Getting Over in the Heart of Dixie

When people think about progressive battles in the U.S., they probably don’t think about Alabama. Instead, the state is known as the home of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the kind of conservative, populist politics that led Drew Pendergrass of the Harvard Politics Review to describe the Trump phenomenon as “The Alabamafication of America.” The state also has a reputation for political scandal. In recent years, two governors and the state House speaker have been involved campaign finance fraud, bribery, and other ethics violations. Then  there’s Conservative Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was suspended for telling state probate judges they could ignore the SCOTUS marriage equality decision – and who is also running for Sessions’s seat in the Senate.

But despite this “Alabamafication,” progressives here, including many working-class people (who now make up the majority of the state’s population), have ramped up the fight for economic justice. And there’s plenty to fight about. A few weeks ago, CNBC ranked Alabama as the  “worst” state in the U.S. to live in. Working-class Alabamians navigate a formidable obstacle course toward the “American Dream”:

Yes, Alabama has a multitude of serious problems, but it also has plenty of assets. Alabama’s 132,000 miles of rivers and streams, along with its geology and warm climate, nurture the highest level of biodiversity east of the Mississippi. Our culinary diversity embraces many barbeque creations, including a unique white sauce that produces the best chicken and pork you ever put in your mouth. Forrest Gump numbers among hundreds of famous Alabamians. Music artists the world over travel here to achieve the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Mardi Gras originated in Mobile (1703), not New Orleans (1730s).

Along with all this, Alabama the Beautiful is home to several social justice organizations. Montgomery is ground zero for much of the key work of civil rights groups, and it is also the birthplace of Morris Dees’ Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Both work tirelessly to end racial injustice by tracking and prosecuting hate groups and by remedying inequities in the justice system, respectively.

Alabama Arise staff and volunteers lobby lawmakers, speak at committee hearings, and attend legislative sessions.

In addition, diverse comrades in Alabama, including Southern Scots-Irish “Crackers” like me and working-class Black Belt Blacks, are uniting to fight economic oppression. One focal point for our efforts is another state asset: Alabama Arise, a nonprofit, non-partisan grassroots coalition of congregations, community organizations, and individuals. Arise consists of Alabama Arise, a 501 (c)(4) advocacy organization formed in 1988 and Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a 501 (c)(3) research and organizing group founded in 1994. Arise defines its mission as “promoting state policies that improve the lives of low-income people.” Through policy analysis, statewide organizing, and citizen advocacy, Arise envisions an Alabama where all people have resources to reach their full potential, people participate actively in their own governance, and the state government promotes the common good and respect for each person’s humanity.

Kimble Forrister became Executive Director of Alabama Arise in 1991, when the organization had 60 member groups and a mailing list of 170 donors. Now the membership rolls have grown to 150 groups and 1,094 donors, as well as over 5,000 Facebook likes and some 2,400 Twitter followers. Early on, Arise worked on tax reform and welfare issues. In the early 1990s, Alabama provided the nation’s lowest monthly welfare benefit for a mother of two at $118, but Forrister recalls that Arise lobbied state lawmakers to raise the amount to $215. Later, Arise worked to raise the income tax threshold for a family of four from $4,600 to $12,600, and their efforts led to the first tenants’ rights law.

As Arise grew, Forrister reallocated its staff and funding to provide balance between organizing and advocacy initiatives. Currently, Arise employs two policy analysts, two organizers, a communications director, a development director, and an executive director. Members prioritize issues at annual meetings, which draw about 250 people – attendance that has more than tripled from 80 over the past decade. Staff have used listening sessions with low-income clients to identify key elements of welfare reform. Those sessions revealed that in order to transition from welfare to work, people needed “jobs, child care, and transportation.” In addition, clients pointed out the need for second chances for those released from prison. Based on these conversations, Arise focused on restoring SNAP (food stamps/Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) and TANF (welfare/Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits to ex-felons, as well as narrowing the list of crimes that denied them the franchise.

Partnering with organizations such as Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Federations of Child Care Centers of Alabama (FOCAL), and Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, Arise strives to make progress on what Forrister describes as “key issues like health care, predatory lending, criminal justice issues, and housing.” Stakeholders collaborate to develop strategies and tactics to enact successful campaigns, including this year’s issue priorities:

  • Adequate state budgets, including a push for tax revenue increases and Medicaid expansion;
  • Tax reform, including ending the grocery tax and restructuring income tax;
  • “Ban the Box,” removing criminal history checkboxes on job applications;
  • Death penalty reform, increasing indigent defense funding, instituting an execution moratorium, and abolishing judicial override (in which judge’s sentencing decision supercedes a jury’s);
  • Housing Trust Fund, garnering sufficient funding to sustain the Housing Trust Fund set up in 2012;
  • Minimum wage effort, raising state wage above federal level;
  • Payday/title lending reform, instituting tighter industry regulations; and
  • Public transportation, allotting state money in order to obtain Federal matching funds.

In light of recent victories such as banning judicial override (see “death penalty reform” above), Forrister remains optimistic. He believes that long asleep Alabamians have “become woke,” in part because of the election. “After the 2016 election,” Forrister says, “activism flourished in a number of Alabama cities.”

Looking at efforts around healthcare, Forrister sees a “spirit of collaboration, from agency staff to providers to advocates.” Teamwork helped make Alabama the first state to offer health insurance to children in low-income families (CHIP), convince courts to overhaul child welfare, and design a non-profit structure for Medicaid and long term care (a model Arise and lawmakers are teaming up to implement).

If Alabama activists can “get over” and achieve such gains, imagine what could happen in other communities when citizens join forces. Find out what is happening in your community and get involved. When we all do better, we all do better.

Helen Diana Eidson

Helen Diana Eidson is an Assistant Professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama, whose research deals with working-class rhetorics, social movements, and community literacy. She is writing a rhetorical biography of Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011), a folklorist, journalist, and historian whose 70-year career spanned labor, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Dual Economy

In his new book The Vanishing Middle Class, MIT economist Peter Temin provides a short and accessible take on this country’s deeply unequal economy, which he argues now represents two different Americas. The first is comprised of the country’s elite workers: well-educated bankers, techies, and other highly skilled workers and managers, members of what he calls the “finance, technology, and electronics sector” (FTE)—the leading edges of the modern economy. A fifth of America’s population, these individuals command six-figure incomes and dominate the nation’s political system, and over the past half-century, they have taken a greater and greater share of the gains of economic growth. The other America, what he calls the “low-wage sector,” is the rest of the population—the dwindling ranks of clerks, assemblers, and other middle-income workers, and an expanding class of laborers, servers, and other lowly paid workers.

Drawing on the work of the Nobel Prize-winning economist W. Arthur Lewis, Temin describes this new reality as a “dual economy,” where the fortunes of the first America are all but disconnected from those of the second. Free trade and technological advances allow the FTE elites to make more money, pay lower prices, and enjoy an integrated global market’s many conveniences, even as those trends sweep aside many of the good jobs that the rest of America relies upon. Increasingly isolated, elites have little reason to care about less affluent communities, and much reason to want to reduce their taxes, so they tend to favor stripping away the safety net and pulling public funds from the schools the poor and middle class depend on. The American educational system, which used to be an engine of upward mobility that lifted many children of parents with few means into society’s upper echelons, has been split into two systems—separate and unequal.

Temin’s idea of a dual economy focuses our attention on how, if left unchecked, the workings of the market economy lead to disaster for those Americans stuck in the low-wage sector. FTE industries are booming, and capitalists seek to eke out even greater returns on their investments by lowering the cost of labor. In doing so, they have strong incentives to push down the wages and benefits of the bottom 80 percent of workers—importantly, even those who have nothing to do with their industries. The reason for this callousness toward the low-wage sector is pragmatic: a glut of underpaid or unemployed workers at the bottom makes their own workers so grateful to have decent jobs that they accept lower wages. In other words, what’s good for Silicon Valley and Wall Street is not good for ordinary Americans—and that’s a feature, not a bug, of the current system.

In his previous work with Frank Levy, Temin described how the Treaty of Detroit—a landmark contract reached in 1950 between General Motors and the United Auto Workers—epitomized a postwar economy of job security and high wages that raised the well-being of all workers, including those with little education (a central theme of my own book). In Temin’s new book, one of the most vivid illustrations of the changed reality that now faces America’s working class comes when he describes the situation of newspaper delivery workers:

Most of us do not think about how the paper gets to our door in the morning, but paper delivery has evolved into a grueling nocturnal marathon for low-income workers who work invisibly at the edge of the economy. Delivery drivers are classified as independent contractors rather than employees; they therefore do not get guaranteed health care or retirement savings. They work 365 days a year for pay that makes ordinary jobs look good, and they have to find a replacement if they need to take a day off. Many of them work at another job during the day to support their families. More and more working people are being forced into working conditions like these.

The day-to-day drudgery of today’s delivery driver is a symbol of the low-wage sector: work that children on bicycles used to do is now expected to support families, but with all the risk of success and failure piled on the workers themselves, who toil in the early morning hours, unseen by those they serve. And it is telling, too, that these conditions occur in an industry that is itself struggling to survive in the face of technological and economic changes.

Like Richard Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders, Temin doesn’t think we should only dwell on the top 1 percent of earners and their extraordinary ascent over the past few decades. As much as this group has made out like bandits in our unregulated Wild West economy, Temin’s focus on the FTE sector makes clear that a larger fortunate fifth of America has been benefitting immensely from the status quo, too. At the same time, a strength of Temin’s book is his in-depth discussion of how the top 1 percent has far outpaced the rest of the elite as well—largely due to their outsized political influence. He explains that a view of American democracy as an arena where the public clashes on important social issues, and the majority winner justly enacts policy, is simply naïve. In the real world of politics, people with money “invest” in politicians who then do their bidding—and the top 1 percent have more to invest than everyone else. In turn, racial prejudice (which he discusses at length, almost exclusively referring to bias against African Americans) weakens whatever public support exists for a stronger safety net for low-wage workers by casting the beneficiaries as undeserving outsiders.

By concisely and insightfully sketching out the contours of the modern economy, Temin’s book helps us to understand why workers in auto plants and office cubicles alike have fallen behind in recent decades. Their pursuit of the American Dream has been halted by stagnant wages and declining employment. Their working conditions have worsened thanks to the end of job security and management’s unchecked control in the workplace. The roots of their problems aren’t just economic, however, as his discussion of politics makes clear. Temin emphasizes how institutions like labor unions and government no longer push the economy toward a widely shared prosperity—as they did in mid-twentieth-century America, and as they still do in parts of Europe today. The implication is that, with the proper support, they can do it here again.

Recognizing that labor unions in America have been all but stamped out in many sectors, Temin seems to pin his hopes on government intervention on behalf of ordinary workers, particularly to promote high-quality, broadly available education and training. This hope, however, seems very much at odds with the gloomy picture of a corrupt and unresponsive political system he sketches out for much of the book. In other words, as compelling as his diagnosis of the problem is, he doesn’t say much about how to bring about the sort of democratic renaissance that could solve it.

But these are the big, unresolved question in our politics today. Can unions can be revived, and thus provide a countervailing force to restrain the excesses of corporations? To what extent can union power be replaced by the organizing of the so-called alt-labor movement—worker centers and nonprofit networks working outside the formal union-management negotiating process? And what role can social movements, knitted together through grassroots organizing, play in making sure the country’s political system starts responding again to the popular will?

We academics tend too often think in technocratic policy terms. We typically want to devise the innovative policies and then assume that a can opener of bold government action could open up the system to change. We find it hard to imagine concrete and practical strategies that activists could actually use (though sociology has been better than most disciplines in offering such advice, and nonacademic research groups are increasingly taking on this role). Intellectuals’ most important contributions to social change have been ideas, ways of looking at the world that inform and inspire action. But as I argue in  Cut Loose, scholars should also consider the political and cultural context when we propose policies.

While Temin could do more of this, his book provides a useful framing of the problem for those who want to fix it—dusting off the “Two Americas” rhetoric of a past political moment and reworking it for an even more unequal age.

Victor Tan Chen

Victor Tan Chen is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the founding editor of In The Fray magazine. He is the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy and, with Katherine S. Newman, The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Work Lives of Uber Drivers: Worse Than You Think

Protesting the recent 30% reduction in pay to UBER drivers, a protester covers his face at the protest rally in San Diego, California for fear of being deactivated for showing support against the Tech Corporations decision to reap profits of the back of their drivers.

To be an Uber driver is to work when you want. Or so Uber likes to say in recruitment materials, advertisements, and sponsored research papers: “Be your own boss.” “Earn money on your schedule.” “With Uber, you’re in charge.” The language of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy abounds, and can seem like a win for workers.

But the reality of our research shows something very different. The price of flexibility in the gig economy is substantial. Last year we conducted 40 in-person interviews and online surveys with Uber drivers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our project—which creates one of the first independent, qualitative datasets about the rideshare industry—found that the economic realities of precarious work are a far cry from the rosy promises of the gig economy. In exchange for flexible schedules, Uber retains near total control over what really matters for drivers, namely the compensation and costs of work.

Aman bought a Lincoln Town Car in 2012 after he been approved to drive for Uber Black, the brand-new private car service. As an Ethiopian immigrant in Washington, D.C., he had supported himself by driving a taxi so he already had the chauffeur license that was then required. In 5 or 6 hours of driving, he earned what would have taken him 8 hours in a taxi. But, not long after he took on the $35,000 loan for the car, Uber changed a policy about how old cars could be, and the Lincoln Town Car no longer qualified. Aman could no longer drive for Uber Black, and he could no longer make his car payments.

Like Aman, many Uber drivers are on a debt-to-work pipeline, taking on a significant financial risk to get the chance to earn a wage. Drivers invest upfront nearly all of the costs of running a car service: the vehicle itself, maintenance, gas, insurance, and taxes. On top of that they incur tolls, parking tickets, “dead miles” (the distance driven while waiting for or driving to pickup a passenger), safety devices (dash cameras and mace), and rider extras (water and mints). And drivers have no guarantees about how much they will earn, when there will be surge pricing, or whether they will come down with an illness and be unable to work. One driver put it this way: “You’d be better off working at McDonald’s.”

The problem isn’t just uncertainty about what drivers can earn. Some also end out in deeper financial trouble by leasing cars from Uber’s Xchange program. One driver, Joan, got caught in this trap after she hit a pothole and damaged her car’s suspension system. She spent nearly all the money she had to get the car fixed. Then, when efforts to repair the vehicle failed, she spent more to lease a car from Uber. While Xchange offers lower credit barriers than traditional lenders, the payments which Uber automatically deducts from drivers’ paychecks, are high. Joan pays $138, more than the national lease average of $100 per week. Another driver we interviewed pays $290 per week and, at the end of her 3-year lease, she will have paid two or three times her car’s value. Think company town, or as one of our other drivers said, “indentured servitude.” The costs of these subprime leases are exorbitant, but, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Uber has actively deceived drivers about those costs. A Massachusetts Attorney General also found that Uber’s former lender charged higher-than-allowed interest rates to drivers in low-income communities.

Along with significant financial risks, Uber drivers struggle to make sense of the company’s constantly changing rules and opaque management practices. In the four years it has been operating in Washington, D.C., Uber has reduced its base rate for drivers several times, added a rider safety fee (and then increased it, calling it a booking fee), and raised the commission it takes from new drivers. The rules and details of work for Uber change, sometimes hourly. A majority of the drivers we interviewed reported that their wages have dropped so much that they will only drive during hours when there is likely to be surge pricing or in areas where other incentives give them a better chance of earning decent wages. One driver commented that “They’re really playing games with [the rates], and…I don’t like that.” These games, which are built into the heart of the Uber platform, have a point: to keep Uber drivers on the road and in the dark.

Workers do not know how much they earn largely because of the fluctuating algorithms on which pay is based and the numerous expenses they must deduct. Of the 40 drivers we interviewed and surveyed, only a handful knew what percentage of their fares Uber takes. The majority did not know how Uber determined how much drivers take home on a single ride (whether, for instance, the booking fee is removed before or after Uber takes its commission), whether they are required to buy commercial insurance, or how tax filing works at the end of the year.

Workers also have little information about company decisions. Drivers reported that Uber was not transparent about its policies on both minor issues, like how much a driver would be compensated when a passenger vomits, and major ones, like “time-outs” (penalties for not accepting the right number of rides in a certain time period) and de-activation (permanent suspension). It’s a system of “smoke and mirrors,” in the words of one driver. Drivers also reported little recourse in disputes with Uber. One driver, Larry, was unsuccessful in recouping a fraction of a fare that he believed Uber wrongly took. He said, “I mean, I’m never going to find a lawyer who’s going to take on my case to help me get my $4.71 back, and that’s part of the frustration.” This experience is not unique. According to the New York Times, Uber has wrongly withheld tens of millions in wages from drivers, though the company has since agreed to repay some of the outstanding wages.

What can be done about the working conditions of Uber drivers? The biggest fix, though the least likely at the moment, would be for regulators to require Uber to treat its drivers as employees, which would mean the company would provide worker protections in line with national labor laws. An easier inroad would be for federal legislators and prosecutors to confront the subprime auto-lending practices that proliferate in the Uber world. Until these two steps are taken, cities should be wary of partnering with Uber for any kind of public transit provision, workers should be wary of driving for Uber, and rideshare users should patronize worker co-operative taxi fleets, or barring that, should tip their drivers — a lot.

Katie Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen

Katie Wells is a Visiting Scholar and Declan Cullen is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Geography at George Washington University. Kafui Attoh is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies in the Murphy Institute for Labor Studies at the City University of New York. This research was funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors. For more information on forthcoming pieces about driver strategies and the rise of Uber in D.C., contact Katie Wells.

 

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Work | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Women Hold the Keys to New Working-Class Prosperity

America rediscovered its working class during the 2016 election, and many Democrats and progressives now call for fresh policies to address the nation’s crisis of bad jobs and stagnant wages. Twenty-first century working-class prosperity, however, must involve a reinvigorated labor movement.   And women, especially women of color, will be more central than ever before.

Pundits and politicians often use “working class” as code for a white guy in a hard hat.  Yet America’s working class is primary female and is disproportionately brown and black.  This is true no matter how we define the working class.

The media usually defines the working class as people without a four-year college degree, which includes two-thirds of Americans. By this measure, women are the majority of the U.S. working class. In fact, 52 percent of people over age 25 without a four-year degree are women, according to census data, and a disproportionate number are women of color. If we describe class by education, people of color will be a majority of the nation’s working class by 2032, earlier than in the overall population.

But is a college degree the best marker of what it means to be working class?    Many people who are high earners don’t have a college degree.  If we use income as our lens, then women still are overrepresented in the working class. Though government data often subsumes women’s earnings within household data, women are disproportionately among America’s lower earners.  A recent GAO report found that though women make up nearly half the nation’s workers, they make up nearly 60 percent of the workers in the lowest wage quintile.  We all know about the wage gap – – the median woman worker is paid 83 cents on every male dollar, and for black and Hispanic women it’s even worse. Even when women and men hold the exact same working-class job – – like as a housekeeper, trucker, or nurse – – men still earn more than women.

Maybe the kind of job you do is the best way to gauge class status. Here again, women are increasingly central.  Eight of the ten occupations with the highest projected job growth by 2024 are women-dominated, working-class jobs, such as personal care and home health aides, nurses, food preparation and serving and retail salespeople. The jobs women hold are at the heart of an economy that is more based on service and finance than on industry.

Perhaps the best way to measure class is to just ask people about their class status.  The Center for Economic and Policy Research recently tabulated data from the General Social Survey that polls Americans about class identification.  While white women and men were equally likely to say they were working class – – about 40 percent made this identification – – a full 56 percent of black women and 62 percent of Hispanic women identified as working class.

Any way you cut it – –  by education, income, job, or class identity – –  the U.S. working class tilts female, and clearly it is not just white.

Today’s workers are women, and they’re also mothers and caregivers. Four in 10 American households with children include a mother who is either the sole or primary wage earner. Yet the nation has not yet dealt with women’s basic issues as workers, and societal and economic structures still assume a male, industrial breadwinner.  Unlike other industrial nations, the U.S. doesn’t have robust child care and family leave policies.  Working-class people often face long hours and unpredictable schedules that are impossible to square with family life.  In most households, women still do most of the cleaning and cooking, doing the double duty of paid work and family caregiving. One recent AFL-CIO report found that women have less than forty minutes a day of personal time after fulfilling all their other responsibilities.

This is why issues that matter for all working families — universal child care and pre-K, paid family leave, free college and guaranteed fair scheduling, affordable housing, and fair wages — are especially important for working-class women.  Wealthier families can afford privatized versions of these essential tools. They can hire nannies, afford unpaid leave, pay for college, and cover the mortgage.  But working-class women are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly precarious economy.

Women are the core of the new working-class, and their concerns make up the nation’s most pressing working-class issues. That’s why women’s leadership – – especially among women of color  — will be critical for a new working-class movement.

This is the goal of a new joint project by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor and Rutgers University’s Center for Innovations in Worker Organization.  WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership) will identify, nurture, and train a new generation of women leaders for today’s workers’ movement.  Participants will benefit from training and mentoring, apprenticeships, fellowships, and a public advocacy and research platform.  The project will help seed a new generation of women leaders who can help convene and lead a cross organizational collaboration to mobilize the full potential of today’s working class.

WILL Empower builds on the fact that women are already at the leading edge of the resistance.  With five million global participants, the Women’s March on Washington was perhaps the largest political mobilization in history. Women’s leadership mobilized both men and women to express their outrage at the new political order.  Women have continued to march, huddle, strike, and organize since January, among them legions of young women workers. A Day Without a Woman further spotlighted women’s role in the economy, and working-class women also drove a Day Without Immigrants.

The project will amplify women’s emerging role as the face of the 21st century workers’ movement, a movement that blends traditional unions and “alt-labor” organizations, like workers’ centers and wage campaigns. By 2023, a majority of union members will be female, and women are already leading many of the nation’s largest unions, like the NEA, AFT and SEIU.  Women have been key leaders in new worker organizations, especially young women of color – – like at the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and the National Taxi Workers’ Alliance.

A newly-mobilized working class could reshape the nation’s economic and political landscape. Yet in order to build a winning movement for these times, working-class women’s issues and leadership must be front and center to progressive core strategies, policies and organizations.   Women, it seems, hold the keys to the way forward.

Lane Windham

Lane Windham is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative (K.I.) for Labor and the Working Poor where she jointly directs the K.I.’s WILL Empower partnership with Rutgers. She holds a doctorate in U.S. History.

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Fear of Hygge and Working-Class Social Capital

One of the contenders for the Oxford Dictionaries’ “word of the year” in 2016 is the Danish word hygge (pronounced hoo-guh).  As defined by Oxford, it denotes “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment and well-being.” According to The New Yorker, hygge has “made inroads with an international audience” because it is often seen as the source of Denmark’s ranking as among the happiest places on earth in international surveys.

I sought to find out about hygge because various references to it seemed similar to my sense of key aspects of American working-class culture – namely, the priority given to the pleasures of simply “hanging out” with friends and family or, more broadly, what Barbara Jensen decades ago called a working-class preference for belonging vs. becoming.  Based on the handful of articles I read, I wouldn’t push this analogy between Danish national culture and American working-class culture too far.  But the anxiety hygge seems to generate among middle-class professionals for whom striving to achieve is the very core of life seems to confirm the stark opposition between working-class and middle-class cultures that Jensen laid out in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America.

Hygge is wonderfully difficult to define, at least for the American and British writers I read.  It is strongly associated with certain physical objects like fireplaces, cocoa, old shirts, and candles.  But it is primarily an attitude of appreciating what some writers call “the small things of life,” not just a hot cup of cocoa by a fire in winter, but the “comfortable conviviality” of “relaxation with close friends or family.”  Some call it “the art of creating intimacy” or “coziness of the soul.”

The panicked reaction to such an attitude is typified by The Atlantic headline: “The Danish Don’t Have the Secret to Happiness: Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark.”  The writer, Michael Booth, would not be happy in Denmark because it is too orderly and boring there – no street food or graffiti, no homeless people panhandling, and insufficient numbers of visible poor people to add spice and variety to urban wandering.  (In fact, 5% of Danes are poor, including nearly 3% of children, not nearly as spicy as our double-digit rates, with 20% of American children growing up in poverty.)  Booth is cagily over-the-top with this complaint, but all the writers endorse the satiric anti-individualist “Laws of Jante” as accurately describing Danish social norms.   Most of the laws counsel an egalitarian ethic similar to the one I heard growing up in a working-class family a while back: “Never think you are better than anybody else or that anybody else is better than you.”  Similarly, they counsel not to expect too much of yourself and to have generally modest expectations of life, while appreciating and making the best of what you have, above all, your family and friends.  Most Anglo-American writers find this stifling, a recipe for mediocrity, self-satisfaction, and complacency.  Life for them is a “journey,” always striving for self-improvement.

The Laws of Jante were articulated by a Danish rebel against the hygge culture, and many Danes dispute their sardonic exaggeration of Danish conformity.  A more positive version of hygge is articulated by Danish philosopher/psychologist Svend Brinkmann in Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze.  Without ever mentioning hygge, Brinkmann argues against individualist self-absorption and for a Stoic sense of character based on one’s obligations to others, advocating that “we forego our desperate preoccupation with the internal and self-development, and instead learn to connect in more appropriate and meaningful ways to the pre-existing relationships in our lives.”

Danish hygge in this version is not so much about coziness and relaxation as it is about centering one’s life around and giving priority to “pre-existing relationships,” what Jensen called working-class belonging in contrast to middle-class striving to become something bigger and better than you are so far.  Jensen sees Robert Putnam’s distinction between a bonding social capital and a bridging social capital as a class-cultural difference.  Bonding is “the kind of social capital that is at the heart of working-class communities – deep, loyal, we-are-part-of-one-another bonding.”  Middle-class bridging social capital, with its skill at networking, is “less personal” and more superficial, but “it can unite many people across wide differences,” and it “invites individuals into new communities and experiences.”

As Jensen suggests, both kinds of social capital have value, with both strengths and limitations.  The Economist, for example, was quick to point out that hygge, with its preference for bonding, makes it harder for strangers, like immigrants, to make friends and to feel welcome in Denmark, concluding: “If cultures are obsessed with the joys of relaxing with old friends, perhaps it is because they find it stressful to make new ones.”  It likewise could be said that those “obsessed” with networking among people they hardly know and have no intention of ever knowing very well may have a fear of intimacy.

Bonding and bridging are not incompatible with each other.  A person can bridge all day and then bond in the evening, as so many of us do.  But the dismissive defensiveness against hygge of Anglo-American writers indicates a cultural anxiety that fears relaxation itself as threatening the constant striving to perfect one’s self and to outperform others.  Hygge, I imagine, is relaxing not because of cocoa and fireplaces, but because you are with people who know you so well that you don’t have to bother with presenting yourself, with hiding what you perceive as your weaknesses and disabilities and “putting your best foot forward.”  It’s relaxing because you can just be yourself, warts and all, and still be accepted, still belong.  That this is seen as a threat to achievement, a dangerous siren call to complacency and self-satisfaction, suggests a professional middle-class culture that has lost confidence in itself and, as a result, is becoming more narrow, rigid, and cramped in its insistence that, in the words of Frederick Winslow Taylor, there is only one right way.

Then, too, much of the fear of hygge, as Anna Altman in The New Yorker points out, may be based on the “American” rejection of Denmark’s “high taxes and socialist ideas.”  Before snarkily dismissing it, Altman cites an alternative point-of-view:

“Perhaps Scandinavians are better able to appreciate the small, hygge things in life because they already have all the big ones nailed down: free university education, social security, universal health care, efficient infrastructure, paid family leave, and at least a month of vacation a year. With those necessities secured, according to [Meik] Wiking, Danes are free to become ‘aware of the decoupling between wealth and well-being.’”

The American working class does not have these big things nailed down, and their preference for belonging is more likely influenced by the fact that it’s cheaper and doesn’t require cash or a credit card.  In addition, in a belonging culture that is better at bonding than bridging, “pre-existing relationships” are not “the small things of life” but the big ones.

Jack Metzgar

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Have We Been Had? Why Talking About the Working-Class Vote for Trump Hurts Us

Like many of my friends and colleagues who study class and are worried about the increasing economic inequality of this country, I was at first overjoyed that the recent presidential election would force us to reckon with the subject of class. Usually ignored, working-class people were now becoming subjects of a national conversation.  And we’ve seen some fine discussions from folks like Joan Williams, Konstantin Kilibardo and Daria Roithmayr, and Jack Metzgar.

Unfortunately, the discussion too often tips over into pity and blame, and I think we should be very careful to guard against this.  I would like to make two suggestions.  First, we should challenge the those who claim that the “white working class” voted for Trump. That’s both empirically mistaken and strategically misplaced.  Second, we should pay attention to how this conversation plays right into the hands of a long-standing conservative discourse that pits “middle America” against out-of-touch elites.  That we who write articles, analyze data, and blog about politics and class are the elites people are warned against should not come as a surprise, but we should avoid participating in the “let’s figure out what is wrong with white working-class voters” game.

First, who really put Trump in the White House?  The short answer is, many of us did.  I don’t think we will have the full answer for quite some time.  We still don’t have any data on occupation and the 2016 vote.  We can look at American National Election Studies (ANES) data from November 2016, however, to compare the vote by income and education.  The top bars on the chart below show all ANES respondents, the second whites only.  Trump had the edge among white people without a college degree, although less so among middle-income voters than the poor or the rich (he did really well among rich white men without a college degree).  This is a small sample, however, one that doesn’t include any poor whites with a college degree (who do in fact exist!)

This data doesn’t show the white working class overwhelmingly in support of Trump. Not more than half of the working class even voted, so to say that the “white working class” gave us Trump seems more than a little overstated.

Second, elite hand-wringing about the vote plays right into a narrative long spun by conservatives to mobilize resentment among those who feel analyzed and scorned, so as to shift attention away from actual conservative policies.  Decades ago, conservative writer Samuel Francis claimed that the New Deal was nothing other than “a power grab by the liberal elite, whose life-styles, aspirations, and values” were “Bound together, rationalized, and extended by what may be called the ‘cosmopolitan ethic.’” Francis emphasized the “open contempt” this ethic held toward “the small town, the family, the neighborhood, the traditional class identities and their relationships – as well as for authoritative and disciplinary institutions – the army, the police, parental authority, and the disciplines of school and church.”

Clinton’s election narrative echoed these ideas.   She wanted liberals to see this election as a referendum on race and inclusion, and anyone who was against her was deplorable or being used by deplorables.  As Sharon Sullivan has argued, “one of the main ways that white class hierarchies operate is through the production and display of white middle-class moral goodness.”  Have you noticed how infrequently rich whites are called out for being deplorably racist?

Honestly?  This election wasn’t a referendum on anything.  We had no good candidates to choose from.  We didn’t choose either one of them.  Millions of Americans sat out the vote (or were pushed out, but that is another story).  And each of the millions of people who did had their own reasons for casting their vote.  Most likely we’ll never be able to get to the bottom of how much racism, sexism, and other prejudices motivated voters in this election.  (On a side note, is it really that surprising that a critical mass of white people respond to racist dog whistles?)  Yes, we need to try to understand the attraction of a strange man who seems to appeal to our worst instincts and desires, but not at the risk of failing to come together to continue the fight for a better world for all of us.  Politicians manipulate.  Let’s stop focusing on who is manipulated and why and focus instead on making sure this doesn’t happen again.

I would suggest that the main reason we are currently focused on the working-class vote, and not, say the professional-managerial vote, or the rich white male vote, is because these people are respected to make decisions.  In contrast, pundits and analysts have always questioned ability of working-class people to make decisions.  This is just another way the educated left is playing into a conservative narrative of condescending liberal elitism.

Here’s the problem as I see it.  If Trump’s supporters came from all sections of the (white) American electorate, the narrative of working-class support of Trump diverts us from the real story, which is much more ordinary.  One party — a party that denies climate change, that wants to rollback protections for workers and the planet, that is willing to sacrifice millions of lives to the Moloch of economic growth — has managed to suppress its opponents’ votes (the majority of poor and working-class people do not vote), spin a story of a liberal media being out of touch with “regular Americans,” and lead kind-hearted but possibly naïve liberals everywhere to once again fear the (white) working class.  Neat trick.  any Leftist coalition will be destroyed by fear and mistrust.

It has been a very long time in this country since we had a party that was both about and for the working class (have we ever?).  Instead, our parties appeal to mythic constructs about identity.  It is much easier to appeal to white workers as white than as workers in such circumstances, especially when the candidate of the party that historically championed labor is also ignoring labor and putting her foot in her mouth with classist remarks.  This is how we lose.

The side of the wealthy exploits the classism of the other side, and wins voters by doing so, even as it pushes for policies that favor the few and harm the many.  They have been doing this for a very long time.  This is how they win, and we play right into their hands.

We’ve been had. We need a new narrative.  We need to recognize the working class for who it is.  It is us, white, black, and brown.  It is the person who works three jobs and can’t afford healthcare as well as the worker with a union job, the person living in subsidized housing as well as the suburbanite who is hoping her job doesn’t disappear.  The working class is the American people, our democratic polity, native-born and immigrant, gay, straight, and transgender.  We don’t all look alike, and we certainly don’t all think alike. But we are all harmed by a politics that seeks to divide us.  No, they didn’t vote Trump.  Americans like us did.  And we all need to fix it.

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.

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Profiting from the Working Class: How the Opioid Epidemic Echoes the Mortgage Crisis

For the second time in a decade, a group of Fortune 500 companies are engaged in a con game that is devastating working-class families and the communities in which they live. The first scam, which involved predatory lending and the sale of worthless mortgage-backed securities, led to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the near-meltdown of global financial markets in 2008. In its wake, nearly ten million American families lost their homes, millions more lost billions in equity and were left broke and hopeless. Many of the victims are still struggling to rebuild their lives today.

NBC News photo

As with predatory mortgage lending, the ongoing opioid and heroin abuse epidemic began quietly and went undetected by regulators and law enforcement officials until evidence of the carnage it was causing began piling up at their feet. One of the most widely-discussed reports came from economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who identified rising death rates among middle-aged whites, especially those from the working class, tied in part to overdoses. And while the housing crisis and the opioid/heroin epidemic were both spawned by corporate greed, there’s one significant difference: the victims of the drug epidemic aren’t attempting to rebuild their lives. They’re dead.

The similarities between the two scams are striking and disturbing. Like the bankers who created the mortgage crisis by marketing unsustainable investment tools that exploited homebuyers, the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids engaged in a concerted and highly successful effort to convince physicians and pharmacists to hand out dangerous and highly addictive drugs, including OxyContin and Vicodin, as if they were jelly beans.

How successful was that marketing campaign? Very. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail noted in an explosive report on the epidemic, between 2007 and 2012 pharmaceutical companies sold 780,000,000 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills in West Virginia. That’s 433 pills for every man, woman, and child living there. Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, and New York have also been flooded with these drugs.

The drive to convince doctors that opioids could be safely prescribed for the long-term treatment of chronic pain without substantial risk of addiction was led by Purdue Pharmaceutical, the manufacturer of OxyContin. As reported in the American Journal of Public Health,  Purdue funded self-serving studies that produced fudged data, distributed that data to thousands of physicians, pharmacists, and nurses during conferences held at luxury resorts, more than doubled its sales force, and paid reps who produced increased OxyContin sales $40 million in bonuses. As a result, Purdue’s owners, the Sackler family, jumped to Forbes Magazine’s list of America’s wealthiest families with a net worth of over $14 Billion at the end of 2015.

Two other factors also contributed to the exponential growth in opioid sales. First, Purdue concentrated its efforts in regions of the country populated by blue-collar workers and the economically disadvantaged because they assumed that patients in those areas were less educated and more likely to place blind faith in medical providers. The Gazette-Mail series on the epidemic demonstrated the companies were correct. While opioid addiction has increased in all demographic groups, the Centers for Disease Control reports the largest increase among whites who earn between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

But the epidemic was also made possible by the total failure of regulators to recognize what was happening. Despite rules requiring drug distributors and pharmacists to report unusual orders of controlled substances to regulators, billions of pills continued to flood markets across the U.S. for years. No one said a word until the bodies began to pile up and the evidence began to show growing addiction rates among middle-class whites. When regulators did finally act by cracking down on doctors who were over-prescribing pain meds, many addicted patients turned to heroin dealers.

Anyone who has read The Big Short or seen the movie that chronicled the mortgage lending scam will recognize the tactics used by Purdue and the other pharmaceutical manufacturers: create a market for a faulty product, pay once-responsible people lots of money to foist it off on unsuspecting customers, and sit back and reap billions in profit. But the consequences are quite different: victims of the former lose their homes, victims of the latter lose their lives.

It is possible, however, that the U.S. Justice Department will treat this scam differently. In the aftermath of the 2008 housing meltdown, not a single senior banking executive was indicted, convicted, or jailed for the massive fraud committed on the American public. Instead, the feds spent billions to bail out the finance industry and offered only slight assistance to the millions of Americans who lost their homes, their savings, and their dreams.

State attorneys general filled the vacuum by launching investigations and filing civil lawsuits that the U.S. Department of Justice eventually, albeit reluctantly, joined.  While many of the largest banks paid billions in fines and penalties using bailout money supplied by the very taxpayers who had been defrauded and funds that should have been distributed to shareholders, the Obama Justice Department and Attorney General Eric Holder declined to prosecute anyone.  The cozy relationship between Wall Street fraudsters, regulators, and prosecutors, symbolized by Holder’s post-AG work at the white shoe law firm of Covington and Burling, discouraged criminal enforcement efforts that many legal observers say should have been initiated. As a former Senate investigator put it, “Everything’s fucked up, and nobody goes to jail.”

Not surprisingly, homeowners were stunned and outraged when they learned that the billionaires who had stolen their houses were allowed to walk — or Lear Jet or yacht — away scot free.  It’s also not surprising that many of these historically Democratic voters were excited by Donald Trump’s promise to hold Wall Street accountable for raping Main Street.

The Trump administration and AG Jeff Sessions have the opportunity to do better. As evidence of a major corporate fraud piles up and as overdose rates increase in big cities and rural communities in Ohio and other states, Sessions must decide whether to prosecute the corporations whose actions caused the epidemic. So far, despite a professed desire to reignite the war on drugs, the president and his AG have been silent on the matter.

That is why we were encouraged when Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, at the urging of Democratic elected officials and the plaintiff’s bar, recently filed suit against the pharmaceutical companies responsible for Ohio’s severe opioid crisis and resultant deaths. The theory of the case is obvious: drug companies, led by Purdue, systematically and intentionally used fraud and deception to convince doctors, third party payers including the state’s Medicaid program and Worker’s Compensation System, and patients that opioids were safe and effective.  As a result, patients became addicted to opioid medications that contain the same active ingredient as heroin, which put their lives in danger.

While we applaud DeWine’s decision, and we’re glad he included a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) claim in the suit, the foreclosure crisis taught us that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Justice are the only law enforcement agencies with the resources and power to pursue and prosecute a case that involves a massive fraud that impacts the entire nation.

Unfortunately, Sessions and the DOJ appear to be focused on prosecuting and jailing street-level heroin dealers and users rather than the executives at Purdue and the other opioid manufacturers who knowingly touched off the deadly heroin epidemic. This strategy isn’t just doomed to fail, it echoes the Obama administration’s decision to lockup low-level mortgage brokers but allow Wall Street executives to cash million-dollar bonus checks and head to the Hamptons for the summer.

We remain hopeful that Sessions will surprise us all by deciding to criminally prosecute the pharmaceutical executives who created the opioid crisis. If he does, a clear and for once positive distinction will be drawn between the Trump and Obama administrations. But if he doesn’t, if he instead prosecutes the men and women in blue jeans and plaid shirts who are buying and dealing heroin rather than the bespoke suit-clad executives who set them up to become drug addicts, the Trump administration will be repeating the mistake made by Obama’s with one stark distinction: they’ll be letting murderers off the hook.

And that’s certainly not the way to make America great again.

Marc Dann and Leo Jennings III

Marc Dann served as Attorney General of the State of Ohio and now leads the Dann Law Firm, which specializes in protecting consumers from various forms of predatory financing. Leo Jennings III is a leading Northeast Ohio political consultant and media specialist.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Leo Jennings, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments