Monthly Archives: September 2008

Working-Class Reporting

Kelli Cole came to her journalism class Tuesday expecting to eat a slice or two of pizza, listen to a New York Times reporter talk about a world she wouldn’t relate to and leave with the same sense of panic that has been plaguing her since the semester started at Youngstown State University.

“How am I going to do this project?  I don’t want to offend anyone by the questions that I ask. I don’t know where to start. I want to graduate.” These are the issues that worry Cole, a journalism major at YSU who, one day, wants to work as a television news reporter.

Cole’s assignment for her senior projects class is to investigate two area school districts: one in the city of Youngstown and the other in the more prosperous suburb of Boardman. Her goal is to uncover what is different about the two districts. Why does one significantly out-perform the other? Part of Cole’s consternation is that, in Ohio, where school funds are largely dependent on property taxes, school performance is often divided along lines of class and race. Cole’s hesitation is in part rooted in a culture of journalism that too often seeks to avoid the gritty details of the important stories, instead opting for sterile facts and figures that don’t communicate a whole story.

In fact, for years, the profession of reporting has taken an odd turn in which practitioners have become professionals, upwardly mobile, college-educated and too often out of touch, as we noted in our last blog entry on the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and has been documented by Brent Cunningham.

Steven Greenhouse, the New York Times’ labor reporter who came to YSU last week, had just started talking when Cole walked into class.

She and the other students in the class listened to his stories about the people in his book, “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.”  Greenhouse shared accounts of managers locking workers in stores and erasing hours from employees’ timecards. The students were awed by his ability to gather information and were intent on unlocking the complex secrets of first-rate reporting.  Instead, they found, his method for gathering powerful stories is simple, but too often forgotten in today’s culture of professional journalism-he hits the road.

Greenhouse told students he sometimes stands in parking lots waiting for people to leave work and he has gone door-to-door soliciting comments for stories even recounting a time early in his career when he had to interview the family of a murdered child.

Cole was the first to talk to Greenhouse when he finished his prepared remarks.

She asked him for advice for how to tackle her story.

His response was direct and simple, “You just do it.”

He told Cole that her job is to report the story even if it means asking uncomfortable questions.

He said that his decades-long career at the New York Times has been about asking those questions and getting out and finding people.

Greenhouse’s response was an important reminder for our students and for ourselves:  Our jobs as reporters is not behind desks. Cole needs to wander the halls of both schools, she needs to talk to the students passing through them and to the teachers who are charged with educating them. She needs to find out what a ninth-grader is reading at each school, what each is eating for lunch and what each will go home to at the end of the day.

Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff

Steven Greenhouse’s appearance at YSU was sponsored by the Center for Working Class Studies with assistance from YSU’s Journalism Major and The New York Times. Greenhouse was interviewed for“Lincoln Avenue,” a weekly radio show broadcast on WYSU, the university’s public radio station. It will air on November 5 and then be available online as podcast.

Health care for all: caring for the uninsured

As Jack Metzgar wrote last week, health coverage is an important issue for the working class.  As health insurance becomes less available and as urban hospitals around the country restructure, working-class people are bearing the brunt of the health care crisis.  The situation here in Youngstown is a case in point.

Forum Health is the largest health care network in the Youngstown-Warren area. Like other urban health care networks, it has been faced with “radical restructuring” that disproportionately impacts the poor, the working class, people of color, and the elderly. Should parts of Forum Health close, Youngstown’s other major hospital, Humility of Mary Health Partners and the Ohio North East Health Systems, would have to shoulder an ever greater share of the areas $81 million charity care.

In 2006, when the restructuring plans were announced, Sherry Linkon and I argued that access to health care was public health issue (Op-ed “Questions raised by Forum’s Restructuring” The Vindicator, 4/08/06).  We proposed that local leaders and regional Boards of Public Health should develop a comprehensive community health care network. Two years later, I’m pleased to see just such a system being created in our area.

In 2007, a group called the Mahoning Valley Access to Care coalition (MVACC), with representatives from the areas’ major healthcare providers, began to gather information and develop a guide to local health care resources. With assistance from the United Way and local healthcare providers, they created the Mahoning Valley Resource Guide.  It was distributed at a recent “summit” on community access attended by over 150 people.

At the summit, MVACC took the next step in developing a community health care system by bringing together community leaders and speakers from other Ohio communities (Akron and Toledo) that had already created such networks.  The most interesting model was the Toledo-Lucas County Carenet. It provides “comprehensive access to healthcare for low-income residents” who are uninsured and do not qualify for other government healthcare programs. By coordinating access to charity care through its providers at no-cost or reduced rates, Carenet dramatically increased primary care visits and outpatient services while simultaneously reducing inpatient days and emergency room visits between 2004 and 2007.  Carenet succeeded in expanding basic care for the uninsured while reducing health care costs. As Carenet Executive Director Jan Ruma explained, the success of program shows what can be done if people work together, if organization and community leaders will pursue the community’s interests instead of their own, and if each organization and health care provider contributes and is held accountable.

The Carenet model can not replace the need for universal health care.  But its cooperative approach can provide a stopgap. The need for access to low-cost health care is growing, as more middle-class workers, like the working class, are losing access to health insurance amid a struggling economy.  A September report entitled “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States 2007,” details the challenge:  long term inequality is rising, median household income is falling, and fewer employers are providing subsidized health insurance.  As a result, the ranks of uninsured, underinsured, and those of Medicaid have increased dramatically. This isn’t just about whether you can get treatment for a cold.  Researchers have long understood that socioeconomic condition contributes to your overall physical and mental health and life expectancy.  Unless we find a way to give more people access to health care, our well-being and longevity will falter.  As economic conditions become harsher, and as health care providers become more stressed, the need for community care models grows.  Such approaches may fill the gap, but ultimately, we all need universal health coverage.  And that’s not just a working-class issue anymore.

John Russo

Doing the math on pocketbook issues?

Is it just me or does it seem that the mainstream media thinks that ANY discussion of issues, particularly pocketbook issues, are just too boring to be of interest to voters?  Whatever the reason, the failure of candidates and the media to get “down in the weeds” on pocketbook issues discriminates against working-class voters, for whom some of the policies proposed could be matters of survival.

The candidates’ web sites have a substantial amount of detail on some policies, but not

others.  On taxes, for example, both candidates are specific enough for the Tax Policy Center to do a detailed analysis of who would benefit and by how much from each policy.  The majority of families earn less than $66,355, for example, and they will get a maximum tax cut of $319 a year from McCain and a maximum of $1,042 from Obama.  The small group of families making more than $226,000 but less than $603,000 will get a $12 increase in their tax bill from Obama and a $7,871 cut from McCain.  For a handy chart, click here.

On health insurance, however, Obama’s policy papers are maddeningly vague.  Except for Dennis Kucinich, all the Democratic primary candidates rejected a single-payer Medicare-for-all approach in favor of a plan first articulated by Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker for the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute.  That plan provides a “Medicare-like” option that would compete in the market with private plans while requiring all employers to either provide a government-standard plan for their employees or pay a 6 percent payroll tax to fund the Medicare-like option.  Whatever option employers or individuals choose, however, no household would pay more than $2,400 a year in health insurance premiums, and everybody with income of less than 300% of poverty (about $63,000 for a family of four, for example) would pay less than that, with anybody below 200% of poverty ($42,000 for a family of four) paying nothing at all.

Even at the $2,400 level, Hacker’s plan would save the typical worker covered by a company plan about $600, according to the National Coalition on Health Care’s estimates of current costs.   Because Medicare’s administrative costs are at least four times less than private plans, “Medicare-like” would have a substantial advantage in a truly free market.  Though it might take a decade or two, eventually the vast majority of people would likely leave employer-based coverage and choose the Medicare-like option.

Obama’s plan is based on Hacker’s, but without any of the details.  Both plans would provide an immediate form of universal coverage while making it impossible for private health insurance companies to make their profits by denying coverage to people who are likely to get sick.  The lack of specific commitments on caps and subsidies in Obama’s plan is troubling, but it has a lot to offer workers and working-class families, both those not currently covered at all and many more who are underinsured, insecurely insured, or expensively insured.  For a one-page list of these, based on the Hacker plan, click here.

The McCain plan does not even try to cover everyone and, as best I can tell, would eventually leave most workers with less coverage at a higher price.  McCain would eliminate the federal tax deduction for companies who provide health insurance for their workers, likely leading more employers to eliminate coverage.  That would be okay, according to McCain, because his plan would provide a tax subsidy of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to buy their own plans.  Corporate plans typically cost about $12,000 for family coverage, with the employee paying about $3,000 and the employer paying the rest.  So, after applying McCain’s tax subsidy, the average worker would have to pay about $4,000 more for family coverage than s/he is paying today. This would mean that a worker making a median wage could end up spending a quarter of her take-home pay on nothing but health insurance. The author of “Why McCain has the best health-care plan” says that won’t happen because employers will share with their employees all of the money they save by eliminating coverage.

This is just back-of-the-envelope arithmetic by a humanities professor who forgot any algebra he ever learned.  But, geez, it seems like a lot is at stake.  Shouldn’t we be discussing this instead of McCain’s computer skills and Obama’s lapel pins?

Jack Metzgar

Stereotyping the Working Class

“Working class” is a confusing concept.  It’s not just that the term is hard to define.  It also carries different, even contrasting connotations. Sometimes it’s merely descriptive.  “Working class” refers to hard-working, blue-collar and low-wage workers without college education who struggle to get by economically. But “working class” can also bring to mind lazy, unproductive failures who are going nowhere, or relics of earlier era of industrialization. And in this year’s election, working-class is becoming synonymous with racist.

Of course, we have some positive images of the working class.  We revere the hard work that, as Alabama sang in “Forty Hour Week,” “keep this country turning around.”  Blue-collar work, especially, has long been viewed as “real” labor.  Many working-class people take pride in the toughness of doing physically-demanding and often unpleasant work day after day.  Whether it’s building cars, cleaning toilets, or even ringing up sales at a grocery store cash register, working-class jobs require resilience, physical strength, and endurance.  You’ll hear many references to this version of working-class culture during the football and political seasons. Football commentators praise linemen for their “blue-collar values” of toughness and doing the dirty work without complaint.  Similarly, during political campaigns, and especially this year, politicians talk about workers as heroes, validating their hard work in order to get their vote.

Too often, though, “working class” is a derogatory term. In a country where everyone is supposed to have an equal opportunity to get ahead, calling someone working class can feel like a put down.  The American dream isn’t achieving great wealth; it’s becoming part of the middle class. Because of our faith in the possibility of upward mobility through effort and talent, people who remain in the working class are often judged as failures.  As Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett argue in The Hidden Injuries of Class, many working-class people internalize this idea, blaming themselves for not having moved up the class ladder despite years of hard work and dedication.

In American popular culture, working-class people are often portrayed as losers.  As Pepi Leistyna shows in his terrific documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, working-class women in television sitcoms are often portrayed as physically out of control – fat, loud, overly sexual, and dressed in loud and inappropriate clothing.  It’s even worse for the men.  They might not look any more “refined” than the women, but at least most female working-class characters are competent.  Roseanne might not fit the Carol Brady image of suburban motherhood, but she could balance working and running a household and usually had good advice for her kids. Working-class men, as Richard Butsch has argued, are usually shown as buffoons.  They’re lazy, foolish, selfish, and childish.  Think Homer Simpson.

The image of the working class is taking an additional beating in this year’s presidential race, ironically because working-class voters are seen as an especially important constituency.  Despite the historical patterns that Jack Metzgar cited a few weeks ago, showing that the white working-class does not usually vote for Democrats, many pundits describe the big challenge of Barack Obama’s candidacy as winning the votes of the white working class.  The problem, commentators suggest, is that the working class is racist.  Add another stereotype to the negative side of the public image of the working class.

I have two problems with the way some are equating “working class” and “racist.”  The first is that, like any stereotype, it implies that a quality that fits some working-class people applies to all working-class people.  Perhaps some white working-class voters will not vote for Obama because he’s black, but others will support him because of his plans for creating new jobs and because he has experience helping working-class communities respond to economic struggles.

The second problem is that the stereotype suggests that only working-class people are racist.  But racism doesn’t recognize class borders.  Some middle-class and elite people won’t vote for Obama because of his race, but nearly all of the commentary focuses on working-class racism.  It may be that working-class people, who value directness, are more willing to admit that race matters, while people with college degrees have been trained to hide their racism.  But racism doesn’t automatically disappear with education, income, and social status.

I don’t deny that race matters to many working-class voters, and we need to take that seriously.  And I’m happy to hear politicians and pundits talking directly about the working class for once, instead of insisting on the euphemism of “working families” or pretending that everyone is middle class.  However, stereotypes of working-class people perpetuate social divisions, prejudices, and economic barriers.  We should challenge working-class stereotypes and pay closer attention to real people.

Sherry Linkon

Economic hope for the Mahoning Valley

On August, 21, 2008 General Motors’ CEO Rick Wagoner stood on a makeshift stage in front of a packed audience of Lordstown autoworkers, state and local politicians, and civic leaders from the Mahoning Valley to announce that his troubled global company would invest $350 million to retool the plant for production of the new Cruze line. GM’s announcement represents more than just an infusion of corporate capital in a production line. It is a profound vote of confidence in the future of the Mahoning Valley.

Almost 31 years ago, on September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works was closed without notice, leaving thousands out of work and beginning to dismantle the country’s third largest steel producing center. For decades, the people of the Valley had boasted of “Thirty Mills in Thirty Miles.”  By the mid-80s, that had became a bitter memory as mill after mill closed.  Ultimately the demise of the steel industry left 50,000 people out of work and devastated the Youngstown area.

Over the next 25 years the city’s population shrunk in half. As laid-off workers left to pursue opportunities elsewhere, foreclosures, abandonment, and tax delinquency ripped through once proud neighborhoods.  Along with manufacturing jobs, families lost their houses, their dignity, and their hope for the future. The Valley’s social service agencies were stretched to the breaking point.  Local governments cut staff dramatically, shut off street lights, and deferred all but the most essential services.  Downtown Youngstown became a stage set of the empty storefronts, roofless commercial buildings, and abandoned lots, used by reporters and politicians to illustrate the impact of deindustrialization in the Great Lakes. The once fierce sprit of the Valley, like the fires of its mills, was extinguished. For many, optimism was replaced by despair, anger, and resignation.

A generation was to pass before the devastation began to reverse. The past 5 years have been a time of profound change.  New leadership has emerged in the Valley’s two major cities-Youngstown and Warren-and in the region’s Congressional and state legislative delegations. New IT companies, focused on “business to business” software applications, are developing at the Youngstown Business Incubator. YSU began construction of a new $34 million Williamson College of Business Administration, and the state chancellor of higher education announced plans to develop a community college in the Mahoning Valley.

Despite the steady progress of the past five years, the Valley’s future has remained uncertain as people await evidence that manufacturing-long the cornerstone of the region’s economy-will once again provide opportunity and prosperity.

GM’s investment marks one of the most significant private sector capital infusions in the Valley in recent decades.  It is also a profoundly important acknowledgement by a global corporation that the Mahoning Valley is back in the game as a place to do business.

Standing shoulder to shoulder that afternoon with hundreds of UAW members and with cars moving on the production line all around us, we heard union reps talk with sober pride about the effort they and their fellow workers had made and the sacrifices they had accepted in the most recent contract negotiations to insure that Lordstown would remain competitive in the cutthroat world of global auto production. Their hardnosed realism was balanced by the enthusiasm with which they and the entire audience greeted the full-scale mockup of the new Cruze-a sleek, stylish global automobile that will go head-to-head with the competition from Honda and Toyota. What I witnessed was a team proud of wining without compromising fundamental values, of producing quality work at a competitive price, and of earning a fair wage and benefit package. It was clear that this investment in the Lordstown plant and in the Mahoning Valley economy was enormously important economically and spiritually both to the Lordstown workforce and to the wider community.

It was no small feat to get GM to add a third shift, to integrate the new workforce-drawn from places as far afield as Shreveport Louisiana-onto the line in record time and to compete for $350 million in scarce corporate capital even as GM closes other factories in the region.  Many of the speakers-from labor and management-stressed with hard won pride the importance of this accomplishment and the fact that this success resulted from collaboration and cooperation within the workforce and between labor and management.  Lordstown’s message might apply both to Northeast Ohio’s manufacturers and their employees: tough, fair, reality-based negotiations combined with a renewed competitive drive and a fierce dedication to producing a quality product can lead to success in the global marketplace.

While GM’s investment will yield tax revenues for state and local governments and create additional new jobs in the region, the most significant outcome is its effect on the heart and soul of the Valley.  As Congressman Tim Ryan told Wagoner,  GM had given the Valley something it hasn’t had for a long time: hope. He predicted that a decade hence people would see August 21, 2008 as “the day the Mahoning Valley turned the corner.”

The GM Lordstown story demonstrates that economic development is not just about making deals and cutting ribbons. It is about giving people back their hope and giving communities back their future.

Hunter Morrison