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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The Working Class at the Oscars

A scene in Denzel Washington’s movie of Fences is not in August Wilson’s original play, and it illustrates how a spate of Oscar-nominated films this year uncharacteristically reveal basic insights into working-class ways of living a life.

Troy Maxson is a Pittsburgh garbage collector in the 1950s, and most of the movie takes place in his back yard and house, with brief context-setting scenes of him at work and walking through his neighborhood.  Maxson is a take-charge kind of guy, one who has thought through his philosophy of life and who is not hesitant to (eloquently) share it with anyone who will listen.  An uncompromising patriarch at home, he is a proud and commanding presence just walking through the neighborhood and even on his garbage truck.  That’s why it’s a bit of a shock, though quietly played, to see him waiting hat in hand to see his boss to find out if he’s going to get a promotion to driving the truck instead of slinging the garbage.  In this brief scene, Maxson’s body language and halting speech are deferential to a degree that makes him appear a broken man.  In the next scene, his characteristic strut has an added lilt as he tells his family and friends about getting the promotion.

It’s a small moment with large consequences.  Maxson will be the first black man to be a driver.  But, as presented, that is almost incidental to what it means for a middle-aged blue-collar worker to get a much less physically taxing job.  Why add that brief scene to Wilson’s classic play?  To me it is a brilliant stroke, because it brings out a contrast between Maxson’s backyard braggadocio about standing up to the boss and the humiliating deference he has to display to suit the circumstance.  Who is the real Troy Maxson – the at-home philosopher king or the shuffling Negro hiding his intelligence and strength of will to please the boss?

My answer is not both.  A man in charge of his own life, Maxson can do a little deferential shuffling without the slightest internal humiliation so long as it serves his larger purpose of maintaining and enhancing his control of what he does every day.  Showing deference to bosses is a standard part of being a wage worker, and people handle it in a variety of ways, from crafty defiance to soul-crushing genuine subjection.  But Maxson’s exaggerated play-acting is a very common tactic that works well even when the boss knows you’re playing the fool.  Its very exaggeration says something like: “I’ll give you the appearance you need, but it has nothing to do with who and what I am – which you really do not want to see.”

That’s my reading of Maxson in this film, but plenty of us are one person at work and a very different one at home, and it sometimes seems a wonder that we put our two pieces together at all.  What astounds me, however, is that a Hollywood movie went out of its way to pose that kind of subtle question about a garbage man.

And Fences was not alone among Oscar nominees this year in representing working-class life in uncharacteristically sympathetic and insightful ways.  Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, and even Hell or High Water all have extraordinary moments of insightful observation like this.  Though each falls under more common rubrics – the African-American experience or the coming-of-age of gay men, for example – each is alive to the complexities and bravery of living life within insuperable limits.

Lee Chandler in Manchester tests those limits, and sadly concludes to his disappointed but instinctively understanding nephew, “I can’t beat it.”  But that doesn’t mean “Uncle Lee” can’t meet his obligation to his dead brother by ingeniously arranging a good-enough situation for his nephew while keeping the fragile emotional hold on himself he struggles to maintain at every moment of every day.  While many of my friends found Manchester unrelievedly depressing, some wryly complaining about their unmet need for a happy ending, my wife, who comes from a hard-living working-class family, and I, from a settled-living one, both found the ending satisfying. Lee’s situation was depressing, even frightful, but we both marveled at the courage, persistence, and ingenuity he found within himself to come to adequate terms with that situation. Even more satisfying is the way his friends and relatives (and the film itself) fully appreciate his limited, limiting, and amazing accomplishment.

Similarly, Moonlight vividly portrays heartbreakingly terrible childhoods that we know often destroy people, and yet Chiron and Kevin somehow find their ways to manageable lives with complicated but solid personal integrity – even before they find each other at the end of the film.  And again, the film encourages multiple readings of what are so often assumed to be deadly simple lives.  Darryl Pinckney, for example, thinks Kevin has “a terrible job” as a combination cook-and-waiter at a neighborhood diner, but the film goes out of its way to show how ingeniously competent and cockily proud Kevin is at doing that job.  People who actually have “terrible” jobs might notice that Kevin is working with no supervision in a job that allows him the space, given his gift for multitasking, to carry on a conversation with a very taciturn old friend.

Hell or High Water is a much more conventionally scripted film — with bank-robbers, gun battles, car chases, and a more predictable Hollywood-style semi-happy ending.  More explicitly political because two brothers rob a chain of banks that was trying to rob them of their scrubby piece of West Texas land, it, too, marvels at the resourcefulness and persistence of people living within severely limiting circumstances, both external and internal.

All four films are highly male-centric, with a few great but decidedly “supporting” roles for women.  But none of the central male characters are the kinds of cardboard heroes we’re used to.  Each is flawed in various ways that working-class men so often are – ranging from irresponsible boy-men to dominating patriarchs to nearly mute emotional cauldrons.  What’s unique is the complex and poignant dramas the filmmakers observe in these men’s struggles to just get by and make do while living up to the stern demands of what Arlie Hochschild calls “a local culture of endurance and adaptation.”

Does this temporary outburst of really good movies about working-class life indicate some kind of burgeoning shift in our national zeitgeist?  I think it might.  Each movie was conceived and executed before the Trump Shock engendered a spate of liberal middle-class soul-searching about how little we understand working-class white people.  So were a series of books like Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, which explicitly climbs an “empathy wall” in self-reflectively bringing her Berkeley-liberal self to anthropologically studying (and befriending) Louisiana Tea Partiers.

As Hochschild points out, a culture that emphasizes “a person’s moral strength to endure” may undermine the will to change circumstances that make endurance harder and harder to achieve.  As such, it fosters political passivity and confusion.  But middle-class progressives cannot simply inveigh against that culture without understanding its deep-seated strengths, its practical usefulness in living lives within severe limitations, both external and internal, and the bravery, ingenuity, and nobility of those who succeed in carrying on day by day.  I have to believe, as Hochschild wants to, that there is a politically progressive angel in that culture if we but look closely enough. These four films about working-class people of many colors look pretty closely.

Jack Metzgar


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Classing the Resistance

One of the founding goals of new working-class studies was to counter the tendency for academic and political discussions to downplay class in favor of other aspects of identity and inequality. Most critical and public attention to cultural identity and social justice has organized around race, gender, and/or sexuality, and that has generated resentment from many white working-class people who feel that their struggles have been ignored. As a result, many have rejected social movements and political positions that they see as excluding them. And as we saw last year, some have been drawn to populist politics that emphasize economic struggle, including those that displace blame onto women, immigrants, and people of color.

As the resistance movement grows today in the US, will its organizers repeat the mistake of downplaying economic injustice? In the first few months of 2017, an energetic and multi-pronged resistance has emerged across the U.S. (and around the world), from inauguration day protests to the multiple versions of the Women’s March the next day, and continuing with spontaneous protests at airports after the travel ban was announced to a continuing round of marches and rallies focused on immigration, defending the Affordable Care Act, women’s rights.  Over the next few months, more are planned, including a “Trump Taxes March” (April 15), a “March for Science” (April 22), the People’s Climate Change March (April 29), an “Immigrants’ March” (May 6), and the annual Pride march (June 11).  During the February Congressional recess, we also saw many more local actions, especially at legislators’ town hall meetings, where senators and representatives were challenged by constituents to defend their support for Trump’s nominees and implored to preserve Obamacare, among other things.

With a few notable exceptions, however, the resistance has not (yet) emphasized class or economic justice.  Yes, calls for Trump to release his tax returns reflect concerns about inequality and about social welfare for the wealthy, but the debate has been shaped just as much by a sense that Trump is a habitual liar who may have misrepresented his economic success and/or gamed the system in ways that reflect badly on his character. Similarly, responses to the travel ban could have been framed in economic terms, highlighting the low wages so many immigrants earn or their vulnerability to wage theft, but most of that discussion has emphasized religious diversity and the American tradition of welcoming outsiders. Many of the other important issues that have been raised since January — from opposition to sexism and xenophobia at the Women’s March to anxieties about whether Russia manipulated the election or consulted inappropriately with Trump’s transition team to the more generalized (but significant) concerns about whether and how a Trump/Republican administration could undermine democracy itself — reflect legitimate concerns that largely ignore economic justice.

The most significant attention to economic justice surfaced in response to Republican efforts to overturn Obamacare, though the bill went down less because of resistance from the left than due to internal debates among conservatives about whether the new bill went far enough in overturning the ACA. Still, debate over that bill, in Congress and in the media, drew attention to its inherent economic injustice, especially its redistribution of wealth by cutting support for poorer people and granting the wealthy a significant tax cut.

The failure of that bill also represents the first major rift between the President and Congressional Republicans. On most other issues, Republicans have seemed willing to go along with their president’s policies, despite hundreds of thousands of calls, postcards, and visits from constituents (for a good, but troubling discussion of the effectiveness of contacting your legislator as a tactic for resistance, see Kathryn Schulz’s  recent essay in the New Yorker).  At the same time, some state legislatures are actively pursuing anti-democratic policies to undermine the resistance, such as the law passed by Republicans in North Carolina to circumvent that state’s new Democratic governor’s power, or the spate of laws that have been proposed to curb protests.

Despite Republicans’ failure to overturn Obamacare, which had some on the left feeling at least a bit less anxious, the resistance faces a long, tough series of battles. We cannot rely on protests or contact-your-representative campaigns to stop the conservative tide. We need to elect enough Democrats to Congress in 2018 to block the Republican agenda.  That will be difficult in any case, but it will be even harder if the Democrats don’t address economic inequality more directly.

Many assume — wrongly — that white working-class voters made a sudden sharp turn to the right last year, but that shift began decades ago, and white working-class voters have long favored the Republicans. Working-class voters’ doubts about the Democratic Party’s commitment to economic justice has a long history, dating back at least to Bill Clinton’s support for NAFTA, welfare reform, and the war on drugs. Under Obama, and in part because of his role as the nation’s first black president, the party has focused on building a coalition focused on social justice. We applaud efforts to build support for gay marriage and transgender rights, to end mass incarceration and police violence, and to support immigrants and refugees.  These should be central to Democratic politics.  But so should economic justice.

We can’t ignore the appeal of populist, economically-focused politics (on both the right and the left, both Trump and Sanders). As Frank Rich wrote recently in New York magazine, Democrats will probably never win support of the “silent majority” portion of the working class, people who moved to the right inspired by the Republicans’ southern strategy, which appealed to racial rather than class identities. But, as Jack Metzgar has explained, many white working-class voters could be drawn back to the left – maybe even enough to overcome Republican gerrymandering and undermining of voting rights.

Put simply, Democrats cannot win without more a forceful, strategic economic platform. As we have argued about the academic study of class, in political life we don’t have to choose between “diversity” and “labor” – even in reaching out to straight white men.  The Party also needs to remember that economic anxieties are not limited to those who have been left behind by deindustrialization or the very partial recovery from the Great Recession.  Many in the middle class share those anxieties, especially as they look to their children’s futures. After all, exit polls show that Trump won (albeit narrowly) in all of the higher income groups, from those earning $50,000 a year on up. Democrats need to more directly address the real economic losses and anxieties of both the working class and the large segments of the middle class who feel vulnerable in today’s economy.

To make that happen, we need a resistance movement that also puts class and economic injustice at the center. The precarity of many contemporary jobs, wage stagnation and declining benefits, workplace injuries and exploitation, and the undermining of laws protecting workers all deserve more attention. Two examples from this year’s resistance movements show what this might look like. February’s “A Day Without Immigrants” highlighted the centrality of immigrant workers in the US economy (though the strike also reminded us of their economic precarity). The People’s Climate March, coming up later this month, bills itself as focused on “climate, jobs, and justice.” As these efforts suggest, resistance can be classed.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Class on the Small Screen

Every year when I teach the sociology of work, I’m filled with the same nagging doubt: are my cultural references out of date? Are they still relevant for my students of nineteen and twenty, who were only just born in the previous century? Despite those worries, I continue to show a clip from The Rebel, a film featuring the British comedian Tony Hancock, because it illustrates beautifully the contrast between employment in 1960s and now, emphasizing through issues like job security, rigid class hierarchies at work, and the strict adherence to the working day.

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson collaborated with Hancock in the 50s and 60s, and for two decades beginning in 1954, they wrote some of the most memorable and timeless comedy scripts, first for radio and then for television. Their programmes drew huge audiences numbered in tens of millions, and one later episode reached 30 million people. What makes Simpson’s work important is how he drew inspiration from his own working-class background and translated that experience to show the complex range of working-class life while making millions of people laugh. As his obituary notes, Simpson was brought up in a working-class two-up-two-down household, the son of a milkman. He met Galton in a sanatorium whilst recovering from tuberculosis in their late teens.  Bored by the enforced hospitalisation, the two began to create comedy sketches, and soon they were writing full time for other comedians.

Galton and Simpson first came to national prominence in their collaboration for Hancock.  Each week they would explore an exaggerated feature of the comedian’s persona, and over time their sketches explored a whole series of questions about life and existence. When the pair fell out with Hancock in the early 1960s, they were commissioned by the BBC to write ten short plays.  One of these, The Offer, became the series Steptoe and Son, which reflected the colourful life of father and son rag and bone men – street junk collectors (later transferred to the USA as Sanford and Son). The scripts and dialogue were earthy, realistic, and often uncompromising, but they also allowed the characters, played beautifully by Wilfred Bramble (the father Albert) and Harry H. Corbett (the son Harold), to expand and grow. While some of the laughs were derived from slapstick action, most of the thirty-minute episodes were driven by carefully crafted dialogue, richly peppered with deeply philosophical idea and political references. The tension in the father/ son relationship reflected a generational shift, with the older Steptoe drawing cultural references predating the Great War, while the son Harold repeatedly attempted to break out from the constriction of the life his father sought for him, keen to dive into the swinging sixties happening just beyond their junkyard gates in the mythical Oil Drum Lane, west London.

Looking back on these plays, for that is what they really were, I’m struck by how complex and nuanced they are in class terms. For all of Albert’s conservatism, he is resolutely happy to be working-class without being deferential to those middle- and upper-class characters with whom he interacts. Harold, on the other hand, while politically on the left, is often seen as overly deferential to his middle-class ‘betters’. He feels his lack of education and knowledge of culture, while is father revels in his ignorance. Steptoe and Son offers a deep meditation on the hidden injuries and rewards of being working-class. It enjoyed puncturing the pomposity and pretensions of the middle classes, but it did this while reflecting on the poverty of cultural aspiration and the sense of blinkered horizons and geographical immobility. In ranging across this material, Galton and Simpson drew on a wide range of historical material as well as complex and abstract ideas.  Their scripts were peppered with the names of artists, philosophers, and other intellectuals.

Growing up in the 1970s, I didn’t notice many of the more complex elements of TV shows like Steptoe and Son and Hancock or the depths of the issues they represented.  But I was aware that writers like Galton and Simpson — and a number of others from working-class backgrounds – were making comedy where elements of working-class life were examined without being ridiculed. People often note the way later TV series like The Wire offer a picture of flawed humanity, but I think many of the British comedy series from the 1960s and 1970s did the same thing. What seems most striking as I look back on the comedy of that era is that the working-class characters who populated primetime television schedules were presented as intelligent, thoughtful individuals who were part of a wider mass culture, however imperfect that environment may have been.

So I will keep showing my students these rapidly aging representations of working-class life.  While they may be dated, their quality is timeless, in part because they examine questions that working-class people still confront in their daily lives. And also they are still very, very funny!

Tim Strangleman



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Playing Chicken: Discovering a Diverse Working Class in Trump Country

Since the election of 2016, much has been written about rural working-class voters who helped elect Donald J. Trump to the presidency.  Most of those stories have assumed that the rural working class is overwhelmingly white.  But if we look at one of the most significant parts of the rural economy – the poultry industry – we get a different picture. Not only do we see more workers of color, we also see more exploitation and greater potential for resistance.

The early leaders of the industrialized poultry trade in the 1950s were eager to avoid the unionized labor model that had developed in the 1930s in pork and beef packing towns like Chicago, Sioux City, and Kansas City.  Based in cities like Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Salisbury, Maryland, and Springdale, Arkansas, poultry producers benefited from mild climates that allowed for year-round production, enlisting farmers in the surrounding regions to raise their chicks as part of vertically integrated operations.  As of December 2016, 314 of the 426 commercial poultry slaughtering facilities in the United States were located in towns of less than 20,000 people and another 21 are located in unincorporated townships.

These small town poultry workers have received little attention, and recent efforts to explain the rural working class have been problematic at best.  In the past few years, for example, McDowell County, West Virginia has consistently been presented as the paradigmatic Appalachian backwater.  McDowell was the subject of a hearing by the US Senate Subcommittee on Health and Aging in 2013, as well as detailed profiles in the media before and after the election.

Focusing on places like McDowell perpetuates the image of rural America as populated primarily by people of white Western European origins, a narrative that fit the media’s interest in white rural working-class voters.  But while the economic suffering in McDowell might reflect the experiences of many working-class people outside of major metropolitan areas in the Trump era, McDowell’s whiteness is less representative.  In the ten U.S. counties with the lowest per capita income as of the 2010 census, whites constitute more than 61 percent of the population in only three. Whites are the minority in four of these counties.

In these rural communities, unemployment has never returned to pre-2008 levels, even though urban employment has grown significantly.  In an effort to alleviate continuing high unemployment, governors and state legislatures have offered considerable financial incentives to achieve the dubious boon of luring new poultry plants to their state or to help upgrade and keep existing facilities open.

Yet working conditions remain troubling in the industry. Standard practice at many poultry operators involves cycling through and then discarding injured workers.  In 1989, Southern Exposure investigated working conditions at Perdue Farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, making it one of the first publications to raise awareness of the growing epidemic of repetitive motion injuries sweeping through the meat and poultry workforce. Around the same time, Donna Bazemore, a production line worker from Georgia who had left her job with crippling carpal tunnel syndrome, gained notoriety when she testified before Congress about the hazardous and unhygienic production practices at Perdue. Changes in USDA rules in the 1980s allowed for a substantial increase in the line speeds in slaughterhouses, allowing companies to accelerate production from 50 birds per minute in the 1970s to 90 birds per minute. leading to what U.S. Representative Tom Lantos described repetitive motion injuries as “the major occupational epidemic of the 1990s.” Over the past decade, the Charlotte Observer, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Oxfam America have all brought attention back to the industry’s ongoing problems.

At the same time, the workforce in poultry and meatpacking plants has shifted away from its African-American and Central American core in favor of international refugees.  Around one-third of the labor force today is foreign born, and even the North American Meat Institute has expressed concern at the Trump Administration’s attempted restrictions upon immigration from Muslim countries.

The poultry business reveals some of the human faces behind the travel ban through its increased employment of Iraqis, Somalis, and Syrians.  Displaced foreign workers don’t disembark at a New York City harbor as they did one hundred years ago; they arrive in rural resettlement centers in places like north Georgia and central Virginia.

In some cases, these workers are highly educated.  A Perdue production manager in Harrisonburg, Virginia described how a Bosnian worker wrote out the equations for the two cleaning chemicals the company was using and warned the manager that “when they came together [they] could be dangerous.”  This same manager had taken it upon himself to learn Spanish several years ago as well as a little Russian and Bosnian.  This encounter might be unusual, but it suggests some hope for an industry that is not impervious to pressure and public opprobrium.

Organizing these workers involves some challenges that progressives must overcome if they are to build some semblance of a coalition to defend workers’ rights.  This will require translating rhetorical support for immigrants into platforms that can advance common goals while also negotiating sometimes very differing cultural sensibilities.  It means listening and learning from immigrant workers and recognizing that their cooperation should be contingent upon them having the ability to shape the agenda and select their own leaders and spokespersons.

The Trump administration’s attempts to translate popular xenophobia into public policy means that the growth of this vital industry in small town America takes on a much greater importance than it appeared to six months ago.  Many have objected to the travel ban with the assertion that it goes against their notions of “what America represents.”  However, in the absence of a travel ban, would we be content with the status quo whereby immigrants and refugees are not welcomed but merely accepted and consigned to the most difficult and unpleasant jobs?  For generations of immigrants, this has been exactly “what America represents.”

Yet undertaking dangerous low-paid labor does not have to be treated as a rite of passage.  We can’t go back in time and change the legacy of Gilded Age employers, but by confronting the poultry business, we could disrupt a present course that threatens to reverse nearly a century of legal protections aimed at protecting the safety of industrial workers.  We have an opportunity to harness the abilities of rural activists and poultry workers and build connections among immigrant rights, food safety, and environmental organizations.  Achieving this would create a bulwark against the poultry companies’ exploitation and a greater movement for economic justice in the heart of “Trump Country.”

Patrick Dixon

Patrick Dixon is a research analyst for the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.


Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Fractions within the Working Class

This has been a rough year.  After the election, I reposted a few articles on my Facebook wall, as did so many of my friends, about the “working-class vote.”  Did the white working-class just elect Trump?  I didn’t think so, but I also understood that the world can look very different to a working-class person than it does to a middle-class one.  I knew this because I grew up poor, and it is a constant struggle speaking to both sides of my life, my past and my present, my mother and my colleagues.  My mother, let me point out, did not vote for Trump.  She thinks he’s a jackass.  Two of her sisters did, however.  I don’t know anyone else in my extended family who voted for him.  There were lots of Bernie supporters, not many Clinton supporters, and a whole bunch of abstainers.

A friend of mine from college, someone raised on the less wealthy spectrum of the educated middle class, took issue with even the idea of the “working class.” What was this really?  He knew a lot of blue-collar workers, plumbers, builders, who made a lot more money than he or his mother ever did.  I gave him the quick sociological explanations — it’s about power, not money, but his question remained with me.  Based on power at work, two-thirds of Americans can be classified as “working class” (see Michael Zweig’s excellent The Working-Class Majority).  That is a hell of a lot of people.  They don’t all think alike.  It struck me that sociologists, myself included, have spent untold ink arguing over the distinctions within the middle class (lower-middle, upper-middle, professional-managerial, those with economic capital vs. those with cultural capital, etc.) and where the line is between wherever this middle is and the top, and yet we have spent hardly any time  looking within the largest class of them all.

So, I pulled out the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been asking thousands of Americans every year or so all about their lives, political identifications, and voting patterns. I decided to see if there were differences within the working class based on type of working-class job, and not on education, race or  income level.  Working-class jobs are those with little autonomy and often involving the use of one’s body – to wield a hammer, carry a baby, deliver a package from Amazon, stand all day greeting customers.  These jobs are held by a very diverse group of people; there are more people of color in the working class than in the middle or upper class.  When I refer to “the working class,” I mean this whole diverse group, not only white male workers.

Let me give you a snapshot of five fractions of the working class: the Builders, the Makers, the Movers, the Clerks, and those who Serve (I call this category “CookCleanCare” to remind myself of the range of work within this fraction).  Builders most fit the stereotype of “the working class” (three-quarters are men, most are white, and many of them do wear hard hats at work), but it is only one fraction.  A more diverse lot are Makers, including assembly-line workers, tool-and-die makers, sewers, and cabinetmakers.  This is the fraction that has seen the largest influx of women in the past few decades, although still mostly male.  Movers include a wide array of transport jobs, from UPS drivers to ambulance drivers to long-haul truckers, also mostly men.  Most of those in the other two fractions are female. The CookCleanCare group includes those who prepare our food, clean our messes, and care for our children.  The Clerks are our growing retail worker category.  Back in the day being a clerk was seen as a move up, but today’s clerks are generally poorly paid and even less likely to hold a college degree than CookCleanCare workers (the most educated fraction).

Here are some other interesting differences between the fractions.  Builders are the most likely to be living in the same place where they grew up, Makers the least likely.  Movers are the most likely to identify themselves as “working class.”  Twice as many Builders as Makers think of themselves as “middle class.”  Makers, in contrast, are more likely than the others to think of themselves as “lower class.”  In terms of income, Builders make the most money, Movers the least.   If we looked only at white men in each of the fractions, we would find the most instances of sexism, nativism, and racism among the Makers, perhaps reflecting the fact that this group has seen the biggest changes over the past few decades.  But it is important to note that a greater proportion of rich white men and white male managers express racist views than any working-class fraction does.

During the past decade or two, ever since Reagan really, we have been hearing a lot about how “the working class” has turned its back on the Democratic Party.   But this is only true if we limit “the working class” to white men without college degrees.  If we include the whole of the working class, this claim is simply wrong.  According to my analysis of GSS data, there has never been a presidential election in which the majority of the working class voted for the Republican candidate.

If we look at the working class based on broad occupational categories rather than race or education, we get a very different picture from “the working class” that political pundits have been talking about.  We don’t yet have GSS data for the 2016 election, but figures from 2012 suggest the value of analyzing working-class voters based on their jobs rather than income or education.

This graph of voting patterns in the 2012 Presidential Election, arrayed by largest supporters of Obama from left to right, shows that while all occupational groups gave Obama a majority, two working-class fractions were at the polar ends of the spectrum. The Professional-Managerial Class fell near the middle. 

Organizing the data by job categories also helps us understand that white working-class men don’t vote as a unified bloc. If we look only at white men, Obama’s lead lessens, with Romney winning slight majorities with Makers, Movers, and Clerks (not to mention lots of PMC support).  Why were white male Movers, Makers, and Clerks swayed by Romney while white male Builders and CookCleanCare were not?  For one thing, the Democratic Party may have forgotten Movers and Makers.  Women and people of color in these fractions may find other aspects of the Democratic party compelling, but white males less so.  All five fractions took an economic hit during the Recession and, unlike the PMC, none of them have recovered, as you can see from the chart below.  Makers even saw their wages decline before the recession hit.

This points to the second problem with the “working class voting against their class interests” narrative.  Neoliberalism has clearly not been working for many working-class people.  The outrageous vote for Trump may be less an appreciation of his qualities or a heeled response to his dog-whistles and more a giant “Fuck You!” to the establishment.  If we don’t figure out a way to provide security and prosperity for all, we might just get neither for any of us.

Class is a complicated construct.  Each fraction includes millions of workers, living in different parts of America, with different pasts, different futures, different understandings of how the world works. One way to gain deeper insight into the working class is to consider how major fractions within the working class respond to political appeals.  A call for massive infrastructure building, for example, is more likely to resonate with Builders, while a threat to cut the Department of Education may worry CookCleanCare members most.  It is also true that the nature of work changes, sometimes rapidly, as has been the case for many Makers and Clerks.  We owe the working class the respect of paying attention to which fractions are being mowed down on the front lines of neoliberalism.  It doesn’t seem like either major party has been doing a good job of this lately.

Allison L. Hurst

Allison L. Hurst is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oregon State University and the author of two books on the experiences and identity reformations of working-class college students, The Burden of Academic Success: Loyalists, Renegades, and Double Agents (2010) and College and the Working Class (2012).  She was one of the founders of the Association of Working-Class Academics, an organization composed of college faculty and staff who were the first in their families to graduate from college, for which she also served as president from 2008 to 2014. She is Chairperson of the Working-Class Academics Section of the Working-Class Studies Association.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments