Human Tumbleweeds, Insecurity Culture, and the American Working Class

Conservatives, while opposing same-sex marriage, worry a lot about the decline of marriage among lower-income households, the still growing number of single-parent families, and the supposed social and economic fallout of children growing up in male-deprived, unstable, and morally feckless households. See Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which asserts a simple causal chain beginning with what he sees as the moral fecklessness of lower-income whites.

Liberals, after decades of celebrating the increased freedom, especially for women, involved in higher divorce rates and the diversity of family forms, have recently taken up this concern. Though they assert that broad economic trends in the labor market are important causes, liberals also worry about what they see as disturbing levels of moral fecklessness.   See my criticisms of Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Sociologist Allison Pugh enters this social-science morality debate with a pretty strong moral sense of her own, but with a substantially more complex and insightful approach to both social science and morality – and also to the 80 actually existing people she interviewed. (Neither Murray nor Cherlin conducted their own interviews with the subjects of their moralizing.) Pugh’s new book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, does not rely exclusively on the best-and-worst methods that Murray, Cherlin and Putnam use in contrasting the lives of elite middle-class professionals (Murray’s top 5%) with the least advantaged working poor (the bottom 20% in income and education).   Pugh develops this contrast as well, but in addition she talked with and explores what she calls “the stably employed” whose incomes are in the “middle five digits” – what some people call “middle class,” and others, “working class.”

Before looking at the stably employed, Pugh interviewed winners and losers in what she calls our “insecurity culture” created by a neoliberal market fundamentalism and the withdrawal of democratic government support over the past four decades.   The winners are upper-middle-class married couples with highly marketable professional skills, who benefit from and mostly revel in the lack of reciprocal employee-employer loyalty, changing jobs and geographical locations as new opportunities emerge for higher pay or more interesting work. Pugh finds that these couples erect a “moral wall” between their lack of commitment to employers, workmates and neighbors as they restlessly search for the “perfect job,” on one side of that wall. On the other side, however, they “settle for” the imperfect, often compromised relations within their marriages and seek to raise “flexible children” also unrooted in abiding relationships beyond their nuclear family.

The losers are what Pugh calls “the laid off,” encompassing both those with unsteady work and those scarred by being “let go” in the past while having (temporarily) steady work now but at lower pay and with worse conditions. For them, she finds, there is no wall between work and love, as the insecurity of work and income forces them into a series of unsteady relationships at work, among neighbors, and in their intimate lives. Among these victims of insecurity culture, she found two basic responses – a kind I’m-on-my-own declaration of independence where no commitments are expected or made, except to one’s own children, and a hyper-commitment to one’s duty to others, beginning with your own children but extending out to other family members, especially aging parents.

One of the joys of the book is how Pugh creates richly detailed individual portraits of both the independent and the duty-bound, showing their resilient ingenuity in coping with the constantly unsettling turmoil of their work lives, but also adopting belief systems and life strategies that reproduce and support a neoliberal system they expect to betray and abandon them.   There is no moral fecklessness here, just debilitatingly low expectations of the social support and basic economic security any decent society would provide. Both the independent and the duty-bound, Pugh contends, take on unrealistic levels of “individual responsibility” expecting nothing of employers, government, or other institutions – and all too often carrying expectations of betrayal and abandonment at work and in the larger society into their intimate lives with partners and other family members.

Though Pugh does not use the term, what both winners and losers lack is a sense of collective efficacy of even the modest sorts once provided by churches, unions, ethnic lodges, as well as by a more generous welfare state. The winners think they don’t need collective support and action, and in most respects, at least for now, they are right. But the vastly larger group of insecurity-culture losers in our tumbleweed society seem not even aware of collective efficacy as a possibility, and Pugh convincingly argues that their individual ingenuity in making the best of bad situations, often with heroic efforts, undermines both their own long-term efforts to survive and any possibility of effective collective action that could reverse the downward spiral of contingency, precarity, and insecurity rooted in the American workplace.

Unfortunately, Pugh does not continue this line of thinking when she turns to the stably employed, who she finds have much higher but reasonable expectations of what their employers owe them as well as higher but reasonable expectations of their partners and others in their social circles. The stably employed are also affected by our insecurity culture, but because it has not turned their lives upside down, they are more likely to resist it as best they can – both in thought and action. Based on their own experience, they do not expect to be betrayed and abandoned, and therefore, experience anger when they do experience or witness it, anger that often spurs them to push back in some form or other. But the stably employed in Pugh’s rendering, while committed to patiently nurturing immediate relationships at work and at home, seem not to have any broader sense of the value and efficacy of collective action than the tumbleweeds who are buffeted about by economic winds and workplace practices they think are beyond their control.

Rather than examining whatever lingering embers of collective efficacy there might be among the stably employed, Pugh focuses on their individual characteristics, again reporting wonderfully detailed life stories and complex moral sensibilities from her interviews.   The characteristics she favors are “pragmatism” and “the willingness to compromise” both at work and in one’s most intimate relationships. And though I regret the road not taken by Pugh, I found it refreshing that a rigorous sociologist would so forthrightly champion these kinds of middling-sort values against the never-settle-for-second-best pursuit of excellence that one repeatedly hears from the officially successful.   Her choice of words betrays a middle-class bias, I think, but her individual portraits reveal what many of us will recognize as “working-class realism” and what labor historian Lou Martin has called a “making do culture.”

Still, after so deftly placing individual tumbleweeds’ beliefs and strategies within a larger social-economic context, Pugh stops short by merely establishing the stably employed’s higher expectations of employers, government, and their friends and neighbors.   These expectations, as Pugh seems to imply, are a social psychological base for collective action as well as collective support, but she fails to pursue that possibility.   Given her basic framework, this additional inquiry would have been particularly valuable to labor, community, and political organizers who are busy trying to raise the general levels of collective efficacy among the population. Organizers have usually and sensibly focused on the least advantaged who have the most to gain from collective action. But given Pugh’s analysis, it might make sense to focus more attention on those middling sorts who “settle down and settle for” but who still have a strong sense that human beings should not be constantly tumbled like tumbleweeds.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies



Internet Access and the High Costs of Being Poor

It has been over 20 years since the term “digital divide” was coined to describe unequal access to digital technologies at the start of widespread access to the internet. The ubiquity of smart phones has reduced this conversation as online access has reached near saturation points. In late June, Pew reported that over 9 in 10 adults between 18-50 and 8 in 10 adults between 50 and 64 used the internet. Even the category of “over 65 years old” had a solid majority, with 58% reporting that they use the internet. However, this apparent success belies some important issues of class that speak to larger dynamics of the high cost of being poor.

Internet access is a necessity in contemporary life, but while access has become nearly universal, it is still distributed unequally. According to Pew, 25% of Americans are “smartphone dependent.” They have smartphones but either don’t have high-speed internet at home or have “limited options” for online access other than by smart phone. They generally have low levels of education and income and are likely to be non-white and young. Indeed, 13% of Americans with incomes less than $30,000 a year are smartphone dependent versus 1% of Americans with incomes over $100,000.

Poor people routinely pay more for access capital. They are, for example, charged higher interest rates by exploitative payday lender services. That pattern also applies to cell phones. In working class neighborhoods of American cities, cell phone stores are almost as ubiquitous as payday lenders. The dedicated pay-as-you-go cell phone services available from these outlets, like Boost Mobile or TracPhones, as well as the major contract carriers like ATT, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, offer pay-as-you-go options that may be affordable on a monthly basis but cost much more over time than the purchase plans that people with more disposable income can afford.

The current access and cost gap has several implications, which we can perhaps understand best by considering how it would affect someone using a smartphone to apply for jobs. Guy Standing argues that members of the precariat spend 15% of their time looking for work. According to Pew, smartphone dependent users are nearly twice as likely as non-dependent users to use their phone in job search activities and four times as likely to submit application materials than non-dependent users. That raises two problems.

First, applying for a job is more costly for them than for most others. This is true, by the way, for Americans in general. They pay significantly more for lower speeds and (for mobile) lower data caps than consumers in other industrialized countries. For example, in the U.S. three gigs of prepaid data costs an average of $85 a month versus $9 a month in England. Although these costs are coming down somewhat (in part due to the FCC’s insistence that the major cell phone service providers permit smaller services to access their networks), mobile internet pricing is based on the amount of data used. According to Pew, half of “smartphone dependent” Americans “frequently” or “occasionally” reach their monthly data caps, this could potentially reduce their ability to search for and apply for jobs.

In addition, mobile phone pricing plans favor those with more disposable income. When Time examined different models of obtaining smart phone service, unsurprisingly, the most financially prudent were those where people purchased unlocked phones and remained out of contract. However, that option requires an upfront payment of $400 to $600 for the phone, which puts it out of reach for lower income Americans. Conversely, the most exploitative plans in the long term are those with the lowest initial costs. Indeed, Pew found that half of smartphone dependent users report having to cancel services for financial reasons. So not only do poorer people pay more to apply for a job, if they have to cancel for financial reasons, neither they nor potential employers can follow up on an application easily.

Second, while phones and tablets work well for short communications, mobile websites often have reduced functionality as compared to full sites. While discussions of usability often focus on the retail website environment, job search or other kinds of non-commercial sites often have less money to invest in the duplicative coding necessary for separate mobile and full function sites. These limitations are somewhat ameliorated by job searching apps like or, but it’s much more difficult to compose and format application materials on a phone rather than on a traditional computer. In 2013, surveyed 680 clients and found half had “horrendous” and “cumbersome” mobile career sites. The issues included the number of pages that needed to be loaded, the type and number of fields that needed to to be filled out, and difficulties sorting and navigating listings. Moreover, last year, only 26 of Fortune 500 companies offered application processes that had been optimized for mobile access.

In sum, while the Pew survey’s finding that more Americans are online than ever before suggests that the old digital divide has shrunk, new costs and challenges emerge in the smartphone era. If “the days of walking in and filling out an unsolicited paper application are gone,” we need to address how today’s access and cost gap perpetuates the high cost of being poor.

Alex Russo

Alex Russo is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University and  author of Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks (Duke 2010).

Generation Jobless: Are STEM Students Next?

As college students return to classes this fall, many feel both excitement and apprehension about the future. After all, they are about to invest tens of thousands of dollars in education that they hope will lead to bright economic futures. Some probably feel pressure to pursue STEM degrees because they’ve been told that this will guarantee a good return on that investment. Unfortunately, as Andrew Hacker shows in a recent book review about education and high-tech work, there is clear evidence that this idea is wrong. Indeed, while those who tout the knowledge economy promote the idea that higher education is the key to economic opportunity, recent college graduates are having difficulty finding work, and many of the jobs they have found don’t require the kind of education they have. This led the Wall Street Journal to describe recent graduates as “Generation Jobless.”

Robert Reich thinks the problem is the result of businesses requiring only a small workforce of innovators and strategists He believes that over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work, including many with advance degrees. He predicts that corporations will continue to expand their use of algorithms to measure their value and develop spot-auction networks. Under this system, corporations would have a small number of core employees and would require others to bid on work opportunities. Using Apple as example, Reich notes that the company employs fewer that 10 percent of its 1 million employees who design, make, and sell their product. The rest are largely contingent workers.

But do the concerns of most college graduates apply to those earning STEM degrees? If you listen to business and higher education administrators, science and technology workers are in short supply. But Hacker finds that underemployment and joblessness include STEM graduates and employees. In reviewing a series of books concerning the need for high-tech talent, Hacker found that business and higher education leaders have greatly exaggerated the employment opportunities for STEM graduates. For example, he cites a National Science Board study that shows that of the 19.5 million STEM degree holders, only 5.4 million actually work in those fields. That suggests that extending STEM programs will probably not increase employment or lead graduates into better quality jobs. Hacker finds that employers blame the inadequate educational preparation of STEM employees, turn to low cost foreign workers, or increasingly replace workers with more technology. The result is increasing job insecurity even among STEM employees.

Put differently, despite claims that education is the path to better economic opportunity, workers in the knowledge economy are already and will continue to experience limited employment and economic mobility. Of course, this has long been the experience of the working class, and some would suggest that this is simply the proletarianization of STEM workers. But is it?

In his study of precarity, Guy Standing draws a distinction between prolitarianization and what he calls precariatization. He argues that proletarianization is the late nineteenth century historical term for the habituation of labor. The precariat, including STEM workers, are losing control over their time and the use of their capabilities, which represents a different situation than what the proletariat faced 150 years ago. Standing writes, that “the precariat has distinctive relations of production, or labour relations they [flit] in and out of jobs, often with incomplete contracts or forced into indirect labour relationships via agencies or brokers.” In essence, the precariat can be seen largely as a class of contingent workers regardless of education level.

We see this already in “taskers,” as Standing wrote here last spring, but we should expect to see a similar shift for STEM workers. They will lose control over their time as they spend longer hours at work and more time looking for work. They will also experience increasing levels of job insecurity. Because unstable work opportunities rarely if ever include employer-financed insurance such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers compensation and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, these workers will be deprived of economic benefits and government protections. Instead, they will have to take responsibility for their own employment costs — education and retraining, health insurance, and pensions. The changing work conditions disrupt more than just workers’ schedules or bank accounts. They also wreak havoc on workers mental health and personal lives. STEM graduates are not inheriting the economic future they envisioned. Some are learning tough lessons about the “race to bottom” and the experiences of the working class.

As I have said many times, deindustrialization and economic restructuring not only cost many people their jobs, they also undermined the stability of communities and made the American dream inaccessible for many working-class people. This has been clear for decades in places like Youngstown, which relied so heavily on manufacturing. The change is not only about technology replacing human work, the focus of a recent article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. It’s about the gap between claims about STEM education and the reality of STEM employment. The knowledge economy was supposed to bring a better future, especially for those who pursued the education necessary to enter the middle class, but as science, engineering, and technology jobs become increasingly contingent, the educated workforce is joining the working class and becoming part of the precariat. No wonder young people are worried.

John Russo
Visiting Scholar
Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor
Georgetown University

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