No Crystal Staircase: Working-Class Lives under The Recession

Three weeks ago, I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to participate in a conference of social and behavioral scientists. Because employment and the economy are topics that many within this group study, I expected to discuss research on employment and the economy at the conference.  Like others, I worry that the media and the government’s focus on the economic hardships of the middle class will decrease discussions of and concern for the plight of lower-income groups.  What I did not expect during this trip was the casual conversation that led me to consider these issues shortly after landing in Charlotte.

The only passenger aboard the bus that picked me up from the Charlotte airport, I asked the driver if he was Greg— the driver that I had spoken with a week earlier about getting to and from the hotel where my conference was being held.

“No, I’m Dan,” the driver replied. “Greg no longer works for the hotel.  He quit last week.”

“He quit?” I asked.  “Well, I just spoke with him last Sunday, and he said he could drive me to the Hilton in the mornings for  my conference.”

“I can take you to the Hilton in the mornings,” Dan said.  “Greg is an airplane pilot who worked as a driver for us after the airline he was working for laid him off.  A different carrier offered him a job last week, so, naturally, he accepted it and quit his job with us. Greg shouldn’t have been working as a driver in the first place—not a man with his education and skills.”

In the past, economic recessions have primarily affected blue collar and low-level retail jobs, but as Greg’s story reveals, the current economic recession has affected many professional and skilled white-collar jobs as well. Yet, as troubling as they are, stories like Greg’s pale against the stories of many working-class and poor people who are struggling to survive after losing jobs under the so- called jobless economic recovery. Though clearly underemployed as a hotel bus driver, Greg is among the luckier workers today; at least he had secured a job—any job—after being laid off. But what about the 40% of unemployed people who suffer from long-term joblessness of six months or longer? According to data published by the Economic Policy Institute, people suffering from long-term joblessness are disproportionately blue-collar workers. And the current unemployment rate for blue-collar workers (17.4%) is more than two and half times higher than the rate for white-collar workers (6.5%).

How are unemployed blue-collar workers and low-level retail workers faring under the so-called jobless recovery? Based upon what some of my students tell me about their situations, the answer to this question appears to be “not well.”

Take the single male student who lost his low-waged job and lived out of his car for several weeks after his landlord lost his apartment building to foreclosure.  “I had to make several trips to the welfare office to apply for general assistance. Then my car broke down. It cost me $95.00 to get it repaired, which took all the money I had. Then it broke down again,” he said. A first generation college student who had been an “A” student in a former class of mine, this student struggled to pass the midterm exam in a class he is taking with me this semester.  Not surprisingly, given his economic problems, this student says it has been difficult for him to attend early morning classes and to focus on his school work.

Or consider the student who once drove for UPS. After losing his job, this man, his wife, and two children lost their home, moved in with relatives, and almost had their car repossessed. Disclosing that he had forgone back surgery and was now utilizing food pantries because of his limited income, this student asked me after class one day how people “kept from getting depressed over the social problems we had been discussing in class” (e.g., joblessness, hunger, and poverty).

Or the divorced mother of grown children who is doing well in class, but who worries about how she will survive, keep her house, and remain in school when her already extended unemployment benefits expire at the end of April.   And then there are the students who indicate that they and/or relatives have descended from working class to poor to destitute following long-term layoffs from  the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio.  And most recently, the daughter of one of my students, herself a divorced mother,  attempted suicide, in part because of  family stress resulting from joblessness and economic hardship.

For these largely working-class students and their families, life under the current recession has “been no crystal staircase.” And some policy analysts state that the potential side effects of their (and others’) long-term joblessness , including  poverty, mental illness, social disengagement, and diminished educational opportunities,  will affect all of us well into the future. For these students, their families, and for many of us who have been waiting for the current administration to make good on the campaign promise of more higher paying, long-term jobs, the “beginning of the turn in jobs” that President Obama announced before workers in Charlotte, North Carolina on April 2 cannot come soon enough, and hopefully it has not come too late.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to No Crystal Staircase: Working-Class Lives under The Recession

  1. Sharon Miller says:

    Wow! Thank you Bob for jumping in! John and Alisa, please take your white collar worries away from a blue collar issue. To even have a job or the ability to go after a Phd or masters degree is an amazing thing! Your problems seem trivial to those of people who are facing far more difficult times than either of you are. Suck it up buttercup and count your blessings that your not on unemployment or having to apply for medicaid, all while attempting to finish a college degree that is supposed to open all these doors, in a jobless recession. Work for less than $10 an hour, part time, while raising a child on your own and going to school, then complain you got it tough.


  2. John Woods says:


    Thanks for your concern, but I disagree that these comments are “not only a little related” to the stories of working-class students and their difficulties during the current recession. The need for a livable income while trying to climb the academic ladder is a very real one for working-class students. For additional thoughts on the myriad issues facing working-class students in the academy might I suggest, Cheri Register, Packinghouse Daughter, A Memoir.
    Also, as Alisa noted, our (if I can speak for her too) comments were in no way meant to diminish the tragedy of suicide or of anyone forced to live in their car while trying to complete his education. By including my thoughts, I only meant to add yet another perspective to the discussion.
    Finally, I neither sought, nor want anyone’s sympathy. I only included the information about my dissertation as context on my personal background.



  3. Alisa says:


    I don’t think either John or I were suggesting that our situations are in any way comparable to that of a student living in his car. As (presumably for John) students from working-class backgrounds, too, we also don’t have safety nets — no job at our father’s company, no trust funds to hold us over while working on a dissertation, etc. The issues that we face as academics from working-class backgrounds — expensive or non-existent health care, little pay for a lot of work, and without the job security that comes from a tenured position — ARE working-class issues. I think it’s easy to forget the precariousness of our situations because of our education. As I mentioned in my post, I don’t have marketable skills outside the academy, in part because I believed in this myth of meritocracy — if I stayed in school, worked for that Ph.D., all jobs would open to me. Honestly, Bob, that’s just not a reality anymore.



  4. Bob Price says:

    I find the comments above fascinating and not even a little related to the story of a young man living in a car or another young person committing suicide.
    Heather’s fiance doesn’t want to take a job out of town because it will disrupt her education. She does go on to say that she is unhappy about the prospect of paying for health insurance, even though she has a job and is insured.
    The entire point of the article was that the media is overlooking the uneducated by focusing on the middleclass.
    PhDs are a life’s accomplishment and something worth suffering for, but having trouble researching a dissertation is a long way from living out of a car.


  5. Heather Franklin says:

    Yes, I totally agree with this. My fiance got out of college with his Bachelors in Information Technology. He has been hunting for a job ever since and has had to extend his paying for his bills racked up from being in college twice. Now he is faced with no way to pay for the bills. Either that or we have to move, and with me being a year out of graduation, he does not want to uproot us yet. But what are we to do? It is not like we can afford to just up and move anyway! Something has to give here, we need to find a way to make this better. But I have a feeling it is going to get worse now before it will get better. Take the new health care plan… how is it that the government who expects us to pay for everything else and we can barely do that, expects us to pay for health insurance now? People can barely afford to pay their bills let alone health insurance! Thank god I am lucky I have it through work, but what if I did not? I would never be able to afford it. I say we have to fix this economy before we try and fix the health care problem maybe then people can afford to pay for it!


  6. John Woods says:


    I too have encountered what I believe to be the “he has too much education” problem during periods of unemployment in my past (and even today). In 2000, after unsuccessfully seeking employment as a teacher in my hometown, I resorted to lying (0mitting really) about my education in order to get a job as a construction equipment mechanic that I’m sure I would not have gotten if I had listed my education. Ironically, that same year I thought I would apply for the Operating Engineer’s Apprenticeship program in the area and discovered that the education component of the application process made no provision for education beyond the high school diploma (candidates were ranked on a points scale based on the coursework they took in HS, more math and science more points, humanities less points).

    As for the tenure-track academic world, I’ve watched many of my colleagues, struggle to find even soft money jobs in the academy. One of my best friends had to leave a visiting position at a western university (replaced by an ivy-league candidate) for a yearly renewal branch campus job in the South. Since arriving there, he reports that the faculty are being forced to take furlough days in order to accommodate budget shortfalls. These stories leave me very discouraged.


  7. Pingback: For Victims of the Jobless Recovery: “Life Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair” – by Denise Narcisse on the CWCS blog « Chicago Labor & Arts Festival Blog

  8. Alisa says:

    I agree with John’s response. It seems that now more than ever a Ph.D. in the Humanities (or really any discipline given the current economic crisis in the U.S.) will not open ANY doors — folks from Ivys are now having to compete for third-tier jobs, leaving those of us at second-tier universities with very, very few options for employment in the academy.

    I often think it would have been better to secure these elusive “job skills” rather than pursue at Ph.D. When I go on the market next year, and if I don’t receive a tenure-track job, I’m at a greater disadvantage for finding any kind of employment outside the academy: too overqualified for most jobs and without the “job skills” necessary to find one (the result of working exclusively within the academy). My working-class family thinks a Ph.D. guarantees the best jobs (more education, better job). It’s hard to explain to them that we’re almost in the same boat.


  9. John Woods says:

    I would like to add that I believe that the current recession is also particularly problematic for graduate students as well as the aforementioned undergraduates. As an ABD in US Social History(19th and 20th century labor), I have been working as an adjunct at a local private institution (full time load, meager part-time pay) while working on my dissertation (on Akron rubber workers in the 1970s). To supplement my meager earnings as an adjunct, I had also been working another part-time (and very well paying) job in IT for a local non-profit organization, a job that I had held for the past 5 years. In February of this year, I lost the IT position to the recently graduated intern that I had been working with and training. Possessing a variety of marketable skills I subsequently found a delivery job in a local bakery at double the hours and only 1/10th of the pay (making work on the dissertation difficult). This turn of events, coupled with the currently horrific state of the academic job market have left me wondering if it has been worth the effort to seek an advanced degree. And, as if just to add insult to injury, my current rate of pay at the bakery is almost identical (about $.50hr less) to what I was making at the factory job I held before earning my Bachelor’s degree (the first in my family to achieve such an accomplishment). In other words, I’m not sure that getting an education had offered me any of the tools necessary to permanently break out of my working-class origins and achieve what I perceived to be the economic security of the educated classes .


  10. Pingback: Joy Of Crystal » No Crystal Staircase: Working-Class Lives under The Recession …

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