The Future of Working-Class Studies

In 2005, John Russo and Sherry Linkon published their edited collection New Working-Class Studies, drawing together a rich array of writers across a range of disciplines. This was by no means the first book that addressed working-class life and culture, but it set down a marker for a field that has developed much further since then by way of the Working-Class Studies Association, its annual conference and journal, this blog, and  many more developments large and small in this vibrant field. Having watched the field grow over the past two decades, we thought it was time to reflect on what has been achieved and which areas might still need to be addressed.  The result is the Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, forthcoming in 2019.

We set ourselves some ambitious aims in developing the handbook.  We wanted to create a resource that could serve as a starting point for someone new to the field as well as a text for those already familiar with working-class studies who wanted to teach about class.  But we also wanted the collection to reflect on the roots of the field, its recent work, and where it is going. As editors who have grown through working-class studies over the last two decades, we are especially attuned to the generational aspects of the field and of social class more generally. We come from a middle generation, between activists and scholars who cut their collective teeth in the 1960s and 1970s, the height of the long post-war boom and Fordism, and those coming of age today, in an era marked by precarity and an ever-widening income and wealth gap.  For our generation, our scholarship and political activism are marked by a class in retreat because of job-loss and community breakdown, yet we still have strong memories of the cultures and structures of the past.

Just as our field must contend with the ways that economic change is transforming working-class life, both the working class and working-class studies must continue to engage more fully with gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, and other aspects that shape who we are.  We also can’t treat the diversity within the working class as a simple check list of ideas and identities.  Rather, as many scholars and activists have already done, we need to incorporate the insights that have emerged historically from different voices that address class through intersectional, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary analysis. A recent anthology, Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class, by the Working Class edited by Nathan Connolly, illustrates how the complexity of identity intersects with economic and social changes.  The collection includes a whole range of new writers on class, who drew deep on their own very different backgrounds. The book highlights the link between the ethnic diversity of the contributors and their perspectives as working-class people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s in different parts of the UK. These millennials had been formed in very different ways, challenging class positions held by previous working-class cohorts. Just as these writers bring perspectives rooted in ethnic identities to Know Your Place, we know that scholars working in race and ethnic studies and similar fields have much to contribute to the working-class studies conversation.  If our field is to succeed and thrive, we must be open to new and different perspectives, including ideas that sometimes make us uncomfortable. Such openness will foster renewal and growth for working-class studies.

We planned the last section of the Handbook of Working-Class Studies to encourage that kind of openness by challenging readers to think about future directions of the field and the working-class more generally.  While we have our own visions, we include a broad range of voices of those who are committed to promoting working-class life and culture and hope that the Handbook will stimulate further dialogue about these matters. We will jump-start the discussion at the upcoming Working-Class Studies Association’s conference in Stony Brook, where we will host a roundtable on the future of the field. If you’d like to contribute but won’t be at the conference, please send your ideas by email.  We will integrate insights from the roundtable and the emails we receive into the conclusion of the Handbook to document the field’s vitality in community engagement, activism, and scholarship internationally.

At the end of their introduction to New Working-Class Studies, Russo and Linkon wrote that  ‘Ultimately, new working-class studies is not just an academic exercise. Rather, we strive to advance the struggle for social and economic justice for working-class people.’ Nearly a decade and a half later, this is still true. Our job is to make sure we remain relevant to our people. We hope you will join the conversation.

Tim Strangleman, Michele Fazio, and Christie Launius

The authors, all past Presidents of the Working-Class Studies Association, are the co-editors of the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies

Advertisements
Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Tim Strangleman | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

We Need a Working-Class Ranking System

Lists that rank U.S. colleges are everywhere these days.  You can find images of the “most beautiful” or “safest” campuses on Facebook.  Every major news magazine seems to have its own rankings system.  All of this started with US News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” ranking, first published in 1983 and used by generations of college-going students and their parents as the definitive guide.   Even as we are bombarded with these rankings, however, we also hear stories of their flaws.  And although colleges bemoan the distorting effects of the rankings, they willingly submit information to the major ones to be sure they’re included.  And students keep looking at them.

As a sociologist, I’ve always found these lists troubling. There are literally dozens of reasons why. You can’t really quantify the value of education, and the lists often ignore significant differences among types of institutions. Rankings reinforce a competitive urge — among both students and institutions — that is unhealthy, to say the least.  They too often reward schools with prestige. They also encourage colleges to spend money in ways that will improve their rankings but don’t always align with the core educational mission. They are sticky, too – most institutions never move very far up (or down) the lists.

As a working-class academic, however, what rankles me the most is the distorting effects these rankings have on college admissions policies.  Level of ‘selectivity’ is a key metric in U.S. News’s ranking, and this encourages schools to become more exclusive.  A school can lose its position if it is viewed as being too easy to get into.  This is why Princeton was crowing recently about its lowest acceptance rate ever (5.5%).  Similarly, some ranking systems consider average time to complete a degree, a metric that favors colleges with students who don’t have to work, take care of their kids, or worry about debt.  This emphasis on efficiency may encourage schools not to accept lower-income students, who often take longer to graduate because of these concerns. For similar reasons, residential colleges will always outrank commuter colleges.

Now this wouldn’t be quite so bad if policymakers, funders, and state governments were not beginning to use these very same rankings and the metrics they’ve developed to reward and punish colleges.  We should all worry about the impact this will have on schools that serve non-traditional students, low-income students, first-generation students, and students from the working class.  The current craze for rankings may directly impact only the handful of students attending selective colleges, but it is having severe downstream effects on all colleges, especially those struggling to fund higher education for the broader public.  This is why I argue that how we rank colleges is a working-class issue. The time for ignoring them and hoping they will go away has long passed.

We need to start, first, by collectively asking what we want our colleges to do.  Do we want to reward colleges for reproducing privilege (like the “Best Colleges” list), or do we want to reward colleges that transform students’ lives?  And, if the latter, how do we measure such a thing?

A few groups have suggested alternative rankings systems that attempt to correct for some of these distortions.  The Washington Monthly ranks colleges based on their contribution to the public good, one measure of which is how many low-income students attend and graduate.  Others are focusing more on outcomes, such as Raj Chetty, whose approach has received a lot of well-deserved attention.  Using state-level tax records, Chetty and his colleagues compared the median incomes of graduates with their parents. This let them rank colleges by how well they promoted social mobility (for example, moving into the top 10% of earners from the bottom 60%).   And when you look at these rankings, you see that the “best colleges” don’t always do a good job with this — a healthy corrective to U.S. News, which includes absolutely zero information on these issues.

While these alternatives move us in a better direction, I think we should demand a working-class friendly alternative ranking system. We can begin by asking what information working-class people who are interested in higher education need. We can also pursue a more complex scorecard system, like the one proposed by the Obama administration.

I’ve been working on a model for this. The first thing is to look at outcomes relative to where students start. A college that admits students with an average 900 SAT score and graduates them to decent jobs is more successful than a school that admits students with an average 1300 SAT score and does the same.   In my model I created a “lack of privilege” index that considers the percentage of low-income students and students from underrepresented minority groups along with selectivity and test scores. This data factored against the economic returns for each college yields a raw “score” of the impact of each college.  When I run the numbers, Harvard ends up with a score of 21, while UT-El Paso, one of the highest scorers, earns a score of a 109.

Those are raw scores.  I also think it’s important to include items of particular relevance to working-class people considering college.  For example, what percentage of a college’s graduates are unable to repay student loan debt?  And how many students end up dropping out?  When I add these factors in, I end up with an overall score.  UT-El Paso still beats out Harvard.  By a lot.

At this point I make an acknowledgment to reality in that students who are seriously considering Harvard are probably going to be considering other equally selective colleges and not the most open access colleges.  So I decided to compare colleges, and score them, only against those in their own “bands of selectivity.”  You can take a look at what three of these bands look like in included table.

It shouldn’t surprise us that our most exclusive colleges have wealthier students than the most open colleges, but that is perhaps also why their graduates earn higher incomes.  In terms of scores, though, the higher scores are found as one moves down the chart to the most open colleges, and this is because I constructed the system to measure transformational impact rather than prestige.

In my system, MIT (not Harvard) ranks very high among the most exclusive colleges; Rutgers and Texas A&M score high among average colleges; and UT-EL Paso earns its top ranking among the most open colleges.  Within each category, graduates of these four colleges do much better than would be predicted by their test scores and social backgrounds.  I won’t name the colleges here that earn failing grades, but their graduates often struggle to earn enough money to repay the cost of college.

This approach emphasizes where students start instead of just looking at how much money they earn after graduation. Given how important higher education is to the possibility of social mobility in the US today, why haven’t we developed a way to identify which colleges actually contribute to the social mobility of their students?  Perhaps we have not wanted to look too closely, preferring the rosy forecasts of the “average” college graduate.  But we owe our students, especially those who are the first in their families stepping on this path, some real guidance.

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.

Posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Understanding Class | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The Royal Family and Their Working-Class Fans

With babies, engagements, and impending weddings, the media have a never-ending supply of stories about the British royal family. While most focus on the younger members, the Queen is never too far away. Various anniversaries are marked with pomp and circumstance, and commentators speculate about what will happen when the Queen passes away (or abdicates). Television dramas feature the royals, too. The life of the young Queen Victoria has been fictionalized in Victoria, and the Netflix hit The Crown focuses on the life of Elizabeth II from her marriage onwards.

Growing up in Britain in the 1970s, I encountered the royal family every day. We learnt all about the kings and queens at school, and each school assembly we sang the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’. Portraits of the Queen hung in every official space, and around each corner of London was a royal reference – streets  named after monarchs, pubs called the ‘King’s Head’ or the ‘Royal Standard’. We went on school excursions to Queen Elizabeth I’s hunting lodge on the edge of Epping Forest, where the guide explained that the magnificent wooden staircase in the lodge had been wide enough for the queen to ride her horse up the stairs. We were suitably impressed. As a very young child, I was taken to the Tower of London to marvel at the Crown Jewels and to watch the Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Many people in my neighbourhood were big fans of the royals. They would comment favorably on the Queen’s latest hat or praise Princess Anne for being so ‘hard working’. My mother loved to tell us about meeting the Queen and Prince Phillip during her time in the Women’s Royal Airforce (she worked as a switchboard operator in the 1950s), and she was immensely proud of her inclusion in the Queen’s Coronation parade in 1953 (she appears for a few seconds in some of the newsreel footage). All of this impressed on me the importance of the royal family, and like many working-class children, I was uncritical and unquestioning.

In 1977, Britain celebrated the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (25 years on the throne) with street parties and bunting galore. My public housing estate organized a free concert and party for the residents, most of whom joined in, wearing red, white, and blue and waving tiny paper flags. It was at this party that I had a revelation. Before the concert started, a resident placed a stereo speaker in their apartment window and played the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ at full blast. This song had been banned from the airwaves, but everyone knew about it because it had been featured in newspapers and on TV news. Standing there in my red, white, and blue outfit, I suddenly saw through the charade. We were celebrating the Queen’s reign on a public housing estate – how far from her life style could we be? From that moment on, I was cynical about the royal family, questioned their purpose, and later (as a political teen) saw them as representing the massive inequality I witnessed all around me.

My developing hostility towards the royal family was outweighed by the continuing love they received from my working-class neighbours and family. If my mother commented on how well the Queen looked, I would suggest that it wasn’t a surprise because she had 24/7 healthcare with no waiting lists for treatment. If she mentioned the Queen’s great work ethic, I would point out that taxpayers fund her existence so the least she could do was cut a few ribbons. My mother didn’t appreciate my rude words.

Even today, the royal family remains popular among working-class people (mostly white working-class people). The press loves to photograph the loyal royal fans who line up from dawn to be in the right place to glimpse the Queen on a walkabout or to watch a new born royal baby leave hospital. They wear jackets and hats emblazoned with the Union Jack and tell the reporters how much they love the royals. Working-class royalists defend the royal family passionately. They claim that the royals attract tourists, whose spending offsets the money spent on pageantry. They also say that the Queen represents stability and brings the nation together.

This is the part I find most troubling. The Queen represents nationalism and imperialism. Nationalism is divisive and exclusionary, and imperialism in the form of colonialism represents violence and destruction. Neither the Queen nor the royal family benefit the British working class.

After spending most of her 84 years loving the royals and deferring to their status, my mother recently had a revelation of her own. On a visit to London, I took her to the Tower of London. She had last been there in the early 1970s. We went to the Jewel House to look at the Crown Jewels. Before the main display there is a video presentation of the Queen’s coronation, a beautiful digital restoration of the original footage, now in glorious colour. I parked my mother’s wheelchair so we could watch the film. ‘I was there!’ she exclaimed as she watched carefully. When it finished, she asked ‘Where are all the ordinary people in the film? Why do we only see the important people? What about the workers who spent hours setting everything up? The people who made the stands and laid the red carpet? Everyone who was up from the night before preparing, and then working in the rain all morning? Why aren’t we in the film?’. This moment of realization was bittersweet. She’s always enjoyed the glamour and ceremony of the royal family, but now she could see how everyone she knew was excluded. The royals were so distant from working-class people’s lives.

Harry and Meghan may have selected ‘commoners’ to invite to their wedding, but do they really understand life for working-class people? So maybe instead of a new season of The Crown, we could have a show about the people who make the royal family possible? Less of the sparkling jewels and fancy hats, lavish weddings and ceremonial robes and more of the sweat and elbow grease – the polishing, vacuuming, building, fixing, cooking of the ‘ordinary people’ my mother would like to see?

Sarah Attfield

 

 

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Sarah Attfield, Understanding Class | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Class, Politics, and the Return of Roseanne

Photo by Adam Rose, ABC

When ABC brought Roseanne back to life on March 27 it attracted more than 25 million viewers to its initial episode—and an additional 5-10 million caught the second airing or streamed it online. In today’s media ecosystem these numbers are staggering; only live sporting events get these kinds of numbers, typically, since most television viewers stream their TV rather than watching it in real-time. A recent study found that 60% of young adults, for example, watch TV exclusively via their computers and smart phones.

Roseanne’s ratings stunned everyone in the entertainment industry, including ABC. But the network should have anticipated this success. Roseanne emerged as part of an explicit new direction for ABC, called the Heartland Strategy, that was conceived the day after Trump won the presidential election. That morning ABC executives met at their headquarters to understand what Trump’s election signified for their own brand. As the New York Times reported, “They began asking themselves which audiences they were not serving well and what they could do to better live up to the company name—the American Broadcast Company.”

Ironically, perhaps, the person who first conceived of a reboot of Roseanne for ABC’s heartland strategy was Sara Gilbert, the actress who plays daughter Darlene Connor. Sara Gilbert is an LA-raised, Yale graduate, and out lesbian—certainly not a member of the heartland audience that ABC is trying to woo. But since playing Darlene Connor in the 1990s, Gilbert has become more interested in the heartland audience as the Emmy-winning co-host of The Talk, which has been on CBS since 2010.  In looking to revive Roseanne, Gilbert did her homework: “‘It was very important to me [to show that the Connors] were still struggling,’ she says. ‘We did a lot of research, and it showed that people who were in their income bracket then were actually often making less now, not even factoring in inflation.’”

Gilbert got everyone in the cast to agree to come back to the show except for its title start: Roseanne Barr. Finally, Gilbert promised Roseanne that she would do battle with ABC for the right to produce the kind of show they could be proud of—and she promised ABC that she would keep Barr in check. Whitney Cummings, creator of the successful working-class sitcom Two Broke Girls, signed on to become a producer and writer for Roseanne, and Wanda Sykes, the African-American comedienne, was hired to be the head writer.

The rebooted Roseanne has received cheers and boos from all corners—much like the original. Those who love it say that Roseanne is funny, just as funny if not more so than the original, and that the Connors are a realistic working-class family—the kind of family that almost never appears in a positive way on network television or anywhere else in the mainstream media.

The Connor home looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1997, including the same tattered couch in the center of the living room, covered with the same crocheted granny square blanket. When Darlene’s estranged husband returns to the Connor house, and he remarks no one has redecorated Darlene’s old room, Darlene quips, “It’s a decorating choice called poverty.”

The first four episodes use humor to deal with a range of issues that affect poor and working-class families, starting with bad health and expensive, insufficient health coverage. In the first episode, Dan and Roseanne have a trading session with each others’ prescription pills so that they can each get a bit more of what they need. Their younger daughter, Darlene, moves back home with her two children because she has lost her job, and everyone in the family endures the daily struggle to make ends meet. Becky tries to become a surrogate mother to make what she thinks will be a quick and easy $50,000—only to discover that at age 43 her eggs are of such poor quality she probably can’t conceive a child through in vitro fertilization or by any other means. The show also highlights the cost and challenges of elder care when Roseanne and Jackie’s mom gets kicked out of her nursing home threatens to move in with Roseanne.

For every reviewer praising Roseanne, at least as many slam it. Many argue that the new Roseanne is not funny, and that it offers a narrow portrayal of working-class life—a crude, cartoonish, and insulting portrait that diminishes the diversity within the working class. But the harshest criticisms are targeted at Roseanne Barr herself. During the first run of her show, Barr was seen as a working-class feminist who forced the networks to address taboo subjects including racism, homophobia, money woes, infidelity, domestic violence, and teen sex. In 2012, she sought the Green Party nomination for president, losing out to Jill Stein. In a bizarre evolution, today Barr openly supports Donald Trump, endorses conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, and bashes the Parkland students, Muslims, and trans people on Twitter. Many claim that to support Roseanne is to sanction Roseanne Barr and her hateful, if oftentimes incoherent, tweets, and public statements.

Some Roseanne detractors admit the show is funny. The African-American critic and memoirist, Roxane Gay, found herself laughing at some of the jokes. But she couldn’t accept that the Connors had voted for Trump, as Roseanne Barr claimed to have done also, in real life.

I could not set aside what I know of Roseanne Barr and how toxic and dangerous her current public persona is. I could not overlook how the Conner family came together to support Mark as he was bullied at school for his gender presentation, after voting for a president who actively works against the transgender community. They voted for a president who doesn’t think the black life of their granddaughter matters. They act as if love can protect the most vulnerable members of their family from the repercussions of their political choices. It cannot.

Gay’s argument is entirely logical, but political ideologies are not. In my own extended family I know dozens of Trump voters who have black, brown, and gay children and grandchildren whom they love as fiercely as they support Donald Trump—whose policies and racist/homophobic hate mongering threaten the very lives of these same children and grandchildren.

After the first episode Roseanne’s ratings slipped down from the jaw-dropping number of 35 million, but the subsequent episodes still drew enough viewers to make all of the other networks jealous. That so many viewers are watching Roseanne suggests that the mass audience is hungry for representations of working-class people—which—if we follow Michael Zweig, is a majority of the American people. On Roseanne, and in real life, the working class includes people who can’t afford their prescription drugs, who have chronic health problems, who have close family members in the military, who can’t afford to redecorate, and who take in family members who can’t afford to pay rent on their own.

Roseanne also reminds us of that some working-class people voted for Trump, though most—like Roseanne’s sister Jackie on the series—voted for Clinton. One analysis of voter data found that “economic hardship among white working-class Americans actually predicted more support for Hillary Clinton, not Trump.”

Indeed, part of the cognitive dissonance of watching Roseanne is knowing that however down on their luck the Connors are, Roseanne Barr is one of the richest women in the US, worth more than 80 million dollars. Roseanne Barr, not Roseanne Connor, is more typical of the loopy super rich who have flocked to Trump’s cause, from the millionaire Congressional reps who used Trump to get their tax cut, to the one-percenters who feed Trump’s ego at Mar-a-Lago. Trump called Roseanne Barr to congratulate her after Roseanne debuted because if there is one thing Trump loves, it is high television ratings.

Watching Roseanne, I am prompted to wonder just how bad things are for working-class people in the US. One study tells us that more than 30% of Americans have no wealth. Most African-American families have seen stagnation and/or a reversal in income and wealth gains over the last 40 years. The United Nations is even investigating poverty in the US because the situation here is just as bad, if not worse, than poverty in some third world countries.

The Connors have been left behind by both political parties, no matter who they voted for. They deserve universal health care, good jobs, living wages, and affordable housing—as well as a president who doesn’t threaten the personhood of Roseanne Connor’s gender fluid grandson and her African American granddaughter.

My final thought after watching Roseanne concerns the Democrats, rather than the Republicans. As long as the Democratic Party gets its money and its policies from the 1%, it will never be a party of the working-class, immigrant, black, brown, and other marginalized peoples represented, at least partially, by the Connors. The Democrats need a heartland strategy, or, at the very least, a heart, to radically change the laws, tax codes and policies that have created the greatest levels of inequality and poverty in American history. Now that’s a program I would definitely watch.

Kathy M. Newman

Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Becky and the Grind

Becky and the Grind

Becky’s aunt had given her $300 to catch up on her electric bill so the power would not be turned off in her apartment.  But when Aunt Millie checked with the electric company, the outstanding bills had not been paid.  Becky had spent the $300 on something else, maybe something more important than electric power, but probably not.  Regardless, Becky had lied to Aunt Millie and, thus, had crossed a moral Rubicon that raised doubts about whether her extended family would provide any future financial assistance, which she often needed.  Worse, it was a huge lapse in her usually fierce self-respect and familial reliability.   As aunts and uncles talked it over, they debated “cutting her off” vs. “how to get her turned around.”

Now in her late thirties, Becky had grown up poor and had struggled since she got pregnant in high school, but for most of her life she had been exemplary in turning her lemons into lemonade.   In better times and in a better place, her exertions and street-wise savvy would have been enough to get her a better life.  She had finished high school while raising her daughter and working a variety of low-wage jobs, some requiring a 90-minute commute on a string of buses.  Her daughter, now in college on a scholarship and loans, had been the center of her life, and she had been a mother we all admired for her grit and determination – her gutsy interventions in schools and the various bullshit jobs she endured.  Her latest job, however, had been as an off-the-books home care worker for an elderly man to whom she got very attached; when he died recently, she had to do her grieving while being unemployed and ineligible for unemployment compensation.  Worse, she had injured her shoulder lifting the old man from bed to chairs and back again, and now she needed an operation that Medicaid would pay for, but she wouldn’t be able to work for months while she recovered.

Becky’s own mother and father, now separated, were both too poor to be much help financially, though they tried to help out in various ways when they could.  Collectively the extended family had the means to help Becky fill some of the gaps for a while, but they might not do that if they couldn’t count on her to keep her word and do what she had promised.  The aunts and uncles had seen others of Becky’s generation fall under the weight of the daily grind of working dead-end jobs that didn’t pay enough to reliably put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  One wrong move and you could fall into a downward spiral of cascading personal and financial problems.  Just the threat of living on that edge was stressful enough to drive many into alcohol and drugs for temporary relief – which, of course, always made things worse, making multiple wrong moves more likely, if not inevitable.   Becky’s brother, for example, had pretty much succumbed to the grind a few years after high school, and how he gets by now nobody wants to know.

Becky’s generation had grown up in a deindustrializing place where, with very minor ebbs and flows, things got worse each decade of their lives.  The jobs kept leaving, as did the people, those who could.  Most of the bad jobs got worse, and what new jobs there were at the Dollar stores were oppressively monitored to prevent employee theft – “worse than being in jail,” said one of the nephews who knows whereof he speaks.  If they were the cardboard rational economic actors of Economics 101, Becky’s generation should all leave town to find better jobs in more auspicious economic climates.  But where exactly would that be for people without college degrees?  And even if having a socially rich network of families and friends were as unimportant as Economics 101 suggests, would a rational actor actually benefit economically by moving away? Is there a study that shows that, or is it just the rational-man logic that works out nicely in mathematical formulas?

The aunts and uncles, now mostly retired on modest pensions and Social Security, came up in better times when steady work in factories, offices, and stores was not so rare, but they too have lived with some grind.  They know how the grind works on you over time, grinding you down inside as well as out.  Through bitter experience, they also know that sometimes helping out those in danger of giving up actually assists them in giving in to their cascading spiral of defeat.

Might Becky have used that $300 to make a wild bet on the lottery or to buy drugs to sell or use?  Or might she have used it to help out her boyfriend’s children? She spends more and more time at his place, and maybe she is half-consciously abandoning her apartment one bill at a time and preparing to move in with him?  Like many single mothers with daughters, she and her daughter Dory were as close as twin sisters, at least when Becky didn’t have to be the stern parent.  Now that Dory is gone and hopefully headed for a better place, has Becky begun to lose her way, abandoned and confused?  Or is she once more working with new lemons to see if lemonade can be made of them?

The aunts and uncles need to know.  For every one of Becky’s generation who has been beaten down by the relentless grinding of the grind, two or three are persisting against the odds, constantly uprooted by lost jobs, pay cuts, sadistic supervisors, and just plain hard work on weakening bodies.  Becky has been one of these.  To give up on her now would be a defeat for the family and its own tenuous morale.  But if she has already given up on herself, it would be worse than a waste of scarce resources to help her out again – it would dishonor and insult those who are still, against the odds, pulling their own weight, or at least trying to.

Aunt Millie, the family welfare manager, will eventually find out where that $300 went.  She thinks Becky may be capable of a boldface lie, as Becky has always been able to present a bold face to bad circumstances.  The aunts and uncles trust that Millie will be able to tell, but who knows for sure (in the short term).  Millie herself seems to be growing weary of managing small amounts of money as her siblings bicker about who does or does not have the moral rectitude to deserve their help.  Nobody doubts that Becky is responsible for her own life, regardless of the circumstances she has had to face, nor that they are responsible to help her if they can.

As a peripheral observer of this extended family dilemma, I marvel at the practical moral complexity of the family conversation and can’t help comparing it to the superficiality of educated middle-class pundits’ palaver about low-information voters and the white working class.  Or, worse, the simplistic judgments about moral and cultural rot of the conservative authors of Coming Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2010 and Hillbilly Elegy.  Why is it so difficult for people with college educations (especially elite ones) to see how fucking heroic Becky has been for 37 years and how it may now all be for naught if the grind turns out to be stronger than she is?  Why is it so hard to see that if we want to reduce opioid addiction, suicides, and other moral failures, we need to reduce the grind – with dramatically steadier jobs and higher wages?  $300, for Christ’s sake!  There are lobbyists in Washington, D.C., tonight spending that to buy politicians a bottle of wine for dinner.

Jack Metzgar

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

The Home Maintenance of Working-Class Identity After Deindustrialization

 

Five years in a St. Florian foundry, they call it Industrial Park

Then hospital maintenance and tech school just to memorize Frigidaire parts

But I got to missing your Mama and I got to missing you too

And I went back to painting for my old man and I guess that’s what I’ll always do

So don’t try to change who you are boy, and don’t try to be who you ain’t

And don’t let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy-man’s paint

Don’t call what your wearing an outfit, don’t ever say your car is broke

Don’t sing with a fake British accent, don’t act like your family’s a joke.

Outfit

This song, written by Jason Isbell when he was part of the band The Drive by Truckers, creates a story from life messages that his father passed to him. More than any academic account I have read, it encapsulates the lessons that the working-class men I interviewed about the ongoing impact of deindustrialisation on male work identity in the UK taught to their sons. To ‘not call what you’re wearing an outfit’ is a variation of the southern American working-class value ‘don’t get above your raising’. While in Britain there is a similar phrase, ‘don’t get ideas above your station’, I think the American expression is more useful as it makes a direct link to family judgement, while ‘station’ has a more open social meaning. In his book ‘Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class, Bill C. Malone suggests that this expression ‘is not an injunction against wealth as such, even though riches carry the potential for corruption. Instead, it is a rebuke to pretense and snobbery, and a plea for respect for and loyalty to ones roots’.

While this song reflects a loyalty to family and background, it also expresses a father’s desire for his son to not repeat his hardship or employment, as the father warns his son to not repeat his work as a house painter by saying: ‘don’t let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy-man’s paint’. This multifaceted narrative suggests the son should not repeat his journey but also should not forget the integrity of his working-class background. The tension of balancing individual and family identities is not new or an exclusive feature of working-class male familial relationships. However, deindustrialization made, and is still making, the negotiation of family background a more practical issue, as industries that for generations had been a staple resource for producing and reproducing working-class culture and identity have now closed or gone into rapid decline.

Shipwrights at Work, from the Kent History Forum

The generational sentiment: ‘don’t repeat my journey and don’t forget the integrity of your working-class background’ I heard from many of the fathers in my own study. These men had worked at the Chatham Royal Dockyard, a naval ship-building and maintenance yard officially established by Elizabeth I in 1567. This 400-year history meant that many workers could trace chains of their families working in this industry for hundreds of years. The dockyard closed in 1984, leaving most of its 7,000 employees having to search for new jobs, an event that inevitably created feelings of anger or despair. Twenty-seven years later, I wanted to explore the long-term effects of that closure on men who had worked in the ‘dockyard’, as well as on their sons and grandsons. The majority of British studies on deindustrialisation have focused on unskilled men, but I wanted to understand how deindustrialisation had affected skilled men.

When I asked 13 former Royal Dockyard skilled tradesmen and 14 of their sons and grandsons about their career choices, many said something like ‘I did it to get on’. The phrase ‘to get on’ seemed short hand for making career decisions with an aim to achieve upward career mobility and better job security. For these men, the value of ‘getting on’ seemed to have a deep family history rooted in industrial society. The first generation, for example, discussed this desire for upward mobility as the reason they pursued a trade or craft apprenticeship. In fact, their parents saw a trade as offering a better and more secure job then they had been able to secure as unskilled workers. One of the men I interviewed, Francis Copper, for example, recalled telling his father he wanted to go in the navy. His parents persuaded him that this was not the best path. As his father said: ‘You shouldn’t do that, go in the Dockyard and do your apprenticeship and when you’ve got your indentures you can do what you like’. Although most sons suggested they did not passively follow their parents’ advice, when the dockyard closed and they lost their jobs, the idea of ‘getting on’ motivated them to navigate their new jobs for the good of their family.  Jerry Naylor, another man I interviewed, discussed moving from being a network maintenance engineer into management at a national phone company: ‘My second daughter being born pushed me to move up and get more money’. As parents themselves, these men also stressed the value of ‘getting on’ to their sons, encouraging them to go into secure white collar work instead of following them into a trade. As Francis’s son Chris recalled, ‘Dad thought I should go into a bank and be a manager’.

Since most of the men in my study actively pursued middle-class work for economic reasons, ‘getting-on’ as a value could be seen as a contradiction of ‘not getting above your rising’. However, in moving into more middle-class paid work, men did not forget where they came from or lose their engagement with their background. Instead, they retained and continued their trade learning and hands-on work by developing unpaid DIY projects. For example, Darrel, a former shipwright, and his son Noel Carrin showed me the architectural drawings and the two-storey extension they had designed and built together. Similarly, Dominic Draper showed off his hand-carved bespoke wooden kitchen. These non-paid DIY projects seemed to allow men to sustain a story to their lives and a sense of integrity with their skilled working-class backgrounds. As Chris Copper reflected, ‘We’ve always been a hands-on, practical people. If I didn’t know how to do it, I’d ask dad’. Like Ben Steel, a former boiler maker, most men could not abide ‘getting a man in to fix something’. Therefore, in spite of what these men now did to earn a living, they still defined themselves as ‘practical people’, not above or removed from the virtue of their backgrounds. Like Jason Isbell’s father, these men were disciples of the philosophy ‘don’t ever say your car is broke’. DIY both allowed these men to continue their hands-on trade labour and was a powerful illustration of their commitment to male working-class identity.

Much like Isbell, the men in my study were encouraged to move away from working-class occupations. Moreover, due to the deindustrialization process, dockyard trade work ceased to be an option for them. We might assume that this would cause them to lose their engagement with their background and loyalty to working-class values. However, as these men navigated change, they consistently sought to embed these values in their family history. Collaborative domestic repair projects anchored their personal story in their manual trade backgrounds. These projects provided a practical demonstration that, although they had moved away from working-class employment, they had not “got above their rising” (or upbringing as we say in England). So even those who went into careers such as social work or school teaching saw these new spheres of work as relevant to their occupational or family background. These projects also allow them to transmit the value of working-class trade work to their own children, a practical manifestation of ‘don’t act like your family’s a joke’.

George Karl Ackers

George Karl Ackers is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth. His research centres on the sociology of deindustrialisation. To read more about this project, see “Rethinking deindustrialisation and male career crisis”, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 2014.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Understanding Class, Work, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Going Public with Working-Class Studies

We started Working-Class Perspectives because we wanted to help readers understand how class works, especially for poor and working-class people. We offered commentaries on issues such as education, politics, and work as well as critiques of media representations of class. Most of our posts get a few thousand page views, and many are reposted on other sites, so we know they reach quite a few readers. But given our goal of changing public discourse about class, I’m glad to see that two early pieces defining working class and challenging class stereotypes have been read by more than 75,000 people.  Ten years after they first appeared, they still get hundreds of page views every week. This reflects a continuing curiosity about class, but it also highlights how confused many people remain about what class is and how it works.

Some of that confusion centers on politics. Although pundits and reporters devoted plenty of attention to white working-class voters in previous elections, in part because many assumed (wrongly) that working-class white people would never support a black candidate, Trump’s victory in 2016 made many more people take notice. Some of the media coverage still relies on tired stereotypes, and journalists too often treat “the working class” as if it were a unified group. As a commentator on the Daily Kos noted about a recent NPR report, the media sometimes “cherrypicks” which working-class voices to highlight, focusing almost entirely on white folks in deindustrialized areas who bought into Trump’s promises to deport immigrants and bring back the steel and coal industries. Although I’m glad to hear Democrats debating whether and how they should woo white working-class voters, I’m not terribly surprised to see class confusion continuing.

Part of the problem lies with class itself, which resists simple definitions but also changes as economic, social, and political conditions shift.  You can see the appeal of the Pew Research Center’s simple calculator that uses income, household size, and location to determine what class you belong to or why political analysts at the Center for American Progress use education as a proxy for class. Such models enable clear analysis, even if they ignore the fuzzier reality represented in the fact that many industrial workers earn more than the majority of today’s college professors (75.5% are temporary and/or part-time employees).

But how people understand any social phenomena, including class, is rooted in experience as well as the stories and ideas we encounter. Some learn about class on the job, through interactions with co-workers and bosses, while for others, the lessons begin at home, through a sense of commonality and connection with family members and neighbors who share church pews, children’s games, and day-to-day struggles to get by. Many working-class academics have written about how they didn’t fully understand their class identities until they went to college and began interacting with people from more middle-class families.

Experience is almost always more complicated than income or education. Paying attention to experiences reminds us that class is a matter of culture and relationships but also of emotion. In a series called “Opportunity Costs: Money and Class in America,” the NPR podcast “Death, Sex, and Money” – which specializes in conversations about the important things most people find uncomfortable to talk about – approached class through five stories about how people in different class positions feel about their economic and social status. In one, two women talk about how their very different economic situations influenced not only their friendship but also their experiences with infertility. In another, a father and son discuss their experiences with being wealthy. In one of the best episodes, host Anna Sale has an especially complex conversation about class with Ernie Major, a former photojournalist who later took a job at a refinery because the union contract would provide him with a pension. He describes how his class position has shifted over time but also about the positive things he gained from growing up poor and choosing that more working-class job over the higher status, more independent middle-class profession. Buzzfeed also published a dozen essays and features related to the series, though most of those focus on money rather than on class.

In introducing the series, Sale invited listeners to share their stories about “when you felt your class status,” a question that prompted many responses, including this one: “class is a level of pride or shame.” That generated a series of pride/shame comments from listeners from varied class positions. Many said that they felt shame about how much money they make, especially in comparison to others, and pride in having enough to live comfortably. Others felt the opposite: shame that they earn less than their parents do but pride in having achieved other things they value, like education or meaningful work. A comment from Kelly in California captures the tensions inherent in this shame/pride discussion: “I lived in poverty for many years in my 20s. I’m now 35, and though I’m saddled with $130k in student loan debt, I can say that I have a career in social work, doing work with people that I feel privileged to do, and brings me enough income to survive in an expensive state.”  Sale also invited listeners to submit songs that reflected their views on class, creating a Spotify playlist of over 100 examples, ranging from “9 to 5” to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The series also generated a Pinterest list of books about class, with a mix of fiction and nonfiction but also some interesting gaps. Listeners recommended some old standards, like Paul Fussell’s 1992 Class: A Guide Through the American Status System and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, along with some newer examples, like – predictably – Hillbilly Elegy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash but also several books focused on elite lives, like Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Streety: The Anxieties of Affluence.

I discovered this list, and the “Opportunity Costs” series, from Joe Lowry, who shared it in a comment on Tim Strangleman’s recent blog about a new collection of essays by working-class people. As Tim noted, many reviews of Know Your Place commented on how rarely we hear about class from working-class people. Of course, that rarity depends in part on who “we” are. For those of who teach and write about working-class culture, writing by working-class people has long been a central source of insight, as are conversations about people’s classed experiences. But the book recommendations from listeners to “Opportunity Costs” reminded me that most people have never heard of the books that I see as the most insightful, meaningful sources for understanding class in America. None of Janet Zandy’s anthologies appears on this list, nor did anyone recommend Christine Walley’s Exit Zero, Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes, or Michael Zweig’s Working-Class Majority. Fiction like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina or Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street were also missing, and the list includes neither plays nor poetry.

I don’t mean to criticize the books that people recommended. But the list illustrates a key challenge for those of us who want to promote better understanding of class: no matter how insightful and critical our academic work is, if we want to influence politics and culture, we need to reach wider audiences. We need to translate our scholarly analyses into forms and styles that will engage more people, and we need to go public with our stories. That’s what we try to do at Working-Class Perspectives, and as a field, Working-Class Studies should focus more on speaking to the public, not just to each other.

Sherry Linkon

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, Understanding Class | Tagged , , | 4 Comments