Category Archives: The Working Class and the Economy

Where Does the Working Class Fit in the Knowledge Economy?

I recently attended a meeting with a “knowledge management” expert who wants local leaders to help her team create a “knowledge index” of Youngstown. She was enthusiastic about helping the city tap into local resources for community development. The information provided by the knowledge index, she told us, would allow local residents to make choices about the kind of future they want to create here. When I suggested that Youngstown’s real problem is long-term unemployment and poverty, she explained that the “industrial economy” is over. We’re now in the “knowledge economy,” and opportunity rests on information and technology.

This is hardly a surprise. We all know that manufacturing is no longer the core of the U.S. economy. Even as some factory jobs rebound, wages and benefits for those jobs have fallen significantly. Some of the decline in manufacturing is tied to the knowledge economy, as automation enables increasing productivity with ever fewer workers. Still, knowledge has not entirely erased production. Autoworkers and steel fabricators regularly use computers at some of Youngstown’s larger employers, including the General Motors Lordstown plant.

The service sector is even more important, but many of those jobs are also low-skill and low-wage – even if they are part of the knowledge economy. The customer service work at local call centers clearly involves technology and information, but at Infocision, which employs more than 1000 people in the Youngstown area, wages start at just $9.50 an hour. Many service jobs have little connection with the knowledge economy, and as Jack Metzgar and I have discussed before, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the most growth in jobs outside of the knowledge sector – personal and home health care aides, fast food preparation, janitors. These jobs can’t be done by machines or moved to a place with cheaper labor, but they offer lousy wages and minimal benefits. And promoting the knowledge economy won’t help these workers.

The problem isn’t only that the knowledge economy ignores many workers. It also erases working-class knowledge. Most definitions of the “knowledge economy” exclude the kinds of interpersonal or embodied expertise that are central to industrial and service jobs. As Mike Rose argued in his 2004 book The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, waitresses, hairdressers, welders, and other blue-collar workers don’t use only their bodies on the job. They make decisions, use specialized tools and terminology, and interact strategically with customers and co-workers. As Rose writes, their work represents “agency and competence.” Such knowledge is difficult to trace or quantify. When the knowledge management expert asked me how we could document and preserve industrial knowledge – an important question – I thought immediately of Rose’s study, which relied on interviews and observations. Such knowledge isn’t likely to show up in data sets. Capturing it takes time and effort.

Perhaps ironically, that kind of knowledge is making an appearance in the latest trend: makerspaces. Downstairs from where we met to discuss the knowledge index is the Oak Hill Collaborative’s makerspace, where, according to the Collaborative’s Executive Director Pat Kerrigan, retired welders and electricians regularly come together with teenagers and younger adults to design and build everything from clothing to generators. Such spaces are popping up in cities around the country. They’re also the hot new thing in education, as creative, hands-on learning is touted as a promising pedagogical model. Educause, the national organization that promotes technology in education, argues that makerspaces provide “zones of self-directed learning” and “support invention, provide the ultimate workshop for the tinkerer and the perfect educational space for individuals who learn best by doing.” If we value such embodied learning, then we ought to view industrial workers as central to the knowledge economy.

But we don’t. The idea that the knowledge economy has replaced the outmoded industrial economy suggests that blue-collar workers are stuck in the past or simply irrelevant. A knowledge economy implies that those with less education are less valuable and therefore less deserving of decent wages, benefits, or good working conditions. Worse, this notion blames workers for making poor choices. In the knowledge economy, if you don’t go to school, then it’s your fault that you can’t get a good job.

Of course, those who do go to college aren’t necessarily guaranteed better jobs. In a recent article on “The Frenzy about High-Tech Talent,” Andrew Hacker cites a 2014 study from the Center for Economic Policy and Research showing that 28 percent of engineering graduates and 38 percent of graduates in computer science were either unemployed or worked in jobs that didn’t require such degrees. As computer scientist Norman Matloff told Hacker, all those warnings that companies needed more workers with high-tech skills actually reflect employers’ desire to lower wages, not a real shortage of workers.

Meanwhile, alongside the industrial, service, and knowledge economies that all leave workers struggling economically, many working-class people have created an alternative economy. As anthropologist Hannah Woodroofe told Derek Thompson in a recent article on “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic, we’re seeing the end of “a particular kind of wage work.” Instead, Woodroofe has found, people rely on informal networks to barter goods and services and arrange for short-term jobs. Many reject the idea that a good life involves upward mobility or consumption. They value self-sufficiency. They have, as Thompson writes, “made their peace with insecurity and poverty by building an identity, and some measure of pride, around contingency.”

This, too, reflects a kind of working-class knowledge that does not appear in most discussions of the knowledge economy, in part because those conversations often emphasize economic development, which always implies improvement, if not growth. While some have suggested that the knowledge economy will improve the quality of work life by giving workers greater satisfaction and flexibility (which they may not value as much as their employers do), planners and development agencies often disregard the potential of the alternative economy. That might be because, as Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige argue, writing about the urban agriculture movement in A Detroit Anthology, such efforts are part of a social and economic revolution that challenges capitalism.

As my colleague explained at that meeting, “knowledge economy” is the term that economists have coined to describe the contemporary era. While it has its uses, especially in describing the sometimes intangible economic activity of software development, the financial sector, business services, and education, the term captures only part of the economic landscape. The “knowledge economy” leaves out the working class, consigning industrial workers to the past and service workers to the margins. It may also blind development experts to working-class knowledge that deserves more, not less, attention.

Sherry Linkon

Managing Emigration in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland

One of the after-shocks of the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger boom in Ireland was the return to high levels of emigration with more than 200,000 Irish born people leaving between 2009 and 2015. While mass emigration has long been part of the Irish experience the current wave is set against a backdrop of the impact of the previous fifteen years of rapid (if highly unequal) wealth accumulation and the arrival of new media and digital technologies including social media. Yet in Irish media, it is not stories of leaving but narratives of return – often for short visits – that now, paradoxically, dominate popular representations of Irish emigration. In showcasing the emotional pleasures of return as emigrants reunite with their families, the newly popular genre of the surprise homecoming video masks the real economic and social problems that are driving the latest wave of emigration.

Homecoming videos such as “Irish Mums (sic) Reaction to Surprise Visit From Her Son”, that populate video-sharing sites such as YouTube reflect the preoccupation with the returned migrant in post-Celtic Tiger popular culture. Another example, “Mother Is Reunited With Her Daughter After Three Years” captures an incident on national television institution The Late Late Show in which host Ryan Tubridy first quizzes a mother in the studio audience about what she misses about her daughter then reunites them on air. The popularity of such clips can be gauged by the fact that in a country with around 4.5 million people “Irish Mum” drew half a million views and “Mother is Reunited” almost a million.

The Irish homecoming videos are similar to American homecoming videos of military personnel, which started to appear in high volume from approximately 2005. Both emphasize the emotional intensity of return and steer clear of the political and economic causes of departure. The earliest examples of the Irish videos date from summer 2013 – the same year that national levels of emigration peaked following the global financial crisis. Their appearance coincides with The Gathering, a 2013 tourism initiative supported by multiple national and local organizations which encouraged Irish migrants abroad and the extended diaspora to holiday in Ireland to support the struggling economy. The Gathering raised almost €170 million in tourism related revenue and increased the number of overseas visitors in 2013 by 7.3%. But its greatest achievement, for the political establishment at least, was to switch the focus from the 50,000 Irish people leaving the country that year to the 270,000 Irish people who were returning – even if only on holidays. On the surface, The Gathering was a year-long festival focused on a celebration of the Irish abroad (or the Irish abroad who were willing and able to come back for a visit), but it also served to silence national sentiment about the exodus of mainly young people from Ireland in that exact period. Narratives of loss and leaving were now officially disjointed from the national project.

Irish homecoming videos signal the ways in which not just the returned migrant but also the moment of return has been fetishized in response to the sudden recurrence of high levels of emigration in Ireland and the trauma of economic collapse. The cathartic moment of return has displaced the sorrowful moment of leaving in cultural narratives of emigration. This is striking because historical cultural representations of emigration consistently focused on the moment of leaving, highlighting the individual and national cost of emigration and population loss. In earlier periods of emigration, the ritual of “American Wakes” reflected the assumption that the emigrant would never return, making the moment of departure more poignant. By focusing on the moment of return, the videos suggest that emigration is less permanent and more of a lifestyle choice.   The fantasy of easy return, which often features elite globalized workers, seeks to differentiate Irish migration from non-white economic migration. This, in turn, pulls attentions away from the fact that the economic crash disproportionately affected lower skilled workers and the construction sector. There has been little cultural reflection on the additional 200,000 non-Irish born people who left Ireland in the wake of the crash.

The surprise homecoming videos thus avoid any political or social commentary on the necessity of departure. Rather, they reinforce the continuous inference (from the top down) that all Irish citizens were responsible for the economic downturn because “we all partied” in the peak. The videos therefore represent a form of national compliance – by leaving emigrants become part of the solution rather than part of the problem and their return visits raise no problematic issues about employment or state benefit support. The videos stage a buoyant relationship with Ireland and display traditional notions of Irishness despite the unhappy circumstances which required so many young people to leave. The Gathering instrumentalized citizens, exhorting them to become tourists in their own country. The videos demonstrate that citizens have tended to fit their own experiences with the image of a “business-friendly” nation in recovery. The videos also divert attention from questions about the changing class composition of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland and the ways the recession has imploded the dream of an expansive and secure middle class.

Irish surprise homecoming videos can be read as works of emotion in which the act of leaving is nullified by the ecstasy of return and the cathartic moment of family reunification. They not only ignore the ongoing social damage from a ruinous bank bailout and punitive austerity regime, they also support a national fantasy that Ireland is a place one comes to rather than a place one leaves.

Diane Negra and Eleanor O’Leary

Diane Negra is Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture and Head of Film Studies at University College Dublin.

Eleanor O’Leary is Executive Officer at the Irish Research Council. From September she will be Assistant Lecturer in Media Studies at IT Carlow


Just Not Posh Enough? Social Mobility and the “Class Ceiling”

This autumn marks twenty-five years since I went to college at Durham University in the North-East of England. Durham is the third oldest university in England, and one of its colleges is housed in the Norman castle on top of a hill. It’s a beautiful place in which to learn, and, because of its history and atmosphere, it is a popular destination for elite schooled teenagers who have failed to get in to either Oxford or Cambridge. When I was there, the ratio of kids from fee-paying as opposed to state schools was something like two to one, though it felt even higher. Through the three years I studied there as an undergraduate I became increasingly aware of how class worked, not only through my studies but by observing class at work day in day out. From my first day, I saw privileged kids ferried by their parents along the narrow medieval streets in large new cars and then mix effortlessly at welcome events through a mixture of charm and pre-forged social networks between their former schools. This engrained privilege and sense of entitlement developed through their college days – the officer training events they attended, debating societies, and the exciting holidays they enjoyed during vacation times (I spent mine working ten hours a day in a tin big box store on the retail park outside my hometown selling washing machines). The finishing touch, however, came when blue-chip legal, accountancy and financial services companies arrived for the annual ‘milk round’ employment fair and hoovered up the elite students to go and work in the City of London.

I was reminded of my time in Durham the other day by a report published by the UK Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on the way social class prevents working-class, and increasingly even many lower middle-class kids from joining such blue-chip firms. The report sparked the usual round of quick and dirty stories in the UK media, such as one in the Guardian under the strapline ‘How to pass the posh test: ‘Do you know Marmaduke Von Snittlebert?’. Laughing at the upper classes has its place – I had many opportunities to do this at college – but the hundred or so pages of the report offer some important insights into class privilege and how it has been firming-up rather than being broken-down over the last quarter-century. The report uses the term the ‘class ceiling’, borrowed from two young sociologists at the London School of Economics, to describe how class elites are tightening their grip on the best jobs and how, in spite of the best efforts of some recruiters, class continues to trump modest attempts to curb discrimination, intended or otherwise.

The report suggests that despite efforts to increase social mobility over the last ten to fifteen years or so – mainly through the expansion of higher education, largely by funnelling working-class kids to second and third tier colleges – elite firms have become less representative of the general population, with increasing proportions of recruits drawn from privileged socio-economic backgrounds and from a narrower range of the top universities where the majority of students come from fee-paying schools rather than from state education. Cabinet Office research shows that recent cohorts of lawyers and accountants, for example, are more likely to come from families with significantly above-average incomes. The report makes clear that in spotting ‘talent’ such firms define what they are after in terms of ‘drive’, ‘resilience’, ‘strong communication skills’ and above all ‘confidence’ and ‘polish’. All of these attributes, the report says, map readily onto middle-class status and socialisation. Recruiters tend to pass over those with working-class accents and dispositions in favour of ‘people like us’. The result is that the top accountancy firms offer up to 70 percent of their jobs to graduates who attended selective state or fee-paying schools, schools that educate only four percent and seven percent of the population as a whole. Buttressing this situation is the fact that the best firms are drawing on a narrower group of universities – the so called Russel Group, which equates to the US Ivy League. Some really elite firms bypass even these institutions and recruit only at Oxford or Cambridge.

The report brilliantly exposes how this situation is being made worse on both demand and supply sides, as students from lower socio-economic backgrounds decide not to apply for places or even internships – even paid ones – with top firms, recognising that the barriers to gaining a place are just too high for people like them. Even earlier in their educational careers, students with good grades from these same less advantaged groups tend to apply to lower level universities than their qualifications would allow.

While the insights from the report are discouraging, it has drawn attention to the class bias in the recruitment practices of elite firms. At long last, this report demonstrates that discrimination on the basis of class is an issue alongside other forms of discrimination. In the midst of further rounds of austerity imposed by the newly elected Conservative administration, it’s heartening to see terms like the ‘class ceiling’ appearing in government language. This overt attention to class suggests a real change from what I learned at Durham. If ever one tried to highlight class privilege, the topic of conversation was quickly changed, excuses made, and appeals to meritocracy sounded. For as loud as the voices of the privileged were that surrounded me at Durham, class was the thing that dare not speak its name.

Tim Strangleman

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

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