S. fall so far behind the rest of the world in early child care?  In part, our failure to care for our youngest children is a function of our weird, privatized social welfare system, much of which is provided by employers, like health care.  Most employers never stepped up to fill the child care gap in the social contract, and our government never mandated that they do so.  Why not?

A conservative, anti-feminist movement gutted the prospect for universal child care in the 1970s, just as women were entering the paid workforce en masse. Many women had a transformative vision for how they would balance work and family, according to Kirsten Swinth in Feminism’s Forgotten Fight. Feminists waged a host of legal and policy fights to force business and government to share the costs of family labor.  Universal, community-controlled child care was a fundamental tenet of their movement. The National Organization of Women was a strong supporter of the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, which would have created a federally-funded national day care system.  The burgeoning New Right opposed the bill as a new entitlement that would take women out of the home, and they found a vocal supporter in Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, Pat Buchanan. Nixon vetoed the legislation, saying that it would “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child-rearing” rather than keeping child care within the family.  Two subsequent attempts to pass similar bills in the late 1970s never got off the ground in the face of such sustained opposition. 

Right-wing discomfort with working mothers is once again at the heart of opposition to Biden’s child care plan, and that may keep America as the global laggard in early childhood care.   Republican Senatorial hopeful JD Vance opposes federal expansion of day care, arguing that children should be at home in family care.  Though Vance doesn’t say this, who typically provides that family care he touts? Women, of course.  In two-parent households, women remain the most likely to adjust their careers to accommodate the family. Meanwhile, 80 percent of single-parent households are headed by women, and a full thirty-five percent of those mother-led families live in poverty.  When conservatives like Vance oppose subsidized child care, they block women from gaining independence and economic self-sufficiency.  

The pandemic revealed that child care is a lynchpin in the economy.  When working mothers left the workforce in droves, especially the women of color who held many of the frontline, essential jobs, many cited a lack of child care as a major reason. Seen in this light, the nation’s “labor shortage” is, in part, a direct result of the child care shortage that we have refused to tackle for more than 40 years. 

Senator Joe Manchin, one of the most vocal Democrats opposed to Biden’s plan, has reportedly called for progressive Democrats to lower their sights and reduce the proposal’s provisions.  He wants them to choose between child care, paid family medical leave, and an expanded child tax credit.  But child care can’t be plucked apart from paid leave and income boosters, as Maid makes clear. In order to escape an abusive relationship and thrive, Alex, needs all these policies, plus affordable housing, supplemental nutrition, and free college.

The Biden American Family Plan, and its early child care and education provisions, would be a lifeline for working-class families struggling in today’s unequal economy.  It’s high time for the United States to make good on its family-first rhetoric and join the rest of the industrialized world in supporting busy working families who are bringing up babies.  

Lane Windham, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Lane Windham is the Associate Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and author of Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide. 

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Lane Windham, The Working Class and the Economy, Work | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Class and Water: Climate-Charged Displacement

Hurricane Ida in Louisiana in August and the historic wildfires in the West and Midwest are the latest reminders that too much water, or too little, will be in the headlines for the rest of our lives. But to call these reminders merely “natural disasters” mystifies the class-relations that structure the built environment. The economically vulnerable are the first to suffer and the last to recover.

Terrebonne Parish in Louisiana, home to oil-industry, seafood, and tourism jobs, lost 10,000 homes. Ten weeks after the hurricane, FEMA will finally deliver mobile homes in mid-November. On October 4, Louisiana opened its Hurricane Ida Sheltering Program to ship mobile homes while it waits on the federal government. Instead, it will probably deliver recreational vehicles, travel trailers and crew barges for temporary housing. Hurricanes and climate-induced disasters reveal the sharp class differences that dictate who will survive and who will perish.

Hurricane Ida’s devastation of the Louisiana coast is only the beginning of what to expect in the coming years. Just last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO, United Nations) released its 2021 State of Climate Services: Water. The forecast is foreboding and it makes clear that the repeated devastation of Louisiana’s coastal working-class communities is just one part of a global disaster. The WMO reports that two billion people are suffering water stress or an unsustainable imbalance of freshwater withdrawal and total available freshwater resources. 3.6 billion people now face inadequate access to water for at least one month per year and by the year 2050, this number is projected to increase to more than five billion. As in the past, the water inadequacies fall heavily on the poor and working class.

Ready access to water, suitable for drinking and washing, is a vital but often neglected topic in climate change discussions. Moreover, responses to global warming such as climate change adaptation, and managing water resources often ignores the disproportionate impact on working-class communities.

According to 2021 State of Climate Services: Water, most countries have started to implement water resource management yet 107 countries remain behind in building the necessary infrastructure to deal with storms such as Hurricane Ida. To meet targets set for 2030, the current rate of progress toward full “Integrated Water Resources Management” would need to be quadrupled at a time when 2.3 billion people lack basic hygiene services. The United States is clearly behind in its public investment to manage water resources and demonstrably lacks the capacity to adequately and speedily meet the needs of communities overwhelmed by flooding.

The risk of delay or inaction on building infrastructure to conserve and manage water is increasing. In the last two decades, flood-related disasters have increased by 134% (compared with 1980 to 1999) and the number and duration of droughts by 29%. Increasingly frequent drought-related disasters have affected 1.43 billion people and promises additional misery and immiseration in the years ahead mostly in the least developed countries.

The 2021 State of Climate Services: Water offers an informative survey of water resources by region, but it does not analyze why infrastructural improvements to water resources are so difficult to attain. It mentions “Least Developed Countries” to signal differences among countries in attainable infrastructural spending. But it does not discuss differences within countries – differences that make clear that resources are not allocated equally. Even in countries with “good” infrastructure, working-class communities often lack resources.

Terrebonne Parish is one example. After Ida, power was down for a nearly a month. As one resident succinctly summed up the situation: “No water, no electricity, so you can’t do nothing.”  In the face of 150 mph winds, it is little surprise the power went out. But for a month? In nearly LaPlace, water has yet to recede from the hurricane. Flood-water management is plainly a key infrastructural matter, and so is the resilience of the electrical grid — or better yet, a complete reconceptualization of the delivery of power.

President Biden’s increasingly embattled $3.5 trillion plan includes massive investments in necessary climate change infrastructure. But such efforts face other challenges, including seemingly unstoppable wealth transfers  to economic elites and brazen thievery of public money. Given that some of this hoarded money is directly related to oil industry profits, getting that money back to pay for the damage and wean ourselves off fossil fuels is not only a common good but common sense.

Yet some workers worry about the economic costs of such a shift. When the French named Terrebonne “Good Water,” they probably didn’t foresee the economic boon of the region’s offshore oil and gas industry. Workers settled there to build that industry and join existing fishing communities. And now workers face the cruel contradiction of this oil industry economy: the working-class jobs that built modern Terrebonne Parish now threaten to undo it. The combined threat of too much flood water and too little fresh water is too much to bear for many people.  Some are wondering whether to call it quits.

Rebuilding Terrebonne Parish and nearby coastal communities is not only about building back better but building back differently. The ever-increasing challenges caused by coastal flooding and the need to ensure adequate freshwater supplies means that jobs focused on rebuilding will be permanent.

Ken Estey, Brooklyn College

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The Multiracial Working Class

One of the questions that you hear regularly in the Working-Class Studies Association is, “Why is the organization so White?”  There are many possible answers to this question, of course. Some of it must surely be laid at our collective doorstep — failures to do the proper outreach, not enough time spent making our spaces truly welcoming and open to all, insufficient attention paid to how “insiders” reproduce ourselves through recruitment and leadership training.  One thing that the organization cannot be faulted with, however, is relevance.  Our focus, working-class studies, is a topic of crucial importance to both White people and the BIPOC community.

But this relevance may not be so obvious to those who are not already engaged in working-class studies, perhaps because they assume that “working class” means “White working class.” It has become increasingly necessary to explicitly aver that the working class, both in the US and elsewhere, is multiracial, because the assumption is so often the contrary.  An organization calling itself the “Working-Class Studies Association,” in today’s circumstances, has to confront this problem. 

Why is this?  One reason could well be long histories of racial exclusion among the organizations that have operated as spokespersons for the working class, such as some labor unions and political parties.  But a lot of the assumption of a White working class is quite new.  Ethnic workers of the 1930s and 1940s might not have been considered “white” by the WASP establishment of the time, though we now see  workers of Irish, Polish, Jewish, and Italian backgrounds as white.  Nixon’s “silent majority” may have included white workers, but it involved even more people from the middle class.  The link between whiteness and working-class status might be traced to the story of a massive shift of previously Democratic White workers who vote for Reagan, which enabled the Republican Party to dominate  in the 1980s. 

But that narrative rests on a false assumption. White workers didn’t swing significantly to the right. In fact, in that election, and in every subsequent election in which a Republican was elected president, White workers, defined as those who held jobs involving manual labor, including service jobs, were about equally split between candidates, as this graph (based on General Social Survey data) shows.  Although many White workers supported the Republican candidate in 1980 (and were somewhat more likely to do so than the population as a whole), more than half still voted for someone else or didn’t vote at all.  It certainly doesn’t look like the Republican party became the party of White workers.

Republican Vote of WC, by race, compared to total vote, GSS data, 1972-2018, compiled and analyzed by author

Even acknowledging the overwhelming political differences here between White and Black workers (the GSS data does not have sufficient numbers of other BIPOC workers), it still seems strange to attribute a wholesale political shift to a group that was split down the middle.    Similar numbers are available for the Trump election years, despite the many stories we have seen in the media.  There is no “White working class” that can shoulder the blame for Trump – his support came from across the class spectrum. So there is really not much evidence of a unified political bloc of a “White Working Class“ that supports conservative candidates. If anything, the move rightward seems to have stopped.

Perhaps White workers identify as working-class more than others?  If this were true, then it would go some way towards explaining why the term “working class” has taken on a racialized meaning.  But the data points in the other direction. 

 GSS data shows that 62% of Black male respondents and 56% of Black female respondents identified as working class, compared to 56% of White Male and 48% of White female respondents.  Looking only at those in traditional working-class jobs, 60% of both White and Black respondents identified as working class.  There is a significant and interesting split in how workers who do not identify as working class identify themselves, with White workers much more likely to claim middle-class status while Black workers are more likely to claim lower-class status.Subjective Class Identification of Objective WC Respondents, GSS

Subjective Class Identification of Objective WC Respondents, GSS, 1972-2018 data, analyzed by author

If we drill down into the data even further, White people in the same job categories as their BIPOC counterparts are more likely to identify as middle class.  And those who do are also more likely to vote Republican than workers who identify as working class.  So the whole connection between a supposed “White Working Class” and Republican Party support in the US seems wrong on two levels: White workers are not voting en masse for Republicans, and those who do are much less likely to be identifying as working class.

The question  remains, why do we hear “White working class” for working class?  I would argue it is purely discursive, at this point.  The problem comes from lazy middle-class intellectuals (that is a quote from Bad Religion again) who bifurcate the working class into a White component connected to labor issues and politics and a BIPOC component that comes to mind in discussions of poverty, racism, the criminal justice system, and welfare.  In fact, the majority of people receiving welfare benefits are White, but the media continues to run stories that distinguish a “Black Poor” population from “the (White) Working Class.”  This is all the more problematic because poverty, White or Black, is something experienced by working-class people.  Contrary to these distinctions, I would argue, as would most people who grew up poor, that there are no poor people who are not part of the working class, even if they are unemployed or underemployed at the moment. 

There have always been political candidates and movement leaders who understood this.  Bernie Sanders, for one, was clearly speaking to and for the entire multiracial working class, not a privileged White subset.  In midcentury fights between labor unions and within labor unions about what workers were to be included and represented, Walter Reuther took a strong stance in support of inclusion.  Grace Lee Boggs’s activism in support of the working class always included recognition of and struggle against racism and racial division.  We are yet again seeing efforts to discursively split the working class against itself. We need to fight back against the White Working Class trope and be much more explicit, as an organization, that what we mean when we say “working class” is the real multiracial working class and not a racist caricature.  If this means explicitly naming our focus “the multiracial working class,” then we need to do that. 

All descriptions of class are political.  They don’t merely reflect reality but help create it.  As Bourdieu once noted, ‘class’ will never be a neutral word so long as there are classes. The question of the existence or non-existence of classes and where the lines are drawn between them – who is included and who is not included – is itself a stake in struggle between the classes.  This is a political project.  We must forever and everywhere champion the inclusive meaning of working class.   Let’s not let the racists take our name away from us. 

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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Accounting for Class

Recently global accountancy giant KPMG made headlines for its new policy on social class and its mission to increase working-class representation amongst its workforce. In what seems like a ground-breaking initiative, the company has set itself the target of increasing the proportion of staff from working-class backgrounds to 29% in its partner and director roles by 2030. I was surprised to read that currently 23% of partners and 20% directors already self-identify as working-class. The KPMG report notes that an internal survey of around 10,000 employees showed that on average these same people were paid nearly 9% less than their non-working-class equivalents. In addition to those self-reporting as working-class, a further 10% either didn’t know or were not prepared to say.

In part the move by KPMG seems to be driven by the embarrassment over the comments by former company chair Bill Michael who claimed on a companywide Zoom call earlier this year that there was “no such thing as unconscious bias”. Michael resigned in the publicity surrounding these remarks and was later replaced by Bina Mehta, who claims working-class background herself and views equality and diversity as central to corporate strategy.

There are a lot of positives to take from this story. First, that there are so many senior people who claim working-class origin is a good thing if it reflects reality. Second, a large corporation actively recognising the issue of diversity and seeking to do something about under representation is to encouraged, and the fact this is about class is all the more welcome. Third, I think KPMG’s approach usefully begins to mainstream the language of class and the label of working-class in popular debates about economy and society.

In many ways these developments are long overdue. For decades large companies ignored underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities as well as working-class people. Often, ingrained structural barriers in recruitment were normalised. Thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the elite Durham University, all of the Blue-chip corporations attended the ‘Milk-round’ graduate recruitment events hosted by many of the top UK universities – and they wouldn’t have dreamt of travelling to lower tier institutions nearby. So a system kept self-perpetuating itself generation after generation — elite companies recruited from elite universities who in turn tended to recruit disproportionately from fee-paying schools.  Transparency and acknowledgement of bias procedures has to be a good thing, right?

Well yes and no.  For sure opening up a real space to debate privilege is important, but a recent article by sociologist Sam Friedman should provide a really important check on our enthusiasm. Friedman and his colleagues at the London School of Economics examined the stories people tell themselves and others about their background.  He points out that 47% of Britons in middle-class professional and managerial jobs identify as working class according to the British Social Attitudes Survey. More surprizing still is that around 25% of people in such jobs who come from middle-class backgrounds (based on parental work roles) also identify as working-class. Friedman and his colleagues use their own research to make sense of this seeming contradiction by suggesting that many middle-class professionals lay claim to working-class identity as an origin story to boost their own justification for the privileges they enjoy. They ignore parental status and instead reach back to grandparents or even in some cases great-grandparents’ origins to boost their own individual achievement.  This downplays their own structural privileges whilst reemphasising individual meritocratic achievement.

Why does this matter? Should we be concerned if a few privileged professionals want to claim an identity that isn’t really theirs? This reminds me of the classic 1960s Four Yorkshiremen sketch from UK TV where a succession of characters tells an increasingly grim and improbable story about their humble origins, each trying to outdo the previous narrator’s claim of grinding poverty and suffering. But I think this misrepresentation does matter a lot. As Friedman shows, these sorts of claims help to obfuscate the ingrained nature of structural inequality.  By claiming, falsely, to have overcome barriers to success, privilege people effectively blame those not enjoying success for their own condition by citing lack of effort — effectively reinforcing class inequality all the more.

This allows politicians and other commentators who wish to deny those structural factors an excuse for policy inaction. In other words, all you have to do is try that bit harder — a ‘boot strap’ theory of inequality for the 21st century. Middle-class and elite attempts to game the system are of course nothing new. So while we can welcome companies like KPMG paying attention to issues of class, we need to be careful about how these things are measured.  Self-reporting of an identity brings with it issues and unintended consequences. Pride in being from a working-class background is not a problem. It becomes a problem if individuals cynically adopt an identity to mask their own privilege at the expense of others. We need really good data on class inequalities and a nuanced, rather than ideological, account of the role of structural class inequality.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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