Move That Bus!

One of the things that attracted me to the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University is its focus on “bread and butter” issues. As a new faculty affiliate of the center, I now help spotlight and evaluate some of these issues. Take the issue of getting to and from work, for example. What could be more universally “bread and butter” than helping people to get to and from work so that they might be self-reliant, productive members of their household, community, city, state, and nation? I believe that few of us would want to undermine such core American values as a strong work ethic, self-reliance, productivity, ingenuity, and self-respect. But I fear that these values will be undermined if we fail, as a nation, to support improvements in public transportation, and those who depend most upon it to get to and from work, school, and other places.

Cities across the nation are grappling with rising oil prices, record-high inflation, staggering home foreclosure rates, and declining revenue for public services, such as local and regional bus transportation. This includes the city of Youngstown, Ohio. In November, the Western Reserve Transit Authority will ask people in Youngstown and surrounding communities to approve a 0.25 percent county sales tax that would help finance restoration and improvement in the region’s bus service. This is the second time that this proposal has been presented for voter approval. Fifty-six percent of area voters rejected the proposal in March 2008.

Here are a few research findings that people in Youngstown and surrounding communities (and people in your town) might consider before casting a vote on public transportation funding:

  • About two-thirds of all public transportation passengers take public transportation to get to and from work or school, according to the Federal Transit Authority.
  • Low-income women are more likely than are low-income men to require public transportation. And among women, Latina and low-income African American women are highly dependent on public transportation. Research suggests that, without access to public transportation, low-income African American women would have few, if any, means of getting to and fromjobs in retailing, personal services, and childcare, where many are employed. Walking to work is less of an option for the women because of the shortage of jobs in low-income, African American urban communities.

Recent poll results suggest that the current economic recession has begun to solidify public resistance against higher taxes for any purpose. (As an example, see the on-line comments from a July 2008 poll of Ohioans regarding higher taxes for improvements in bus service in Youngstown, Warren, and Columbiana, Ohio.) This “anti-tax sentiment” is making it difficult to mobilize massive public support for tax levies that would support improvements in public transportation in San Diego, Chicago, Youngstown, New York, and other places.

Do improvements in public transportation benefit even those who can afford their own vehicles and who, as a result, do not use public transportation? Should the issue of funding public transportation improvements matter even to those who, on the surface, appear not to be affected by the condition of public transportation in America (such as some upper-middle income suburban residents who commute in private vehicles)? Mounting evidence in scholarly journals, trade magazines, and the popular press suggest that the answer to these questions is “yes.”

Research finds that communities that invest in public transportation realize enhanced social economic development and prosperity. For example, a study by the American Public Transportation Association estimates that for every $1.00 invested in public transportation, there is a $3.00 increase in business sales. Communities that invest in public transportation are reported to attract more businesses, more visitors, and more shoppers. Property values tend to be higher in communities with good public transportation systems.

Absenteeism in the workplace and at school decreases when people who cannot afford private vehicles have reliable public transportation to get them to and from work and school. This decrease in absenteeism translates into higher productivity within the workplace, which potentially benefits everyone in a community, city, and region.

More business sales, more businesses, more visitors, more shoppers, higher property values, and increased productivity. Each of these benefits is an additional compelling reason for all to be concerned about the condition of public transportation in America, in my view. I submit that an investment in public transportation is an investment in a more promising future for people across the social-class spectrum, and particularly for members of the working class and the poor.

Denise Narcisse

Getting it wrong: how the media talks about class

A few weeks ago, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain was in Sturgis, N.D. for a biker’s rally. The rally was comprised largely of veterans, a crowd, according to much mainstream media, a colorful segment of the oft touted, much coveted, “blue-collar” vote as the Associated Press reported:

STURGIS, S.D. — Thousands of motorcyclists greeted Republican presidential candidate John McCain with an approving roar Monday as he sought blue-collar and heartland support by visiting a giant motorcycle rally.

While the branding of the event and the crowd as “blue-collar” is itself problematic, we want to focus here on some examples of the story coverage and spin as indicative of what is both wrong and right about the ways journalists experience and report on class. Spinning the story into a referendum on McCain as campaigner, CNN Hardball host Mike Barnicle, ran a clip from McCain’s speech in which the candidate, addressing what he assumed would be the major issue of interest to a crowd of bikers fumbled over his words, eventually honing in on gas prices and his proposal for offshore drilling, shouting, “We’re going to drill here. We’re going to drill now!” to which his guest panelist Howard Fineman of Newsweek speculated on how that crowd would interpret “drilling.” Notably, in the same week, host Mike Barnicle had this to say on the veracity of working-class poll respondents:

Yes.  And Clarence, there‘s also the issue that when people are polled—I mean, if you‘re coming out of, you know, the factory gate at 3:00 o‘clock in the afternoon and you have some 22-year-old pollster, a graduate of Harvard or wherever, you know, with a little clipboard, you know, and they ask you about Barack Obama, you know, some people are just going to avoid telling the whole truth.  Don‘t you think so?

Embedded in Barnicle’s analysis is an obvious bias that working-class people are in general anti-intellectual and quite often lie. To be sure, a program like Hardball is not really journalism per se, but the attitudes that these commentators relay towards the biker rally reveal much about the pervasive effects of what Brent Cunningham has identified as “the great divide” between journalists and working-class Americans and how this divide leads to both under reporting and skewed reporting of working-class lives and issues, substituting instead easy frames for reporting anchored in sweeping generalizations. One problem is that journalists increasingly no longer come from or belong to the working class, nor are they particularly interested in “everyday” issues that often lack the flair or flash of other news segments. Even when the fusion of working-class issues and the “sexy” stories occurs, as in McCain’s Sturgis gig, however, much of the media paints the “blue-collar” with broad strokes and a distance that can border on mockery, a distance often attributed to the increasing “classing up” of the profession as Matthew DeLong’s account of the Sturgis rally for the Washington Independent reports:

This had to be about the most bizarre campaign backdrop in recent memory — I have probably never felt more out of place. The press table was roughly 50 feet in front of the stage, dead center. We were surrounded on all sides — not surprisingly — by bikers and bikes. Hundreds of them, mostly Harleys. The evening air was warm and dry as the sun was going down; puffy clouds dotted the sky.

The crowd, more than 45 minutes before McCain was scheduled to take the stage, numbered probably several thousand. It seemed in good spirits, and was curious about us. My colleagues from The Washington Post and The New York Times, seated immediately to my left, received a friendly grilling from a female attendee from Michigan, wearing a red bandanna that read “Sturgis ’89” — an old-schooler. An older gentleman in the crowd held a sign saying, “Show Ur Tits 4 McCain.” I can safely say this is one place I never in my life thought I would be — especially not on a presidential campaign stop.

Journalists often find themselves in uncomfortable places and situations and certainly one can find no fault in the correspondent’s “feeling out of place” anymore than we have felt out of place in our careers at KKK rallies, Scientology sessions and numerous other situations. The difficulty comes from the last statement that the correspondent “can safely say this is the one place I never in my life thought I would be,” which suggests the kind of expectations indicative of the shift that Cunningham so thoughtfully chronicles. And predictably, the account is rife with colorful representations of drunken, vulgar, “blue-collar” types, the types we see so often depicted in mass culture, as the writer notes, “The visuals alone were priceless” Too often this brand of journalism infused with commentary evades cohesive reporting on the complexities of class, and predictably, the account is entirely focused on the visuals, the easy themes and the generalizations. As DeLong reports, “Of course McCain promised he would bring U.S. troops home in victory, not defeat, and thanked the vets for their service, a natural crowd-pleaser for this audience,” although the piece does not include one real interview with any of the attendees.

But other reporters actually got the story right and presented readers with a very different portrayal of the “blue-collar” crowd. In our next entry, we’ll look at some of these accounts and explore the ways in which the basics of journalism education, basics oft forgotten in the service of the sound bite, might just be a way for reporters to more meaningfully cover class in election years and beyond.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Republicans and the Working Class?

Last week, Jack Metzgar considered how definitions of class are being used in political analysis, noting that the press and some political analysts have defined the working class either as those who don’t have a college education or as those earning less than $50,000. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam use the first definition as the foundation for their new book, The Grand New Party: How the Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

Briefly, Douthat and Salam believe that both Democrats and Republicans have misunderstood the shift in working-class voting patterns – from Democratic to Republican – that Jack described. When Democrats argue that the working class has been distracted from class interests by the war and national security and symbolic and cultural issues, they fail to understand that those “symbolic” issues have been at the heart working-class insecurity. For example, crime, welfare policy, immigration, and especially family values are closely tied to financial security and social mobility. At the same time, Douthat and Salam contend that Republicans have overrated the working class’s philosophical shift to conservative Goldwater/Reagan values.

Rather, they argue, Republicans appeal most effectively to working-class voters when they engage in “limited government pragmatism rather than small government Puritanism.” This “applied neoconservatism” reflects the domestic policy-minded neo-conservative approach last seen in the 1970s. Based on this analysis, Douthat and Salam argue that Republicans should rethink social policy formulations to include more family-friendly policies such as changes in the tax code to encourage family building, tax credits for parents who care for children at home, more spending on highways (because suburbs are better than cities for raising children), job subsidies for entry level employment, summer enrichment programs for poor kids, more cops on the streets, new school funding formulations, more progressive income tax, and a national healthcare plan similar to that being offered by Democrats. No doubt, these policy ideas will resonate with many working-class and middle-class voters.

One might ask if this is just another version of the Republican’s bait and switch and campaign-based Democratic-lite politics used to entice working-class voters. We all remember Bush’s promises of “compassionate conservatism.” That may have been persuasive in the past, but not this time. Deep divisions split the Republican party between the small government “moneycons” who run the party and younger big government social conservatives and Sam’s Club Republicans (aka the working class) who think the Goldwater/Reagan wing of the party has run out of ideas and that a political massacre is on the horizon. After all, Republicans have already lost three special elections in solid Republican districts in the last year, and over 80% of the population now believes that the country is on the wrong track.

If Douthat and Salam are correct, John McCain will have difficult task navigating between his larger donors and more progressive social conservatives within the Republican Party. This is going to be particularly true in swing states like Ohio. In the past, shrinking Northeast Ohio – long a Democratic stronghold — has been balanced by socially conservative, Republican-dominated and growing Southwest Ohio. Yet, in 2006, Republicans were largely swept out of state offices as result of job losses, a “culture of corruption,” and growing discontent among the working-class and social conservatives over economic and social policy. Job losses have continued, especially in automotive manufacturing and particularly in the largely conservative Dayton/Cincinnati area. Furthermore, as we found when we conducted focus groups with the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, working-class discontent with the war had grown significantly. Support for the war and security issues were central to the Bush victory in Ohio in 2004, but this year the key will be economics. Both candidates, but especially McCain, need to provide specific plans that economically support working-class Ohioans, if they are to win their support in 2008.

John Russo

“Waitress Moms” and “Stupid White Men”

As Sherry pointed out last week and as comments on her post suggest, people involved in working-class studies define the working class in many different ways. While we still manage to have productive discussions, our definitions shape what we see and what we think matters.

Something similar happened in the mainstream media’s reporting of the Democratic primaries in the Rust Best states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana this past Spring. Most reporters assumed that white working-class people would vote Democratic, but whether the white working class supports the Democrats depends on how you define “working class.” Exit polls defined the working-class as “voters without a bachelor’s degree,” on the one hand, and as “voters with household incomes of less than $50,000,” on the other. Both these definitions have a history, but if we define the working class on the basis of education, it turns out that the white working class is out of sync with Democrats, more so than if we use an income-based approach.

The “voters without a bachelor’s degree” definition comes from nearly a decade of work by public-opinion analyst Ruy Teixeira. In 2000 Ruy’s book with Joel Rogers, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, analyzed the electorate using class, race, gender, and whether people lived in a union household. Recently Teixeira, working with Alan Abramowitz, has deepened that analysis with a broader historical portrait, “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.” Though Teixeira’s emphases and his political advice to Democratic politicians has shifted over the past eight years, he’s stuck with that “voters without a bachelor’s degree” definition of the working class, and it yields some interesting, unexpected results. Here’s what I take to be the most important of those results:

  • As a whole, the American working class by this definition is nearly 60% of the electorate. Within the working class, blacks, Latinos, and Asians vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but whites don’t.
  • White working-class voters represent about 45% of the entire electorate, and in the last three presidential elections, only about 40% of them voted for the Democratic candidate.
  • Though middle-class voters vote slightly more Democratic than working-class ones (by this definition), probably the most important conclusion from this line of research is that class is relatively insignificant compared to race, gender and being in a union household. This is the what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas problem: if the white working class voted its economic class interests, Republicans would not keep getting a majority of their votes.
  • The only group of white voters who gave Democrats a majority in the past three presidential elections is white women in union households.
  • No group of white men voted majority Democrat, not even those in union households. Still, being in a union household increases white men’s Democratic vote by 15 to 17 points, to about 48%. Nonunion white men, on the other hand, give scarcely one-third of their vote to Democrats, regardless of class (at least if we define class by education). This is Michael Moore’s stupid-white-men problem.
  • Social class has a substantial effect on white women, however. Middle-class white women vote 5 to 7 points more Democratic than working-class white women do.
  • Nonunion working-class white women, what punditry shorthand calls “waitress moms,” are the key demographic in this year’s election. Close to 20% of the electorate all by themselves, this group of women moved strongly against Democrats in the last three presidential elections – they gave Bill Clinton 47% of their vote, Al Gore 44%, and John Kerry only 38%. If that trend is not reversed, Barack Obama is unlikely to be our next president.

In order to win this year, the Democrats need strong turnouts by minority and union-household voters, but they also need to rally white working-class women. That requires a program that can make a real difference in these women’s lives and grassroots organizing to make sure they know that. The Democrats this year may have such a program. And the grassroots organizing going on this year is unprecedented, both in substance and scope. These will be the subjects of my next two posts.

Jack Metzgar