Budgets and Values: How Republican Cuts to College Loan Forgiveness Will Harm the Working-Class

This summer, a Pew Research report attracted significant attention in media, policy, and academic circles because it revealed that for the first time, a majority of conservative Republicans believe college is hurting our country. The report reflects a political climate that is increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-institutional. While it may not be surprising, the poll suggests that college and class are becoming increasingly stratified and polarized in our national conversations and in public policy.

According to the study’s authors, “A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year.” The number of Republicans without a college degree who believe universities help America dropped 20 percentage points in just the last two years. The decline for Republicans with a degree was 11 percent. That’s a point worth repeating: this dramatic decline occurred over a period of only two years – about the life cycle of the presidential primaries and campaign, and it appears among both college educated and non-college educated respondents. It is striking that this trend does not apply to Democrats, 72 % of whom say universities are good for the country.

This study has spawned many debates and analyses over what the findings mean. Is this a reaction to highly publicized free speech struggles on campuses that have become a staple of conservative media? Or is it due to presidential candidates’ escalating anti-intellectualism? Or does it stem from increasing college costs and debt with little certainty of economic return? I’d argue that all of these causes contribute.

A more important question is this: how might this pervasive Republican anti-higher education sentiment shape policy, and what consequences might this have for working-class college students and other vulnerable populations?

The budget proposals floated by the President and the House GOP suggest that Republicans are stoking anti-college sentiment to justify austerity. As Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education under President Obama, once said, “budgets reflect not just numbers but our values,” and although President Trump’s budget proposal, America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is more ideological wish list than likely policy, it makes clear how he and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos conceptualize the role of public higher education. The House GOP’s plan for a Balanced Budget for A Stronger America similarly misses the complexities of the current institutional landscape. Taken together, these proposals amplify inequities of class already in play at America’s colleges and universities.

While the plans would cut different amounts from education programs, they converge around a market logic about the cause of rising student debt, which disproportionately affects low income students and students of color, the claim that colleges have raised their fees because there’s too much loan money available. The House report places blame on the government’s role in the student loan system: “As Washington has guaranteed students easy access to student aid dollars, which flow to colleges and universities, students have seen tuition and fees increase.” The claim is based  on The Bennett Hypothesis, which suggests that the more federal money available, the higher tuition will rise, actually freezing out the poorest students.

That hypothesis and the policy proposals it generates ignore the cuts to higher education by state legislatures across the nation, which have triggered tuition hikes and shifted the burden of college costs on to the students and their families.. This funding is slowly being replenished in some states, but still remains almost $10 billion below pre-recession levels.

Based on their claim that the availability of federal aid causes a tuition “bubble,” both the House and the President propose to  freeze the maximum Pell Grant, the award that subsidizes the poorest students, at its current level of $5,920. They would also cut $3.3 billion from the Pell Grant’s surplus, which is meant to cover future cost hikes. In addition, in the name of “streamlining” the student loan process and the “confusing” array of repayment options, the Trump proposal would eliminate subsidized Stafford loans, meaning students would have to pay interest on loans while still in school.

The Trump proposal is also especially hard on graduate students. Although the plan increases the percentage of income all student borrowers pay under Income Based Repayment Plans from 10 % to 12.5%, it decreases the years before the debt is forgiven for undergraduates from 20 to 15. It also increases the number of years to loan forgiveness for graduate students from 20 to 30 years.

Trump’s plan also eliminates the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Plan (PSLF). Established in 2007 by the Bush Administration, the PSLF allows college graduates who work for qualified nonprofit or government organizations to have their student loan balances forgiven after ten years or 120 consecutive payments. The program currently involves 553,000 people, and the first round of debt forgiveness is to begin this year.

While these proposals are deeply troubling as a whole for working-class and under-represented students, targeting graduate education for these students has some disturbing long-term implications, not only for these graduates but also for a wide swath of Americans disadvantaged by class, race, and gender.  Typically, PSLF borrowers work as lawyers, social workers, and teachers, employed at public institutions and non-profits. The program encourages public service by offsetting the often high-costs of specialized training to compensate for the often below average salaries in non-profits and government service. Despite the myth of the privileged public servant, public sector workers with master’s degrees earn 31% less and those with doctorates 21% less than their private sector counterparts.

In other words, PSLF encourages service-minded students to pursue professions that they might not have considered because of the debt they accumulate earning the degree. Some research suggests that the working-class students who would benefit from this might be even be more well suited that their more privileged peers to pursue public service, because that they value “interdependence,” prioritize giving back to their communities, and can act as role models for others.

By dismantling one mechanism for working-class students and students of color to enter public service, these proposals ensure that fewer professionals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds will be working on the ground and in the trenches to advocate for the needs and rights of traditionally marginalized populations. At a time when worker’s rights, minority rights, and equal opportunity are increasingly being challenged, we need professionals in law, public policy and social services who understand and can advocate diverse viewpoints.

It’s worth noting that the Pew study also shows that the more Republicans make, the less positive they are about higher education. Of those with salaries of $75,000 or more, only 31 % see college favorably, while 46% of those making less than $30,000 see college as positive for the country. In other words, mistrust of higher education is highest among people who wield the most economic and social power, many of them college educated themselves. Those who design and implement policies that undermine higher ed are also among our most highly educated: 66% of lawmakers have some type of graduate degree. Perhaps, as James Kwak has suggested, they are defunding higher ed in order to maintain their own socio-economic status.

Even if it isn’t about protecting the status quo, the proposed policies on higher ed, especially the Republican proposals to cut support to lower-income students pursuing public service, will do real harm to poor, working-class, and otherwise marginalized people – both those who want to go to college and those they might serve after graduation.

Tim Francisco

Tim Francisco is the Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and a Professor of English at Youngstown State University.

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Cleaning Up the Lease Option Mess in Working-Class Housing

Home ownership may be the most iconic emblem of economic stability for American families, but the pursuit of that goal has drawn too many working-class families into the deceptive agreements knows as “lease option purchase contracts.” To understand the impact of these contracts, visit Youngstown’s South Side, as organizers with the ACORN Home Savers Campaign have been doing, talking with people who signed leases with Vision Property Management.

Picture this: About a third of the lots in the neighborhoods are empty, some the site of demolitions so recent that you can still smell the dirt. On other two thirds, about half of the houses are abandoned and in disrepair, if not all but destroyed. In some cases, parts of them have collapsed.

The occupied houses have their own issues, but they bear the hallmark signs of occupancy: children’s toys, trash cans at the side of the house, lawn chairs on the porch if not a car in the driveway and lights on. Many need work, including all of those owned by Vision or one of its associated corporations. In some cases, they need major repairs.

When organizers knocked on the door of one of those houses, the skeptical woman who came to the door first tried to get rid of them. But when the organizers repeated their mission, to learn about her experience with Vision, her face changed.  “Hold on,” she said. “I’m going to come out to talk to you guys.”

And for the next 15 minutes, she talked about how she had just lost her job and, for the first time, fallen behind on her payments.  She was stuck.  She had made payments for three years.  She had made thousands of dollars worth of repairs during that period to make the home habitable.  Her situation was precarious now.  By the terms of the “lease option” she could be evicted for nonpayment and lose the house, her down payment, and everything she had worked to achieve. She was clear: she needed to get out of this lease and get on a better track to home ownership.

Her agreement wasn’t a contract for deed, but a “lease option purchase.” Rent-to-own, lease option purchase agreements, and similar instruments involve the opportunity of ownership as well as the burdens of repairs, but owner-occupants only secure the title to a home if they maintain the lease.  Desperation meets exploitation in the perfect definition of a potentially predatory transaction.

Stories like this led ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign to organize local committees in Youngstown, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Atlanta to demand Vision renegotiate their leases.  This organized community pressure led to direct negotiations with the company that recently produced a breakthrough agreement to help residents like those on the South Side of Youngstown move from lease option contracts to full ownership and mortgage financing.

First, ACORN had to be convinced that Vision was willing abandon its dangerous “as is” policy of allowing potential owner-occupants to live in housing that was inadequate and potentially unsafe.  To satisfy this demand, the company created a detailed lease-checklist that had to be completed and inspected prior to occupancy. Under the new protocol, most of the major repairs made at this home would have been completed before occupancy, not while our South Side Vision owner-occupant was living under the roof.  Before and after pictures were required.  Timelines for repairs were stipulated and calendared.  Monthly payments on the lease were geared to less-than-market terms to help owner-occupants afford to cover minor repairs.  All conversations were recorded to assure complete understanding of leases prior to execution.

The Memorandum of Understanding between the campaign and Vision then directed that payment records be forwarded to credit agencies so that owner-occupants could develop the credit rating necessary to qualify for conventional mortgages.  The MOU also mandated that Vision create a system to verify the owner-occupant’s out-of-pocket expenditures for repairs to assist in loan approvals. In addition, Vision agreed to develop a system to allow consumers regular access their payment record, balances, and “lease credits” (money set aside monthly by Vision for their closing costs, down payment, or lowering purchase price).  To address the lack of clarity in the original leases, the parties agreed within the next sixty-day period to a line-by-line review and rewrite of the documents. The campaign was especially pleased about this provision, because no one we had met was clear on what they had signed.

The agreement also mandated several pilot programs, one in central Arkansas and the other in the Detroit area, each with 100 properties, where ACORN and Vision would partner to convert the leases to mortgages on an accelerated basis.  Another pilot in one of the organizing cities, possibly Youngstown or Detroit, would identify low-and-moderate income families interested in becoming homeowners, provide housing counseling to repair their credit scores, assist them in putting together a plan to save the down payment, and plan for sustainable ownership. Simultaneously we would work with land banks to match the families with properties that Vision would acquire and repair, so that once these homeowners qualified they could convert to a convention mortgage.

Will these pilots work?  We won’t know for a while.

But given what the Home Savers Campaign found—that rent takes a larger and larger percentage of monthly income, eviction rates are soaring, and a credit desert has forced lower-income families out of the home ownership market since the Great Recession — an agreement with the largest lease purchase option company in the country is an important victory.  These reforms will help the thousands of families currently caught in lease purchase options with Vision.  The agreement prioritizes converting bad contracts into deals that make home ownership a reality — and that’s absolutely a win.  That the campaign also forced Vision to partner with community based efforts to match families that need homes with homes that need families is also a great benefit. Locally-based door-to-door organizing efforts like these might chart a path towards a better future for working-class families in many cities like Youngstown.

Gary Davenport and Wade Rathke

Gary Davenport is the Project Coordinator at the Mahoning County Land Bank in Ohio, where he manages the residential side lot program, strategic acquisitions, and special projects. Before joining the Land Bank, he organized residents in Youngstown to pass the foreclosure bond, legislation that insures abandoned homes against blight.

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

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Calling Luther to a Labor Ethic

October 31, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s defiant act of protest against the Church. Protestants around the world will call to mind Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. The apocryphal image of Luther with a mallet and a manifesto dramatizes his world-changing challenge to the hierarchy of the Church. He emphasized that salvation from sin is through God’s grace, faith not human effort, the word of God not fallible priests or a corrupt Church bent on benefitting from the sale of indulgences. What does this distant anniversary of a theological controversy have to do with the labor and class issues of our time?

Luther’s challenge to the Church’s monopolization of access to God was not an arcane theological matter. It was a “call out” to the working people of his day. He reminded his readers that God calls all people, priest and printer alike, to their vocation, to their calling.  As he wrote three years after the events at Wittenberg, “priests, bishops, and popes, possess no further or greater dignity than other Christians.” For Luther,

a shoemaker, a smith, a farmer, each has his manual occupation and work; and yet, at the same time, all are eligible to act as priests and bishops.  Every one of them in his occupation or handicraft ought to be useful to his fellows, and serve them in such a way that the various trades are all directed to the best advantage of the community.

In short, workers are just as worthy as priests in God’s heavenly economy. While not as radical a reformer as some later rebels against what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church, Luther’s appreciation of the trades, working people, and his theological defense for the equality of all before God remain worthy of commemoration.

Yet the father of Lutheranism was not the father of democracy nor the first labor organizer. Luther’s notion of vocation did not allow for movement from the fixed station that God created, as he understood it, for each one of us. While some have identified Luther and fellow reformer John Calvin as laying the groundwork for capitalism, Max Weber argued a century ago against the “foolish and doctrinaire thesis” that “capitalism as an economic system is a creation of the Reformation.” Weber further cautioned against transplanting a theological notion of calling to a modern work context. As he noted, “The Puritan wanted to work in a calling, we are forced to do so.” The iron cage keeps us in our place. This cage is Weber’s way of showing how a Protestant ethic can be distorted in contemporary workplace relationships. This ethic included, for Weber, a valuation of work, thrift, industriousness, self-control, temperance and fortitude. On the surface, such values seem unassailable. A “Protestant work ethic” that emphasizes the value of hard work, a phrase often but mistakenly attributed to Weber, is usually paired with giving a fair’s day work for a fair day’s pay.

Of course, many working people understand that a “calling” is often a proxy for exploitation and a means to extort more labor. Whether one calls it a Protestant ethic, a Protestant work ethic, or simply a work ethic, this five-century-old legacy of equating work with divine purpose also afflicts laborers in an increasing number of professions. Precarious and uncertain now, professional positions once thought to be secure, valued, and respected are beset with unpredictable schedules, low pay, and no benefits. Adjunct professors know this new mode of working-class life all too well. Professionals who inhabit the aura of a calling and value their work accordingly are all the more subject to manipulation and exploitation. For instance, the care for other human beings would seem to be free of at least some aspects of capital. But the intensification of the work pace in the professions coupled with expanded managerial and fiduciary oversight creates a new work-world long familiar to other workers: maximization of return on investment regardless of the damage to other human beings.

The idea that one should have a “good work ethic” is ingrained in the American psyche. Bill Clinton stated it well:

We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children. Filled with that faith, generations of Americans have worked long hours on their jobs and passed along powerful dreams to their sons and daughters. Many of us can remember our own parents working long hours on their jobs and then coming home and helping us with our homework. The American dream has always been a better life for people who are willing to work for it.

The question is what to do when the other side plays by a competing set of rules inherently structured to undermine workers who have faith in this work ethic, this American dream? That is, in workplaces shaped by capitalism, hierarchies are created (just as the Church generated them in Luther’s day) in which some people have more value because of their rung on the corporate ladder. Be it the Church or capital, both formations bend people to their logic and will.

In the weeks leading up to Reformation Day, we should ponder the theological framework that has shaped centuries of thinking about the meaning of work. We can no longer insist that work be re-enchanted with the aura of a “calling” or the halo of being co-workers in God’s creation. An ethic that simply values diligence and work as signs of obedience to God’s created intent is a dangerous morality.

Instead of a work ethic that draws upon the horizontal relationship between workers and managers, a labor ethic must be developed that sustains relationships of lateral solidarity between workers. A labor ethic does not value industriousness for its own sake nor does it prize a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Rather, a labor ethic attempts to shape the content and pace of one’s work even as it seeks to maximize the benefits from one’s labor. It operates as resistance within workplaces shaped by capital and seeks to transcend those workplaces with cooperatives and other forms of worker ownership and self-determination.  A labor ethic is a distant descendant of Luther’s valuation of earthly work. Given the effects of capitalism on human labor, the cobbler and the smith, once relatively free to practice their calling are now swept up or away by tsunamic forces (pace Marx). Above all, the priority in a labor ethic is always about workers who must practice and investigate the concrete meaning and practice of solidarity among themselves.

A labor ethic is meant to be a re-formation of the reformation ideal of valuing one’s work. In a post-secular age in which neither religion nor secularism has unquestioned primacy, the meaning of work is always up for interpretation. Some find work to be a source of meaning as such, others find work to be meaningful only insofar as God wills it as co-creative work to redeem a sinful world. One legacy of the Reformation is that reform can never be a final action but is always a process. A labor ethic urges on that process through its essential element of protest and contestation to turn the cage of work into a realm of freedom and self-determination. A labor ethic retains the legacy of attention to human work but without the theological context. But this ethic is mindful that a humble monk formulated a theology of reform. Now, reform must be in the hands of workers, believers and unbelievers alike. They may even decide that reform is not enough.

Thus, a labor ethic must always insist on one word from the Reformation however. A labor ethic must cultivate protest and protesting. Like the Protestants of old in the heady days of the Reformation, workers who wish to cultivate a labor ethic will have to be permanently engaged in protest, the “emphatic declaration and affirmation” (Oxford English Dictionary) of their interests. Their lives and their livelihoods depend upon it – word and deed unified for reform or revolution. Here they must stand, they can do no other.

Ken Estey

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

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Activist Art in Working-Class Communities

The impacts of government sell-offs of public housing on working-class communities are highlighted in new documentary film released in the UK. Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (2017), features experts and politicians, but at its heart are the working-class people affected by forced evictions and the loss of communities. The filmmaker, Paul Sng, is committed to telling working-class stories. His previous feature documentary, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain (2015) follows a British punk band, The Sleaford Mods, on a tour of some of the working-class areas of Britain hit hard by the Tory government’s austerity agenda. Dispossession has been screened across Britain and has received positive reviews. This important exposé of the housing crisis in Britain (or what is referred to in the film as a ‘tragedy’) highlights the very real and tangible effects of reductions in public housing. I’ve written before about the importance of public housing, including the positive aspects of these communities. Watching the continued sell-offs, demolitions, and forced relocations of public housing tenants is heartbreaking – and, for someone who grew up in a public housing community, personal.

Paul Sng’s film makes a significant contribution because it highlights working-class life and demonstrates the value of public housing, which is ignored or denied by those responsible for the sell-offs. The sale of public housing has been described as social cleansing, but it also benefits developers. Once public housing tenants are moved out, the estates are often redeveloped for wealthy private buyers whose presence changes the fabric of the community. Many of the homes in the private developments have been bought by investors who then charge high rents for the properties – at rates beyond reach of the original tenants. Public housing estates were never intended for wealthy people. They were built to provide working-class people with the dignity of life that comes with housing security.

With the new wealthy owners and tenants comes gentrification. Neighbourhoods change as working-class residents are priced out. The small number of original tenants rehoused by councils in the local area watch as their old estates are handed over to wealthy people. The infrastructure of the old community makes way for these new residents. Old pubs close, community centres shut down. Laundrettes (laundromats) disappear; popular cafes (caffs as they used to be known in London – serving cheap but home cooked food) turn into expensive coffee shops. And ‘art’ begins to appear.

I am a big fan of art, always have been. My auto-didactic working-class father introduced me to the world of art as a young child, and I’ve always been aware of its classed dimensions. While many people have been excluded from the official art world, isn’t it a positive to be able to find art in working-class communities? Surely the appearance of street art democratises art, making it free and accessible? Technically, yes, and artists have often lived in low-rent areas, and they can benefit a neighbourhood. But art is also a sign of gentrification. It tends to appear along with rising rents, contributing to a ‘cool’ and ‘arty’ vibe. Small boutique galleries open in the closed-down businesses that used to serve the working-class community. Too often, the creative arts are dominated by middle-class people, and the art presented in the small galleries and even street art projects commissioned by councils and companies is not likely to be created by working-class artists. Art galleries filled with the work of middle-class artists attract other middle-class people, shifting the local demographic as it becomes more affluent and whiter.

If working-class people object when boutique galleries replace the old barber shop or corner store, or if they don’t celebrate street art installations, they may be accused of misunderstanding art or not appreciating its value. Many working-class people love art, but not when it represents gentrification or the covering up of corporate interests taking over public spaces. They understand that private companies often sponsor art to ‘improve’ the look of a neighbourhood and boost local property prices. Developers use the presence of art to sell the neighbourhood to investors. This process has been called ‘artwashing’.  When public housing is sold and redeveloped, new privately owned spaces (theoretically for public use) often include street art. But who is it now for? The original working-class residents, or the new middle-class owners and renters? Even Richard Florida (who famously championed so-called ‘creative cities’) has admitted that artists contribute to gentrification.

But working-class people have used art to protest against social cleansing and to assert their presence in neighbourhoods earmarked for redevelopment. In Sydney, Australia, residents of two public housing towers in inner-city Waterloo, both scheduled for demolition, recently collaborated on an art installation called ‘We Live Here 2017’. Volunteers helped residents place colourful LED lights in their windows and light the blocks up at night to show that the towers contain people and homes. This is art as protest rather than art as serving corporate interests.

Paul Sng’s film and the installation on the Sydney estate demonstrate how art is being used to tell working-class stories that highlight the impacts of social cleansing. These projects show how the sale of public housing by conservative governments in Britain and Australia is an assault on working-class people. Through film and art, they show the value of working-class experiences and insist that working-class stories must be told.

Sarah Attfield

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Equal Opportunity Is Not Enough

We middle-class professionals are a crafty bunch, especially our intellectual elite.  One of our cagiest moves recently involves our expressions of concern about increasing income and wealth inequality in the U.S.  While eloquently expressing how guilty we feel about our privilege, we never come close to suggesting that some money be moved around.  “Redistribution” is either not in our vocabulary or “something we need to discuss,” which is our standard way of ending discussion by putting it off to an indefinite future.  But our craftiest move is how we routinely slip and slide in our discussion of the inequality of money (which is what income and wealth are) into ways to improve equality of opportunity.

Richard Reeves’s Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It is a reductio ad absurdum of this crafty slip sliding, but Reeves makes two important contributions.  First, he widens the target from the top 1% to the top 20% of households.  Second, he inadvertently demonstrates the absurdity of applying equality of opportunity to income classes and of understanding social mobility as simply about equalizing opportunities to be in that top 20%.  Worse, though a generous soul gently tweaking our class privilege, Reeves ends up recommending that the primary solution to equalizing opportunities is for our class to improve “human capital development” in the working class, including “home visiting to improve parenting”!

As misguided as I think Reeves is, Dream Hoarders is well worth reading because he pulls together a lot of recent research on how professional-middle-class privilege is being passed on across generations to such a degree that the U.S. has become an “hereditary meritocracy.”  In doing so, he shifts the focus from merely the top 1% of households whose average income tops $1.6 million to a much larger group ranging down to $121,000 a year (in 2016).  This is the top 25 million households, whom he rightly says are “the single most dangerous constituency to anger” because we are “wealthy enough to have influence, and numerous enough to be a significant voting bloc.”  While often humorously chiding his own behavior, he shows the wide range of ways middle-class professionals use our social and cultural capital to improve the chances of our children and grandchildren ending up in that top 20%.

He argues convincingly that that’s not fair and proposes a number of remedies that would make things somewhat more fair, such as eliminating legacy admissions to universities, forbidding unpaid internships, curbing exclusionary zoning, and rejiggering federal loans to make them more affordable for low- and middle-income college students.

But he is very chary when it comes to moving money around.  He wants to greatly improve K-through-12 public education, for example, but rules out spending a lot more money or reducing class sizes.  He even has a great little section on how federal income tax subsidies disproportionately benefit the top 20%, but concludes: “My point is not that we should tax our way to more income equality” but merely to illustrate “the fact that if we need additional resources for public investment, it is reasonable to raise some of them from the upper middle class.”  Note the weasel language here: the “if” leaves him uncertain about whether we actually need more money for public investment (as our roads and bridges crumble and our water systems sometimes poison children), but if we do, only “some” of it need come from the top 20%.  Reeves thinks he knows what will most piss off “the single most dangerous” voting bloc, and he tippy-toes around it.

Having excluded progressive tax reform and knowing that checking a whole series of class privileges like eliminating legacy admissions would not make much difference, Reeves has nowhere to go but to reform the working class’s “human capital formation.”  He seems to have no idea how fraught with conflict this has been in American working-class history.  From the Pullman Palace Car Company’s paternalistic rules for living in its company town to the Ford Motor Company’s infamous Sociology Department, workers have fiercely resented and resisted all attempts from people in authority who think they know how to make them better human beings.  If you want to convert the rest of the working class, including people of all colors, into Trump voters, systematic government “home visiting to improve parenting” among the bottom 80% is probably the way to do it.

It’s not that it couldn’t be helpful to have more parents reading to young children, more use of time-outs rather than spanking for discipline, or more parental involvement in schooling among working-class families. The problem is that the people doing the home visits would likely deliver a program that implicitly says the goal of life is to score well on written exams, go to college, and become one of those professional or managerial phonies so many working-class parents spend a lifetime trying to avoid or resist.  It may be hard to believe – and that’s a big part of the problem! – but many (probably most) folks  don’t want to be people like us, no matter how much they might envy our incomes and working conditions.

And this is Reeves’s biggest, but illustrative mistake.  He is trapped in an equal-opportunity frame that is perfectly applicable for blacks, women, and other groups who have been and still are being denied equal opportunities in education and jobs, in where they live, or who they love.  But to apply that framework to income classes, as Reeves quite rigorously does, doesn’t and can’t work.  His singular goal is to equalize people’s life chances to be in the top 20% of income-earners while, as his subtitle highlights, “leaving everyone else in the dust.”  He is quite clear in explaining that this is how relative social mobility works across income quintiles: upward mobility for those born in the bottom four quintiles requires an equal amount of downward mobility for those born in the top quintile.  This is a worthy goal for those who aspire to a genuine meritocracy where pay is related to performance, but it will not and cannot do anything to reduce our outrageous and still increasing levels of income and wealth inequality – which, by the way, are reducing most people’s life chances day by day and year by year.

Absolute social mobility, on the other hand, is and always has been the more widely shared American Dream.  Sometimes referred to with the metaphor “a rising tide lifts all boats,” that’s but one way to achieve it.  Absolute mobility simply means getting ahead of where you were before, not necessarily getting ahead of others as you do so.  It means that the next generation will have a better life than their parents had – with more income and more free time for what you will.  Stronger economic growth as a “rising tide” can make that more likely, but only if it is shared across all income classes, which it was for the three decades after World War II, but hasn’t been for the last 30 or 40 years.

To achieve shared prosperity, we need to move some money around, starting with a more equitable tax system.  Taxing investment income the same as income you work for, collecting sales taxes on the purchase of stocks and bonds just as we do when people buy pants and soda pop, and taxing financial assets as well as property would simply be more fair.   But less class-biased taxes like these would also raise hundreds of billions of dollars to improve public schools and our rotting physical infrastructure and to fund increases in public subsidies for day care, family leave, public transportation, and many other public goods that would reduce daily living expenses – all of which would benefit all income classes, while disproportionately benefiting the lower income quintiles.  Reeves’s upper-middle class would get nicked a bit with these tax changes, but most of those hundreds of billions would come from the top 1% or 2% — because that’s where most of the money is.

A class-neutral tax system would be a significant move toward the kind of “equality of condition” Alexis de Tocqueville once thought was what made America exceptional.  And I’m betting that a majority of “the single most dangerous voting bloc” would sooner give up a few thousand dollars a year in taxes than the formidable array of privileges which Reeves so clearly shows help keep us and our progeny in our place.

Jack Metzgar

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Race AND Class, Then and Now

Just a few days after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, my husband and I went to see Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Detroit. Set amid the 1967 uprising 50 years ago this summer, the film focuses primarily on the brutal torture and the murder of three black men by police officers that took place that week at the Algiers Motel. Because it so powerfully and intimately dramatizes the racial hatred and injustice that has defined far too much of this country’s history, the film was a fitting end to a terrible week. In an era when police officers keep shooting young black men whom they see as threatening, and when jury after jury acquits those officers, no matter how clear the evidence that their victims posed no threat at all, Bigelow puts us inside a sustained and horrific example of police brutality and, true to history, refuses us the relief of a just verdict. To see this film after the events in Charlottesville and the President’s disturbing insistence that the “alt-left” was as much to blame as the bigots bearing assault rifles, waving swastika flags, and chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans, was especially sobering. I was depressed before seeing the film. I could hardly move as the credits rolled.

We went to see Detroit in part because I had been studying fiction, poetry, and films about that city as I researched a book on deindustrialization literature. Detroit is the iconic Rust Belt city, and its deteriorating landscape and long-term economic and social struggles have drawn attention from photographers, filmmakers, advertisers, poets, and fiction writers. In many ways, stories about Detroit are typical of deindustrialization literature, centered on how people and communities continue to wrestle with the long-term effects of economic decline. But there’s one crucial difference: while all Rust Belt cities have been marked by racial division and injustice, more than any other city, Detroit is defined by race. Where other deindustrialized cities trace their transformations to plant closings, in Detroit, decline is almost always linked to the uprising of 1967 and the white flight that it spurred.

Yet, as Tom Sugrue has noted, the history of racial tension in Detroit began long before the riots, and it was always entwined with economic struggle. In the opening animation sequence of Detroit, we are reminded that the Great Migration of African Americans was driven by the economic hope of factory jobs, not by – or at least not only by – a desire to escape the Southern racism. African Americans coming to the city in search of good jobs faced segregation and discrimination, patterns that Angela Flournoy captures well in her 2015 Detroit novel, The Turner House. But as Sugrue has shown, both racial divisions and economic inequality grew when Detroit’s factories moved out of the city to suburbs like Warren and Livonia. The African Americans who burned buildings and looted businesses in 1967 were frustrated not only by racial prejudice but also by economic limitations, even though, as Sugrue points out, they were not “the poorest or the most marginal. It was folks who were slightly better off and slightly better educated and more tied into the city’s labor market than the poorest residents.” Detroit’s history reminds us that conflicts over race are often also class conflicts.

Fifty years later, African Americans still lag far behind whites economically. They have higher rates of unemployment, poverty, and incarceration, less access to good health care or education, and lower rates of home ownership and less wealth. When we say that Black Lives Matter, we’re not talking only about the right to be safe from police violence. We’re also talking about the right to earn a living, to have access to decent health care, to get a good education, and to vote. Like the African Americans who rioted in Detroit in 1967, African Americans today – along with many other people of color – have good reason to be angry, frustrated, and doubtful about the integrity of government officials, elected or employed.

While racism clearly exacerbates class struggles for African Americans, we also need to understand how class and race work together in shaping the ideology of white supremacism. Most working-class white people are not neo-Nazis, or do they identify with the alt-right. But it seems likely that many of those who claim that whites are the most frequent victims of discrimination, that immigrants are taking “our jobs,” and that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization are motivated in part by a sense of economic vulnerability. As Bryce Covert wrote in The New Republic, the “ethno-nationalist agenda” is, to a large extent, “about protecting white jobs and white people.” That some of the alt-right’s violence, blame, and bigotry comes as response to the economic shifts of the past fifty years, which have undermined the economic stability of so many working- and middle-class people, does not excuse it. But economic anxiety plays a role here, and just as with the economic and social struggles of people of color, some of that anxiety (though clearly not all) reflects real changes. Wages have stagnated, job security is hard to come by, home foreclosures continue, and pension plans have defaulted. These struggles affect not only people displaced from industrial jobs, but also many in the middle class. Indeed, like the African Americans who rose up in Detroit in 1967, many in the alt-right are employed and educated, and these groups are actively recruiting on college campuses.

Unfortunately, that the alt-right and many of its targets share class interests doesn’t offer much reason to hope. Don’t expect a multicultural working-class revolution any time soon. Instead, as Keri Leigh Merritt pointed out in a piece on the Moyers & Company blog recently, the elite are once again using divisions of race and ethnicity to foment conflict within the working class and distract us from their machinations. In his infamous interview with the American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Steve Bannon sneered that he had manipulated the left into staying “focused on race and identity,” allowing conservatives to claim ownership of the economic agenda. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr., suggests that this may explain Trump’s refusal to indict the alt-right: “dividing Americans along racial lines while fueling a fight on the left over identity vs. class politics will leave him a winner.” The pattern is reinforced not only by Trump’s nationalist economic rhetoric but also by the narrative, too often supported by those on the left, that blames the white working class for Trump’s election. And it is echoed in the insistence of some progressive commentators that the sole explanation for Trump’s popularity is racism.

To call commentaries that emphasize the role of economic anxiety “equivocating” or a simple refusal to “face the blatant racism that fueled [Trump’s] popularity,” as Roxane Gay does in a New York Times column, suggests that we must choose between race and class. Did racism play a role in Trump’s success? Absolutely. Is it the only cause? Of course not.

Some seem to think that progressives cannot do more than one thing at a time. If we’re organizing against racism and bigotry, presumably, we can’t also advocate for economic justice. If we focus on the economy, we must not care about racism. But to create real change, we need to push for solid strategies for economic justice AND stand up against hatred and for a more inclusive, more equal America. Can we do both at once? As Obama told us, yes, we can. We must.

Sherry Linkon

A version of this piece appeared last month on the American Prospect blog.

Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Karl Marx Makes a Comeback

Several months ago the Communist party in Russia updated their visual propaganda by giving three of their most controversial icons—Lenin, Stalin, and Karl Marx—a makeover. In their new poster series, Stalin looks handsome and serious in a puff of vaping smoke; Lenin looks like a college student or a hacker, hunched over a bright red laptop; and Marx looks like a rock star in a red t-shirt and a black leather jacket. Marx has a copy of Das Kapital tucked under one arm and is vowing, “I’ll be back.”

Ironically, Marx really is back and not just in Russia. Since the global financial collapse of 2008 Marx has become a pop icon across the globe. His image can be found graffitied throughout the world as well as on t-shirts, and mugs. Marx is for sale in a number of unusual forms, including a piggy bank and floating Marx head stickers, while in Germany you can get a credit card with Marx’s face on it, and in Japan you can buy a set of Mountain Man action figures based on Marx, Mao, Lenin, and Thoreau.

Over the last decade, Marx has also made a comeback as a serious intellectual figure. In the fall of 2008, as the global financial crisis was starting to be felt and understood, The Guardian reported on the increasing demand for his books: “‘Marx is in fashion again,’ said Jörn Schütrumpf, manager of the Berlin publishing house Karl-Dietz which publishes the works of Marx and Engels in German. ‘We’re seeing a very distinct increase in demand for his books, a demand which we expect to rise even more steeply before the year’s end.’”

Two best-selling biographies have also appeared, Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (2011), a stunning, page-turning re-evaluation of Marx that incorporates much of his family life, as well as Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), which makes the argument—belied by the popularity of the biography itself—that Marx was more important to his own time than to ours.

In his widely-read book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), the French economist Thomas Piketty – himself sometimes hailed as a modern-day Marx – encourages economists to “take inspiration from [Marx’s] example.” Meanwhile, David Harvey, a mild mannered CUNY professor, has achieved cult status with his popular online lectures that help the average reader make their way through the hundreds of pages of Marx’s Capital, volumes 1-3.

What’s driving this resurgence of interest in Marx, as kitsch but especially as a serious thinker about economics, class, and inequality? I see a few factors here.

1) The global financial collapse of 2008 made Marx’s critique of capitalism look fresher than ever. Marx predicted cycles of collapse and consolidation, and his analysis explains how inequality deepens during times of capitalist crisis. His predictions have played out as we have seen the top .1% profit from the housing collapse of 2008 while the rest of us have suffered. In the lead up to the election last year, for example, Trump was accused of having cheered on the housing crisis of 2008, because it meant that he and his cronies could buy up scads of cheap real estate that have since risen significantly in value.

2) The collapse of Communist regimes, from the USSR, to the capitalist makeover of China, to the opening of Cuban borders, has everyone proclaiming the death and failure of communism as a political and societal toolkit. Ironically, it may be that if communism is less of a world-wide threat, then Karl Marx, as the official godfather of communism, is seen as less threatening as well.

3) The post-Cold War generation views socialism and communism more favorably than during any time since the Cold War A scholar at Tufts University has hypothesized that millennials, born into the worst job market since the Great Depression, are more skeptical of capitalism than their parents. According to this same researcher, millennials see Scandinavian countries as models for democratic socialism, rather than current or former communist countries like Russia and China.

Whatever the reasons, Marx’s comeback coincides with his impending bicentennial. On May 5, 2018, Karl Marx will be 200 years old and his magnum opus, Capital, will be 151.This year and next there are tributes and celebrations for both Capital and its author across the globe. York University held a celebration of 150 year of Capital last May with scholars from around the world; Trier, where Marx was born, is planning an entire year of events as is the Marx Memorial Library in London. This Berlin based website, Marx200, is keeping a running tally of these events and adding to them daily.

Here in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon University’s Humanities Center, we are taking stock with our own year of events. Marx@200, running from the fall of 2017 through the summer of 2018 will feature lectures, workshops, performances, an art show, a symposium, and a conference. The celebration kick-offs on Thursday, September 14th with the Mid-Atlantic premier of The Young Karl Marx, a film by the Haitian director Raoul Peck, who was nominated for an Oscar for I am Not Your Negro. You can keep tabs on what we’re doing here.

For the last 60 years Marx, communism, and socialism have gotten a pretty bad rap across the West. Marx has been seen as an apologist for the kinds of imperialism, genocide, and repression in communist countries over the last 100 years, even though The Communist Manifesto provided a synthesis of the revolutionary European thought of 1848— not a blueprint for totalitarianism.

But capitalism, it would seem, has outdone itself in the 21st century. Inequality is worse than ever before, and the US is ruled by a capitalist oligarchy. Suddenly, Marx is cool again, but mainly because he was, and remains today, one of capitalism’s most astute critics. Happy Birthday Karl, and thanks.

Kathy M. Newman

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Kathy M. Newman, Labor and Community Activism, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment