The Future of the Working Class, Part II

Graduation season has drawn to a close, and given the economy, both high school and college graduates now face uncertain futures.  For generations, American parents expected their children to achieve greater economic and social status than they did.  Surveys show that few families believe that this is likely any more.  After decades of widespread belief in upward mobility, Americans no longer see a perpetually brighter future.

Our economic pessimism is well-earned, and that has significant implications for young adults from working-class and middle-income blue-collar families.   The old model of following a parent into the steel mill or auto plant has been a doubtful dream for a couple of decades now, and the current economic crisis makes it even less realistic.  As Bob Herbert pointed out in a recent op-ed, workers under 30 have been the hardest hit in this recession.  So what will become of the rising generation of working-class kids?  What does their future look like?

In Friday’s New York Times, Steven Greenhouse highlighted one option:  college.  Perhaps ironically, community college enrollments are swelling, much as they did during the 1970s, when the higher education system significantly expanded the community college option in part as a way of keeping young adults out of an overcrowded workforce for a few more years.  Of course, today most students remain in the workforce while going to school, often working 30 or more hours a week at low-wage jobs to scrape up enough for tuition.  While college increases an individual’s lifetime earning potential, it doesn’t in itself ensure a strong economic future.  Among other things, young people seeking educational escape routes too often choose for-profit schools that offer training for jobs that don’t exist.  Others take on debt that will undermine their economic stability for years after graduation.  Meanwhile, as I noted a few months ago, most of the fastest-growing occupations don’t require a college degree, and many recent college graduates are struggling to find work.

As Greenhouse notes, some recent high school graduates are choosing college because they don’t like the jobs that are available.  They simply don’t want to work for $7.50 an hour, and who can blame them?   And even those jobs are becoming more scarce.  That’s why many young adults are entering the informal economy, off-the-books jobs that include legal work that is not formally reported, such as mowing lawns or caring for children, as well as illegal work such as prostitution.  According to recent reports, the informal economy is growing as the formal economy shrinks.  Some off-the-books jobs might pay more than $7.50 an hour, but they also bring the potential for exploitation, poor working conditions, and intermittent employment.   Not exactly the foundation to build a comfortable life.

All of this occurs against a backdrop of what is likely to be a very slow economic recovery and at a time in their lives when young adults should be developing the work experience upon which to build a secure future.  As Louis Uchitelle reported last week, even in this bad economy, some employers are struggling to fill jobs, because they want experienced workers.  Tomorrow’s experienced workers can only come from the ranks of today’s beginners, but with so few good entry-level jobs open now, how will we develop the kind of workforce we will need in another decade?  As Uchitelle’s article suggests, college alone won’t do it.  Nor will low-wage jobs in the formal workforce or off-the-books work in the informal economy.

Securing the future for the working class, much less preserving the promise of upward mobility that has been so central to American culture, requires big thinking and integrated policy.  We must connect educational policies (and funding) with policies related to business, employment, wages, health care, and pensions.  We must begin to think about the long-term consequences of policies directed at solving current problems.  We must also demand that policy makers look beyond business and even beyond the middle class to consider the opportunities and conditions of the working class.

Sherry Linkon

Deja Vu All Over Again

In mid-October of 1992 I was working as the Director of Communications and Public Policy for Local 880 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  It was an exciting time.  A young, virtually unknown governor named Bill Clinton had used charisma, big ideas, and a sweeping vision of hope and change to capture the Democratic presidential nomination.  Now, with three weeks until the general election, he was poised to win the presidency and end the Reagan-Bush regime.

One evening following a meeting to discuss the get-out-the-vote plan that would enable Clinton to win Ohio and the presidency, a couple of union organizers and I were standing at the bar of the now-demolished Boatyard Restaurant on the north side of Youngstown.  Our mood was celebratory.  Great things were about to happen.  The world was about to change.

Suddenly, an extremely well dressed stranger made his way toward us through the crowd.  His look was intense.  He was pointing at my chest.  I was apprehensive.  He could have been the owner of a non-union grocery store, and many of them were fuming about the “Hold the Line” informational picketing program I had helped the UFCW develop.  He stopped inches from my face.

“I want that,” he said pointing at my Clinton-Gore button. “Can I have it?”

“You want this?  But you’re a Republican, aren’t you, I mean you look like one,” I said.

“Absolutely, lifelong.  But I have a Chamber of Commerce meeting tomorrow and I want to walk in wearing a Clinton button.  I’m a small businessman who is voting for Clinton because he’s going to fix the health care mess and that will save my company,” he said.  “And I want everyone at the Chamber meeting to know it.”

I gave him the button.  He beamed.  “This is an exciting time,” he said, shaking my hand. “We’re going to solve a real problem and make this a better country.  For the first time in my life I can’t wait to vote.”

I knew then that Bill Clinton would win the election based in large part on his promise to reform America’s deeply flawed health care delivery system.  A system bedeviled by exploding costs that threatened the viability of corporations like Chrysler and GM and that left 41 million people uninsured.

This encounter verified what the polls were saying: that health care reform was the third most important issue among likely voters and that, according to a survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation, Clinton held a 55% to 27% lead on the issue, a margin that would grow to 42% by election day, even though his reform plan was a sparse outline at best.  People simply believed he would get the job done.

So did those of us in the labor movement.  The health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and yes, even Richard Nixon was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Clinton was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Now, flash forward to 2008.  Every Democratic candidate for the White House, including one named Clinton, vows to remedy the ills that afflict America’s health care system: exploding costs that will soon contribute to the  bankruptcy of  major corporations like Chrysler and GM and  a cadre of 51 million people who have no access to care.

It becomes the third most significant issue to voters, trailing closely behind concerns about the economy and the nation’s ill-fated adventure in Iraq.  The Party’s nominee, a young, charismatic, big thinking but virtually unknown senator from Illinois campaigns aggressively and effectively on the issue, although his reform plan is a sparse outline at best.

As in 1992, that minor shortcoming doesn’t seem to matter.  Voters simply believed he would get the job done.  So they made him president, and the health care reform proposed by FDR, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Richard Nixon, and yes, Bill Clinton was about to become a reality because the people of the nation wanted it and Obama was committed to implementing it before the end of his first year in office.

Which brings us to where we stand today: once again on the precipice of disappointment.

That is because despite the President’s commitment to reform, including the development of the government-backed health care insurance option that is essential to holding down costs and providing universal access, we’ve already lost the first skirmish in the battle.  And that means we may not even have the war.

The skirmish broke out when the Congressional Budget Office released cost estimates for establishing the public plan and extending coverage to some, but not all Americans who don’t have it now.  The trillion dollar price tag choked pro-reform advocates in Congress and the White House and emboldened the coalition of opponents that has killed every attempt to regenerate our health care system over the last eight decades.

By week’s end Congressional Democrats were already in reverse, concerned, pundits said, that the president was “overreaching.” Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and the other intellectual Lilliputians who are the voice of the GOP were rejoicing, and the folks at the AMA, Pharma, and America’s Health Insurance Plans were smugly smiling—they’d seen this movie before and they really liked the ending.

Whether they will still be grinning a few months from now largely depends on whether those of us who supported Obama in 2008 are willing to jump into the fray in 2009 and help him write a new ending to the health care reform saga.  If we engage, educate, organize, and fight we may be able to win.  If we do not, well, sometime in the next 20 years, a story will be written about yet another charismatic candidate who won the presidency by promising to fix America’s broken health care system.

Leo Jennings

Bad Girls: Social Class, Gender, Race, and the World’s Oldest Profession

Recently, I spent a weekend reviewing music videos that would help bring Sociology to life for my students. Reflecting upon what my life had been like as a college student, I remembered the music that was popular my freshman year. Disco was in vogue when I was a freshman, and the “Queen of Disco” was Donna Summer. Even “hard-core wall-flowers” would start to dance when Summer’s “Bad Girls” was played. “Bad Girls” was released in 1979 and immediately became a mega-hit, remaining at the top of pop charts for six weeks.  Hard core-and erotic, “Bad Girls” seemed to signal the sexual liberation of all women—including those “bad girl” prostitutes Donna sang about. It would take my girlfriends and me several years to understand fully the social class, gender, and race dimensions of prostitution.  But eventually we would come to believe that Dona’s “bad girls” were not empowered but oppressed.

Sexual liberation implies release from oppressive people, conditions, and beliefs that control a person’s sexuality. It implies a level of freedom, autonomy, and human agency, which most literature on prostitution indicates prostitutes do not have. Rather, research shows that prostitution dominates, degrades, and exploits people fundamentally because they are women in precarious social-class positions, and even more so if they are African-American.

  • Research indicates that prostitution is largely defined, organized, and regulated on the basis of gender. Most prostitutes are women.  And most of the people who manage or buy sex from prostitutes (“pimps” and Johns”, respectively) are men. About a half- million women in the United States work as prostitutes each year, and 40 million women work as prostitutes annually worldwide.   Within this context, female gender seems to increase vulnerability to prostitution.  Being female also seems to increase the likelihood of prostitution arrest: About 2/3 of the people arrested for prostitution in the United States in 2005, for instance, were women (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2005) Research finds that female prostitutes are regulated more than their male customers, and prostitution laws are more strictly enforced against the women who sell sex  than the men who buy it .
  • Revealing a connection between social class and prostitution, most women say they prostitute for financial reasons. While a few highly-paid call girls say that the work allows them a  lavish lifestyle and others do it to pay for crack cocaine and other drugs, the vast majority of prostitutes simply seek economic survival. Studies reveal that environmental and social-class- constraints—poverty, unemployment, limited educational opportunities, limited transportation, and the presence of strip-joints, “crack-houses”, sleazy bars, and cheap motels in low-income neighborhoods— “push” poor women into prostitution. Can we reasonably argue that these  environments provide women with real alternatives to prostitution for survival?  Social class also influences who gets arrested for prostitution: about 90 % of women arrested for prostitution are streetwalkers of lower social-class origins, and not the high-end call girls who “serve” the rich and famous.
  • Race also plays into this story.  Economic precariousness and stereotypes that define them as sexually promiscuous and immoral by nature, make Black females especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and prostitution .  Arrest rates for prostitution also correlate with race: the advocacy group COYOTE reports that although  most prostitutes are white, most of those arrested are African American.   

  • Regardless of prostitution venue (e.g., brothels, massage parlors, escort service, or the street) all women in prostitution are subject to harm. (See Melissa Farley’s “Prostitution and the Invisibility of Harm”).  All women “in the life” may experience violence from customers, pimps, hotel managers, and/or the police. All must confront the threat of sexually transmitted disease. And, in effect, all are objectified and treated like commodities.

Stricter enforcement of laws against the men who solicit prostitution, and their public exposure, is a short term solution and is therefore insufficient.  The legalization of prostitution is also insufficient, because like stricter enforcement of laws against the solicitation of prostitution, this does not eliminate the institutionalized inequities that push some women and girls into prostitution.How long shall we attribute prostitution to people’s poor planning, immorality, laziness, and craziness?  How long will we fail to address the lack of jobs, low-wages, poor schools, classism, sexism, racism, ablest ideas, and other systemic problems that force some women into prostitution?  In the words of another disco song that was popular during my youth, shall we simply “throw our hands in the air like we just don’t care”?  As the song says, “Now somebody scream.”

Denise A. Narcisse

New Survey Results: What the Working Class Thinks about Obama and the Economy

During the 2008 election and since the start of the economic crisis, I’ve spoken with dozens of journalists from around the world who all want to know one thing:  what do working-class people think?  It’s standard practice for journalists to ask experts to speak for the working class, and while years of studying working-class life and issues gives me a pretty clear perspective, at the Center for Working-Class Studies we also believe in going to the source.

That’s why we’ve started an online survey project aimed at finding out what people think about current issues facing the working class.  Our initial survey, focused on the economy, was distributed in April.  More than 900 people responded.

Results show strong support for President Obama, with approval ratings in the high 80s, despite pessimism about economy and uneasiness about the future.  Working-class respondents—defined as those between the ages of 30 and 60 with annual incomes of $10,000 to $50,000 who lack college degrees—gave the President an 87% approval rating, although a slightly smaller number, 46%, strongly approve of his performance. Seventy four percent of this group believes the country is moving in the right direction.

Those positive numbers contrast with the 94% of working-class respondents who said the economy is bad or very bad.  They are also pessimistic about the prospects for a speedy recovery. More than 78% said they believe the recession will last one year or more with more than 46% saying it will last for two years or longer. Only six percent say they see light at the end of the economic tunnel this year.

The dichotomy between respondents’ view of the President’s performance and their concerns about the economy is underscored by their uncertainty about whether the administration’s stimulus plan will be effective. While 42% said they are confident the stimulus proposals will work, 44% said they are only somewhat confident, and 14% said they are not confident at all. Working-class respondents were slightly more optimistic with 48% expressing confidence in the President’s plan, 38% saying they were somewhat confident, and 13% saying they were not

confident at all that the stimulus package would turn the economy around.

The contrast between people’s optimism about the president and their pessimism about the state of the economy and its future can be explained by a number of factors.  First, the President is clearly in a honeymoon period. The people who voted for him, and that includes 85% of the respondents who revealed their choice when asked, are confident he can lead the nation out of the economic morass he inherited.  To a lesser extent, they probably don’t want to admit that they may have made a mistake last November, so they are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, no one can ignore the economy, and for the working class, the bankruptcy declarations of two major American automakers feels especially significant.  The value of existing homes continues to erode, jobs are hard to find, gas prices are rising, the stock market’s falling, and despite all the talk about stimulus the economy appears to be stuck in neutral at best.  So while people remain hopeful that the President’s plan will work, it’s not at all surprising that they’re also very worried about the future.

That uncertainty about the future is underscored by the survey data:  only 35% of all respondents believed their children’s standard of living would be somewhat or much better than theirs, while 41% believed it would be somewhat or much worse, and 24% believed it would be the same.   At the same time, the working class appears to be considerably more optimistic overall: 48% of working-class respondents believe their children will do better, 42% believe they will do worse and seven percent believe their children’s standard of living will be about the same as theirs.  I’m not sure how to explain that optimism, especially given the decline of the auto industry.

The CWCS survey also revealed that respondents approve of the President’s plans to bail out the troubled domestic automobile industry by a margin of 75% to 21%. This clearly demonstrates that the President’s supporters want the government to take the steps necessary

to help GM survive.  A number of Republicans and conservative pundits believe that GM may become President Obama’s Iraq.  They predict that Obama’s popularity will begin to slip when the American people grow weary of throwing money at a hopeless cause, just as President Bush was dragged down by the war.  But our survey shows that an overwhelming majority are willing to give him the time needed to save GM and the tens of thousands of jobs it provides in Ohio and across the country.

How long will that patience last?  Will the continuing recession and rising unemployment generate more activism and anger among the working class?  Stay tuned.

The CWCS will issue a second survey later this summer.   To participate, visit our website, or contact me to join the survey mailing list.

John Russo