Category Archives: Issues

Inequality and Democrats

American politicians have an ingenious way to avoid discussing uncomfortable or controversial subjects: they declare that we need to have a discussion! When all sides agree that “we need a discussion about race,” for example, they are actually agreeing not to do anything anytime soon about racial injustice.   That’s where we are now with inequality of income and wealth.  Democrats are running against inequality without being very specific, and even some Republican political candidates find our current levels of inequality troubling and worthy of attention, but neither side has yet offered specific practical proposals to reverse our still increasing levels of inequality. And everybody eschews the “r” word – redistribution.

To adequately address our massive levels of economic inequality is a long-term project involving an array of structural economic and political changes. But with a new presidential campaign beginning, Democrats are in a position to achieve a long-lasting dominant majority if they champion a handful of redistributive tax and economic growth policies developed in detail by progressive think tanks. Dems can lock Republicans into a box of their own making, one that could take them a generation to get out of and that could, therefore, open up possibilities for more thorough-going reforms.

Here’s the box: Because Republicans rigidly oppose any new taxes that would increase government revenues while at the same time being rhetorically obsessed with balanced budgets, they can find no money to increase spending on things that almost everybody agrees are sorely needed – like massive improvements in infrastructure and education. If Dems advocate very large tax increases falling largely on Wall Street, corporations, and top-earning individuals in order to create millions of jobs by funding those needed improvements in infrastructure and education, Republicans will herd themselves right into their well-worn and now discredited “trickle-down” box of balanced budgets, deregulation, and tax cuts for the rich.

But in order to be credible, Dems must go big on both taxes and jobs, and they must put forward well-thought-out specific plans for where the money will come from and where it will go. “Big” would be in the neighborhood of $500 billion in new taxes and spending (with no new deficit-spending), creating at least 4 million new jobs on top of the 2.5 million the economy is currently producing annually.

This is not pie in the sky. First, taxes. Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) has a menu of progressive tax increases that amounts to $333 billion a year, and it does not include the kind of financial transactions taxes introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Rep. Keith Ellison or a reform of inheritance taxes as advocated by the Center for American Progress.   Those would generate at least another $164 billion. Taken together these tax increases would stop income inequality from increasing, but they would not likely reduce it by much. For example, taxing unearned income (capital gains and dividends) at the same marginal rates as earned income (wages and salaries) is a signature measure on CTJ’s menu; it would produce a lot of revenue, $134 billion, most of it from the top 1%, but it would decrease their average household incomes of $1,651,000 by only $34,000. The next highest 4% would have their average incomes of nearly $300,000 clipped by about $2,000. In other words, the rich would still be rich. Dems could call it “The Preservation of Rich People Act.”

But the federal government could do a lot of good with an additional $500 billion. It could expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax breaks for low- and middle-income folks. It could reduce the deficit (though that would be neither necessary nor desirable, in my view). It could fund national educational reforms like those advocated by the Chicago Teachers Union, built around equitable funding, “wrap-around services” for all children, and smaller class sizes, particularly in the early grades. It could pay for early childhood education and free community college.

But strictly for winning a long-term dominant majority, the Democrats would be wise to advocate spending the other half of that $500 billion on an infrastructure program that would not only repair and maintain our crumbling highways and bridges, water treatment and sewage systems, mass transit and other transportation (traditional infrastructure), but also include a large dollop of green investments combining the construction of a national “smart grid” with building new green capacity for utilities and making new and existing buildings more energy efficient. As costed out by the Economic Policy Institute, such a decade-long program of $250 billion a year, as recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers, would produce 2.3 million jobs.

Most would be decent-paying jobs (about 2/3rds are middle-income and up) for people without college degrees (nearly 80%, including more than 1 million jobs for people with no education beyond high school). Mostly in construction and manufacturing, the jobs would disproportionately benefit white men, a demographic that has voted 2 to 1 for Republicans since 1976. But such a large infrastructure program would completely absorb the half-million currently unemployed construction workers without filling all the jobs that would be created — and this would provide leverage for the federal government to enforce long-standing affirmative action hiring and training requirements in the building trades. Symbolically, a massive infrastructure program like this (especially if it went by its old-fashioned name of “public works”) would allow Democrats to embrace the idea that you don’t have to go to college to be a worthwhile human being and that you can have a decent income by making and building things – not just writing code or manipulating other kinds of symbols.

What’s more, $500 billion taken from our oligarchy of wealth and invested in direct income transfers through the tax code, in broadening and deepening funding for public education, and in renewing and greening our physical infrastructure would give a huge boost to our anemic economic growth, tightening labor markets and thereby increasing wages at every level of income. Combined with Democrats’ advocacy of a healthy increase in the federal minimum wage (now proposed as $12 an hour), which Republicans oppose but huge majorities support in public opinion polls, this is a “populist economic program” that can make a real difference in people’s lives. And for that reason, if explained in detail, it would be a winning program for Democrats.

Hillary Clinton has put inequality at the center of her presidential campaign so far, declaring that “we can’t stand by while inequality increases, wages stagnate, and the promise of America dims.” That’s hopeful, but without specifics it could be said by any of the Republican candidates. Clinton also promised to “rewrite the tax code so it rewards hard work and investments here at home, not quick trades or stashing profits overseas.” We should know soon how much of this is real and how much is merely a fine statement of principles the electorate will read as the kind of empty rhetoric politicians always espouse in election campaigns. Keep your eye on dollar amounts – are they big enough to make a difference? Don’t expect Clinton or other Democrats to use the “r” word, but do check out where the money is coming from and where it’s going. If they want to win governing majorities, Democrats will lay out detailed plans to take a large chunk of idle money from the rich and use it to create jobs and increase wages.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Class Meets Climate in Barbara Kingsolver’s Fiction

“In American life,” wrote Meridel LeSueur in the 1930s, “you hear things happening in a far and muffled way.” She was referring to the labor conflicts of the time, but she also suggests that awareness of class division and conflict has always been muffled by a national ideology of competitive individualism. Today, despite instant mass communication, climate change, too, seems to be happening in a far and muffled way. Except when it comes roaring ashore like Super Storm Sandy, our responses to a rolling catastrophe are subsumed in the daily business of getting ahead or getting by. Or awareness is actively muffled by climate deniers’ disinformation. Of course, LeSueur implies, good writing can pierce the veil of ideology and make large themes like class and climate vivid and consequential.

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior does that and more: it explores the connections between class and climate in a way that is rare in North American fiction. It’s the story of a Tennessee farm family coping with the effects on their livelihood of a depressed economy and weird weather patterns. The protagonist is Dellarobia Turnbow, a twenty-something stay-at-home mother of two with an urge for “flight” from her marriage and possibly towards a college education. The book’s culture is intensely local. We get to know Feathertown and its people, the Turnbows, and their farm intimately.

At the same time, Kingsolver creates expanding circles of connection and consequence, linking local and global effects of climate change. She also dramatizes the discourses — science, religion, politics — that claim to interpret these effects. At the novel’s center, intertwined with Dellarobia’s story, is the anomalous migration of millions of monarch butterflies to the hills above her house. Local evangelicals hail the arrival of these amazing creatures as a sign of God’s blessing. Scientists see their attempt to winter in Tennessee as a symptom of a biological crisis, jeopardizing more than the butterflies’ survival.

“The problem with writing a novel about climate change—and Kingsolver is not the first to attempt it—is that the issue is fundamentally abstract,” writes Michelle Dean in Slate. Indeed most climate fiction is sci-fi, setting the calamity in future worlds. But Flight Behavior shows changes happening here and now. On the Turnbow’s sheep farm persistent rain has saturated pastures, spoiled the hay crop, and messed up lambing season. A neighbor’s orchard has failed to produce, roads have been washed out, and worse flooding is on the way. Like the marks of the Great Recession on the novel – sketchy employment, second-hand shopping — these events are based in actuality. Torrential rains and a deadly “1000 year flood” hit Tennessee in 2010.

Kingsolver’s one leap into speculative fiction is her invention of the butterflies’ mis-migration to southern Appalachia.   Monarchs still make the trip to Mexico, though their winter habitat in the mountains of Michoaclán is threatened.   Heavy rains on those mountains produced flooding and landslides that destroyed the town of Angangueo, killing at least thirty people — also in 2010. Kingsolver further connects events in Tennessee and Mexico through the immigration of the Delgado family from Angangueo to Feathertown, where the father works as a day laborer. Through a series of halting exchanges between two working-class families on the front lines of climate change, we get a glimpse of the larger disaster, across continents. These biological and economic migrations, beautifully narrated by Kingsolver, illuminate deep links between environmental degradation and increasing social precarity.

Slate reviewer Dean, though skeptical of a novel’s capacity to instruct on such issues, acknowledges “Kingsolver’s frankly exceptional skill at rendering the smaller human dramas that result from the big, societal themes she’s embracing.” These dramas are enacted in witty conversations, often between people of different classes. Sometimes they talk past each other, as when an earnest eco-campaigner tries to get Dellarobia to sign his “Sustainability Pledge,” which includes a commitment to “fly less.” She has, of course, never flown at all. In fact Dellarobia’s “life-style” is involuntarily about as low-carbon as you can get in the US. Nevertheless, she is informed, ”You people need to get on board” the green agenda. The prevailing local view of climate problems — “Weather is the Lord’s business” – also comes in for some acerbic satire.

Beyond skewering the relatively easy targets of liberal elitism and hick superstition, Kingsolver stages some lovely scenes of differently classed characters actually talking together. They challenge and inform each other, especially about class positions and attendant belief systems. Taking her first job since waiting tables as a teenager, Dellarobia works as a field assistant in the makeshift lab of entomologist Ovid Byron, a university professor visiting Feathertown to study what may become a major species extinction. He is stumped as to why the locals don’t believe in climate science or value the knowledge produced by a college education. She explains how class works: “I’d say the teams get picked and then the beliefs get handed around.” While Team Camo gets “the right to bear arms” and “taking care of our own,” she says, “the environment got assigned to the other team. Worries like that are not for people like us.” Ovid replies, “Drought and floods are not worries for farmers?”

Dellarobia realizes he “would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that ties up people like her in the day-to-day.”   The novel gives us more than an inkling of that great slog, but it also pushes Ovid beyond his credo that “All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science.”   Dellarobia teases out his grief at what they are witnessing, his yearning to intervene. In a scene of high tragi-comedy, Ovid finally unloads on a glossy TV reporter for pretending that there’s still a “debate” about climate change. Without getting heavy-handed about it, the novel urges both the responsibility of scientists to put what they know in terms people can grasp, and the responsibility of journalists to report what science shows us.

Reviewers of Kingsolver’s novel mostly comment either on her treatment of climate change – some finding it deft and others preachy – or on her treatment of rural poverty – some finding it empathic and others condescending. They don’t notice the skill with which she is narrating the connections between the accelerating climate crisis and the struggles of people, mostly poor and working-class, living with its effects.   For that achievement, Flight Behavior is a worthy fictional companion to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. It is also provides a highly entertaining and provocative reading experience.

Nick Coles

University of Pittsburgh

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twenty Years of Working-Class Studies

This week, the Working-Class Studies Association will hold its annual conference. This year’s conference is special in two ways.

First, this year the WCSA is partnering with the Labor and Working-Class History Association for a joint conference. With two organizations involved, we expect more than 400 people to attend the Fighting Inequality conference and/or present their work. As always, the conference will include academic papers but also plenaries with activists, artists, and scholars from several disciplines talking about working-class issues. We’ll also have film screenings (in partnership with the DC Labor Film Festival), poetry and music performances, workshops, and a DC Labor History tour. All of that is pretty typical for a working-class studies conference, since the field has always been committed both to bringing more (and better) attention to class within the academy and to connecting in meaningful ways with working-class people and movements.

This year’s conference is also special because it marks the twentieth anniversary of the first working-class studies conference, which we organized with several colleagues at Youngstown State University in May of 1995. That conference helped to create the Center for Working-Class Studies (CWCS), the first of its kind in the US. That more than 150 scholars, activists, artists, and other interested folks came to Youngstown to spend a weekend talking about working-class lives demonstrated need to establish Working-Class Studies as an academic discipline. With support from the Ford Foundation in 2000, the CWCS helped to build that field, including several other centers around the US.

The conference also left us with two big questions that would shape our work at the CWCS. One was inspired by composition scholar Gary Tate, who reminded us of the value of supporting and facilitating other people’s work – an essential form of academic labor. At the conference, Tate spoke with a number of participants about his next project: an edited collection exploring how teachers’ class backgrounds shaped their work in the classroom. Editing a book wasn’t new for Tate. He’d helped develop composition studies through this kind of facilitative labor. Moving forward from the conference, one of the questions we asked ourselves was “How will the work we’re doing help to develop the field?”

That question led us to another: “Working-class studies for whom?” From the beginning, we believed that those of us engaged in working-class studies should pursue two ideals. First, building a field had to be about more than creating a space for our own work. On the academic side, we focused on outreach and organizing, trying to engage colleagues from across the disciplines with research and teaching about class. Even more important, we needed to reach beyond academic work, to ensure that we did not approach the working class merely as the object of study. We needed to collaborate with working-class people and communities, in local unions halls, in our classrooms, in political and organizing campaigns.

We were always concerned that working-class studies could become overly theoretical and distant from working people’s lives. We committed to writing and speaking in accessible, inclusive ways, and we also looked for opportunities to reach beyond academic audiences. Working-Class Perspectives is one result of that effort. We hoped that what we wrote and posted here would reach not only other academics but also workers, students, and journalists. Commentaries from Working-Class Perspectives have led dozens of journalists from print and broadcast journalism to interview our contributors, and the blog is assigned reading in many high school and college courses. In our first year, 2008, WCP had about 7500 hits. In 2014, we had almost 107,000 views from readers in more than 100 countries. One recent post was read by over 10,000 people within three days.

We have good reasons to celebrate this week’s anniversary. We have not done all of the things people suggested at the closing plenary of our first conference. When we asked, “If there was a Center for Working-Class Studies, what would it be doing?” our colleagues generated over 180 suggestions that ranged from basic vocational education to “starting a revolution.” Florence Howe cornered us afterward with wise advice: “pick five.”

At first, the Center for Working-Class Studies was an information clearinghouse and orphanage for academics who thought no one else on their campuses cared about class. Over time, the CWCS Studies helped launch working-class studies as an academic field of inquiry that engages in a wide range of academic and activist work. Along with publishing articles and books, we and our colleagues teach hundreds of courses about class, collaborate with workers and our students to create films and exhibits about working-class stories, work on labor issues and campaigns, help non-profit organizations understand how class shapes their work, and work with unions and other organizations on issues of peace, climate change, and electoral politics.

A few years ago, we announced that the CWCS was closing, but a few of our colleagues at YSU are trying to revive it. While their work is just beginning, our work continues on through the Working-Class Studies Association and the Center Working-Class Studies Legacy Fund,* which helped fund this year’s conference. We look forward to seeing many of our readers at Georgetown University this week, where we’ll talk about all of this work, toast to twenty years of working-class studies, and consider how we can continue fighting inequality.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo

Founding Members and Former Co-Directors

Center for Working-Class Studies

*If you would like to contribute to the CWCS Legacy Fund to support the future of working-class studies, please download this donation form.  Thanks for your help.

‘Struggle Street’: hard-hitting documentary or middle-class voyeurism?

A new Australian television show, Struggle Street, has attracted much controversy and commentary. The three-part documentary was commissioned by the public broadcaster, SBS, and made by KEO films. The production company’s web site describes Struggle Street as an ‘observational documentary’ that will provide an ‘insight into the experience of those who’ve been dealt some of the worst conditions to start their lives’ and ‘provoke not just a change in public perception, but a debate about the direction of public policy as well’. The show is set in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt and focuses on a number of working-class people experiencing poverty. Mount Druitt has a reputation of being ‘rough’ due to its concentration of public housing, and the western suburbs of Sydney have been marginalised due to their geographical distance from the metropolitan centre and their working-class demographic.

The controversy occurred after the broadcast of a promotional trailer. Some of the show’s participants contacted their local area mayor to complain about how they were depicted in the trailer. The mayor, Stephen Bali, attempted to put a stop to the show’s airing and staged a protest outside the headquarters of SBS. Bali described the show as ‘publically funded poverty porn’ and ‘rubbish’ television. To assist in making his point, a fleet of garbage trucks joined him outside the SBS offices. The mayor (who also had the support of Unions NSW) claimed that not only were the participants being portrayed in a negative way, but the show’s production team had engaged in unethical behaviour and he accused them of staging scenes and misrepresentation. While SBS did agree to pull the promo video on the request of participants, the network’s head of program content, Helen Kellie, defended the show, and it was broadcast as scheduled.

In part because of the protest, the show attracted much interest and debate. Multiple news items, reviews, and commentaries have been written on the show, and it is now one of SBS’s highest rating programs in recent years.

So is it ‘poverty porn’, as suggested by the mayor, or a serious observational documentary intended to create debate and effect change, as stated by the creators? And what happens when we view the show through a working-class lens?

I find the term ‘poverty porn’ problematic, in part because it diminishes the real experience of the participants. I prefer ‘middle-class voyeurism’, which describes both the production and the reception of the show. The show was created by the same company that produced the British series Skint, which also garnered criticism due to its portrayal of working-class poverty in the UK. It could be suggested that the middle-class producers of Struggle Street are exploiting their working-class subjects in order to advance their own careers. After all, the participants are not paid for their time, and the producers do not seem to be offering any long-term assistance to the neighbourhoods depicted. The show is most likely to be watched by middle-class viewers (who are the main demographic of public broadcasters), and most reviews and commentary appear to be written from middle-class perspectives. We see this when KEO’s director of programmes, David Galloway, compares the setting of Struggle Street to that of his previous production River Cottage Australia (which is a cooking show set in a ‘historic and picturesque village’). He describes the two shows as ‘heaven and hell’ and states that people ‘end up’ and are ‘lumped’ in Mount Druitt, making the area sound like a dumping ground for the poor.

The first episode of Struggle Street was very interesting. The participants reveal their struggles with unemployment, disability, homelessness, drug addiction, and lack of formal education. They are candid and generally unselfconscious. Their efforts to make do and try to provide for themselves and their families reveal the social and political reality of working-class life and poverty. They also demonstrate working-class resilience, resourcefulness, and the importance of community as they provide assistance to each other. The show includes working-class humour and philosophical discussions of daily life. As such, it provides important insight into the effects of poverty on working-class Australians. Rather than operating as voyeurism, Struggle Street has the potential to help viewers understand these effects. For those who have lived in poverty, the show validates their experiences and stories, even though some middle-class viewers may not recognize some of the nuances of that experience.

After the show aired, responses ranged from support for the aims of the show by those who believed it offered a glimpse into the lives of marginalised people, to concerns about its potentially exploitative element. The show was described as ‘brutal and raw’, ‘powerful and poignant’ and ‘required viewing’. It was also described as reinforcing stereotypes and being bad reality TV (rather than documentary) that contained a caricature of Mount Druitt that was unrepresentative of the area as a whole. Most positive reviews agreed that the narration was intrusive and judgmental and the soundtrack distracting and clichéd.

What I found most interesting is the almost complete absence of class from the discussions. Apart from one negative piece (written by an academic) that suggested that ‘class is a taboo topic’ (and also criticized the show for its ‘abjectifying images’ and ‘class racism’), no one mentioned the class system that creates poverty. Commentators used terms such as ‘disadvantage’, ‘dysfunction’, and ‘hardship’, and although some mentioned government policies that lead to cuts in local services, almost no one acknowledged structural class inequalities.

The discussion was even worse on Twitter. Some tweets reflected the reviews and commentary by journalists, but others mocked and attacked the participants of the show with classist and derogatory remarks. For example, one suggested that a person receiving government benefits should not be able to afford a mobile phone. Some Tweeters from western Sydney attempted to distance themselves from the participants, claiming that not all people from Mount Druitt were poor. This sentiment appeared in some of the published commentary as well. Some community leaders were quoted as disappointed with the ‘hopeless’ tone of the show, which ‘undermines all the good work we do’ and reinforces stereotypes. This points to the politics of respectability, as working-class people who are in employment distance themselves from the unemployed and poor.

For all the controversy, there is a place for observational documentary that focuses on the lives of working-class people. Their stories need to be told on working-class terms, though that in itself can be hard to define. While some of those featured in Struggle Street initially complained about how they were represented on the show, two of the show’s main participants, Ashley and Peta Kennedy have stated they are pleased with how the show highlighted their struggle.

In an ideal world, perhaps, poor and working-class people would produce their own documentaries, but poor and working-class people rarely have the resources to do that. Instead, they must collaborate with middle-class filmmakers, and that means there is always the potential for exploitation and sensationalism of working-class experiences for the sake of entertainment. The participants of Struggle Street deserve to have their stories told, and if they are unhappy with their portrayal they should have the right to make these concerns heard. The key, and the challenge, is ensuring that working-class people have control of their stories.

Sarah Attfield

 

The power of stupid ideas: ‘three generations that have never worked’

This month I ran a workshop with a group of first year undergraduate sociology students at Teesside University (in the North East of England). Our students tend to be from working-class or lower-middle class backgrounds and often the first in their families to go to university. I’d been invited to give an insight into a ‘real life’ research project, and I began by asking for responses and thoughts about some quotations:

‘Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job’ (ex-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, 1997).

‘…on some deprived estates…often three generations of the same family have never worked’ (Iain Duncan Smith, 2009; now British government Minister for Work and Pensions).

‘To reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations’ (Universal Credit, Department of Work and Pensions, 2010; this is a document that introduces a very major overhaul of UK welfare payments).

‘…there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job’ (Chris Grayling, ex-Minister for Work and Pensions, 2011).

The idea that there are families in the UK with three (or four, or five and even six have been claimed) generations where no one has ever had a job is a particularly powerful orthodoxy. It is often repeated, rarely questioned, becoming part of a taken for granted vernacular. I was struck by the students’ comments. One said, ‘well, it must be true if all these [people] are saying it’. Another felt the same because ‘they wouldn’t say it unless there was loads of data to back it up’. Simple ideas boldly spoken (and repeated) by people in authority can carry real weight.

But is this idea true?

One of the most avid propagators of this claim is Iain Duncan Smith, Minister of State for Work and Pensions. Although students imagined that ‘there must be loads of data to back it up’, his response to a Freedom of Information Request enquiring about the evidence for his (and others’) assertions about this was that ‘statistical information on the number of UK families that never work is not available.’ Rather, he explained, his views were based on ‘personal observations’.

But my colleagues and I are social scientists, so instead of relying on ‘personal observations’, Tracy Shildrick, Andy Furlong, Johann Roden, Rob Crow, and I began rigorous research to see if there really were families like this. We have continued thinking, analysing, writing about, and presenting the complexities of the research material that we gathered since then. The research generated other questions, but, unusually for a sociological study, we found a clear and unequivocal answer to this first question: the existence of families where ‘no one had worked for three generations’ is highly unlikely.

We searched very hard to find such families. We chose two extremely deprived working-class neighbourhoods – in Glasgow and Middlesbrough, because we assumed that they were the sorts of places most likely to reveal this phenomenon. Despite deploying all the strategies and tactics we could think of (including financial inducements), we were unable to find any. This does not mean that they do not exist. Some people believe in fairies or Yetis, and one cannot prove they do not exist. We can say, however, that it is highly improbable that they do. Or, if they do, their numbers are infinitesimally small. Other research drew upon the best available secondary statistics and concluded that less than half of one per cent of all workless households in the UK might have two generations where no one had ever had a job. Households with three generations that have never worked are, logically, going to be far, far fewer in number than even this tiny fraction.

This was, actually, a quite predictable conclusion. A little socio-economic history helps. How long is ‘three generations’? Maybe sixty years, so back to the 1950s, or earlier. The proposition is that there are families where no one has had a job since the 1950s. The UK welfare state has become tougher and tougher over this period, particularly in the last few years. We have very tight ‘conditionality rules’ and ‘activation tests’; recipients of unemployment benefits must provide evidence of their worthiness for these on a weekly basis. It is difficult to imagine a person being able to defraud the state for the whole of his/ her working life – and then his/ her son or daughter doing the same and then his/ her son or daughter after them, for sixty years.

We also need to think about what has happened in working-class communities over this period. Certainly the neighbourhoods we studied were impoverished and had high unemployment rates, but they have not always been so. In the 1960s, Middlesbrough was a very successful, prosperous local economy with full employment. During the 19th and 20th centuries it became world famous for its prowess in industrial production (being the source of the Sydney Harbour and Golden Gate Bridges, and the Indian Railway network). Glasgow’s importance was so profound that it became known as ‘the second city of the British Empire’. Middlesbrough had ‘full employment’ in the 1950s and ‘60s; jobs (for working-class men, at least) were in good supply during the exact periods in which this plague of intergenerational worklessness was said to be taking grip. If we are to properly understand the stories of these families and how they became distanced from the labour market, we need to locate family biographies in place and history and, following CW Mills, to trace the connections between ‘private troubles of individual milieu’ and ‘public issues of social structure’. These localities have experienced radical disinvestment and the wrecking of their economic bases. To use Alice Mah’s phrase, they have undergone ‘ruination’, with Middlesbrough now having the reputation of ‘the most deindustrialised locale in the UK’. In hearing the stories of these families we were not hearing tales of ‘welfare dependency’ stretching across the generations but about how, through massive deindustrialisation, many of the working-class families that live in these places have been stripped of the possibility of making a decent life through decent employment.

Debunking welfare myths is an important job for social scientists but so is trying to understand what purpose these myths serve – and why they retain their power. By the end of the workshop, students were getting quite angry and raising questions about the power of the myth: ‘so how can they say this? It’s ridiculous. It’s just daft!’. They were able to understand these simple messages about deindustrialisation and the wrecking of regions, so why can’t clever and powerful people – the Prime Ministers and Ministers of State in the UK (from different political parties) that continue to espouse stupid ideas?

I think there are lots of answers to such questions. One is that myths about a lazy, work-shy underclass serve a clear ideological function: they help ‘sell’ the sweeping cuts to social security spending that have been enacted by the UK government under their austerity programme. Social security budgets have received some of the deepest cuts – and these have tended to be viewed very favourably by the general public, working-class and unemployed people included. Conditions of widespread employment insecurity and falling wages breed mistrust, fear, and anger. ‘Others’ are blamed. These are fertile conditions for stupid ideas about ‘shirkers’ who see ‘unemployment as a life-style choice’ and who ‘sleep their days away on benefits’ in families where ‘no-one has worked for three generations’ (all terms used by government ministers). In other words, we are witnessing the resurrection of the age-old phantom of the ‘undeserving poor’, trotted out to ease the way for further welfare cuts that, in fact, hurt some of the already most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society.

Robert MacDonald

Robert MacDonald is Professor of Sociology at Teesside University, UK. He has researched and written widely about social exclusion, work and youth.

 

Guilt by Association: Hillary and the Working Class

As the 2016 Presidential campaign revs up, we’re seeing a political version of guilt by association as Hillary Clinton tries to position herself in relation to the cornerstones of her husband’s legislative agenda: the Violent Crime and Enforcement Act (VCEA, 1994), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA, 1996), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994). Liberals and progressives widely recognize that these policies had an immediate and devastating impact on people of color, the white working class, and organized labor. They also had continuing influence, at once contributing to and mirroring current issues and debates involving poverty, incarceration, and trade agreements.

A brief historical summary might be helpful. The VCEA, based on the idea that increased incarceration would lower the crime rate, was part of President Clinton’s attempt to capture the “get tough on crime” zeitgeist. As criminologist Jeremy Travis suggested, the federal government promised increased funding to states that increased punishment for drug offenses, and 28 states and the District of Columbia “followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses.” As a result, the number of prisons and the rate of incarceration of the poor, blacks, and Latinos have increased. That may have helped the growing prison industry, but later studies show there was little correspondence between incarcerations and lower crime rates.

The PRWOA was central to President Clinton’s and the Republicans’ goals of trimming the federal deficit but also weaning the poor off of government assistance by cutting welfare benefits for the unemployed. The legislation reduced the amount of time that individuals and families could receive benefits and established work requirements. It also reduced federal funding and required states to decrease welfare caseloads and closely monitor the work activities of welfare recipients. Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which included requirements for job training, GED programs, and subsidized employment opportunities. While the new policy may have decreased the cost of government assistance, it did not reduce poverty. In fact, the poverty rate has grown.

NAFTA aimed to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, protect intellectual property, and established a dispute resolution procedure between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Proponents argued that these changes would reduce poverty and immigration. NAFTA did contribute to increasing trade, which has roughly tripled in the last 20 years, but the trade gap also widened to $181 billion with Mexico and Canada as over 1 million manufacturing jobs moved largely to the Mexican border areas. NAFTA contributed to deindustrialization and the declining standard of living of workers and their families. It was especially hard on residents in rustbelt states, including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. It also undermined small-scale agriculture in Mexico and exacerbated the current immigration crisis. As former President Clinton acknowledged during Congressional testimony in 2010, his trade policy “has not worked” to alleviate poverty. He called the policy “a mistake.” On NAFTA’s 20th anniversary, even Forbes was forced to grudgingly admit that, at best, “the trade deal was a mixed bag, a generally positive yet disappointing economic experiment.”

Twenty years later, Hillary Clinton faces the prospect of running against President Clinton’s political legacy. At the same time, the same legislative concerns that gave rise to his legacy are in play again – trade, poverty, and criminalization. Like anyone tainted with guilt by association, Hillary is in the tricky position of distancing herself from a family member without being either disloyal or disingenuous.

In a recent speech, she called for criminal justice reform, including changes in sentencing and social services, increased use of body cameras for police accountability and transparency, and addressing the fundamental unfairness and injustice of the “war on drugs” for African-Americans. Despite all hoopla about speech, it largely repeated the current mainstream debate about the flaws in the criminal justice system. Nor did Hillary acknowledge that the VCEA had contributed to the problem. Republican Rand Paul noted the contradiction, saying her ideas would “undo some of Bill Clinton’s work,” which she had supported. He also noted “the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction doubled” during the Clinton years.

 

In recent years, we’ve heard increasing concerns about increased levels unemployment, wage stagnation, and poverty. While Hillary has expressed a clear interest in wealth and wage inequality, she has not articulated a legislative agenda to address it, not has she suggested increasing social spending or rolling back any of the cuts from PROWA.

The same is true of trade. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) provides an excellent opportunity to oppose free trade in favor of fair trade. But this would require political tacking given her past support for NAFTA and other trade agreements. As Robert Kuttner has suggested, though, Senators Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and even Charles Schumer have opposed the TPP, providing Hillary with plenty of political cover, and she could increase her populist appeal by opposing it.

Yet Hillary might have an even more difficult hurdle. Even if she repudiates her husband’s political legacy and advances a progressive agenda, will Americans believe her? A recent Quinnipiac University survey of registered voters shows that while most think she had strong leadership qualities (62%), 54% do not view Hillary Clinton as honest or trustworthy. The question of character will be especially important to the working class and African Americans who haven’t forgotten how they were deceived by “slick Willy.”

John Russo

Former Co-Director, Center for Working-Class Studies

 

 

 

 

 

Putnam’s Poignant Folly: Empathetic Blaming

Robert Putnam graduated from high school in 1959 in the small Lake Erie town of Port Clinton, Ohio, and for his widely-praised book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis he revisits some members of his high school class to illustrate what life was like for those who grew up and started careers and families in the years 1945 to 1975 – what Putnam calls the “postwar boom” and in France is known more spectacularly as “the Glorious 30.” He very poignantly contrasts those glory years with grim portraits of life in Port Clinton today. What was once a supportive small-town warmth where standards of living were improving and opportunities were expanding for almost everybody has become a town divided between gated communities in a narrow strip along the lake and an excluded and much larger working-class community that ranges from destitution to quiet desperation.

I grew up during the same period as Putnam in a similar, if much larger, town that has experienced pretty much the same fate, though rather worse and without a lake from which to be excluded. It’s hard for folks of my generation to avoid experiencing what some contemptuously call “smokestack nostalgia,” as if what we are nostalgic for is the smokestacks and the “solid particulate matter” they emitted onto our homes, cars, and bodies.

More than a little nostalgia is justified, however, for those three decades if you focus on the right things, which Putnam usually does not. When Putnam graduated from high school in 1959, for example, real median family incomes in the U.S. had increased by more than 40% in the previous ten years and would increase by another 40% in the next ten years. Poverty was decreasing from 32% of the population in 1949 to 11% by the end of the Glorious 30 in the early 1970s. Real wages for production and nonsupervisory workers nearly doubled during the period, and the income gap between black and white families narrowed by 10 percentage points.

In contrast, by all these measures nothing has substantially improved since 1975, and much has gotten worse, much worse. “Back in the day,” for example, the top 10% got only about 1/3rd of all income, but they get one-half now, and the famous 1% got about 10% of income then, while today their share is 22%. Income taxes were steeply progressive (with top marginal rates ranging from 70% to 90% through the 1970s), and because unions were strong, the benefits of productivity growth were shared with workers, sharing that ended in the mid-1970s.

Putnam is aware of most of these numbers, and of their impact on people’s lives, as he details the disastrous decline in “upward mobility” that has put “the American Dream in crisis.” He is also aware that there are two kinds of upward mobility – the “rags-to-riches” kind that he calls relative upward mobility and the “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” kind that he calls absolute upward mobility. Both kinds are desirable and both are declining. Putnam’s folly is to focus exclusively on relative upward mobility, which leads him into discussions of working-class family forms and parenting styles as root causes of the crisis in the American Dream.

Relative upward mobility occurs when over a lifetime some people move up from a lower to a higher income class – usually measured in quintiles; because there are always five quintiles by definition, in order for some to move up, others must move down. Relative mobility is about “careers open to talent” and equal opportunities for everybody to get to the top. It is key if you want to have a meritocracy. Absolute upward mobility, on the other hand, occurs when real incomes and standards of living increase across the board for everybody (or almost everybody).

Think of the common phrase “getting ahead.” It can mean getting ahead of others (relative upward mobility) or it can mean getting ahead of where you were before regardless of whether you passed anybody in the process (absolute upward mobility). Putnam’s exclusive focus on the former leads him astray because, as he more or less inadvertently shows, absolute upward mobility is very probably a necessary condition for increasing relative upward mobility – as that’s what happened during the Glorious 30 and is not happening any longer.

By contrasting well-crafted and moving portraits of upper-middle-class and poor working-class families in Oregon, Georgia, California, and Pennsylvania, as well as in his native Ohio, Putnam is able to show the overwhelming range of disadvantages children in these poor families face.   And he is able to make a strong case for the need for public institutions (especially schools) to provide “compensatory funding” to improve these children’s chances of getting ahead. But in doing so, he not only gives up on the working-class adults he portrays (most of them in mid-life), he gently and empathetically blames them for their children’s fate.

If they would just get married before they have children, stay married, and then raise their children with the “concerted cultivation” approach middle-class parents use, they could improve their children’s chances of success. There may be a case to be made for this point of view, but Putnam undermines it by getting carried away with his middle-class paternalism, suggesting at various points that hugging their children more, having dinner together, and using time-outs instead of spanking would help to equalize poor and working-class kids’ opportunities.

By focusing on equalizing opportunities without equalizing incomes, Putnam hopes to improve poor and working-class kids’ chances of succeeding in our “knowledge economy” – which for Putnam means getting a college education and a job that requires that education. Problem is he seems to have no idea that when today’s 12-year-olds graduate from college, only 1 out of 4 jobs at best will require a bachelor’s degree. What about the other 75% who do work that needs to be done but who are paid increasingly low wages and whose jobs are more and more precarious in every way you can think of? Putnam gives them an empathetic literary hug, but otherwise is silent.

Putnam’s folly is to think that we can achieve greater equality of opportunity without addressing our runaway inequality of income and wealth – that is, without drastically reforming our tax system so that investors are no longer privileged over people who work for a living, and without dramatically raising wages, especially at the lower end, regardless of how much education workers have and whether they are good, bad or mediocre parents.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies