Stereotyping White Working-Class Voters

Analysis of the Democrats’ 2014 electoral debacle has again turned toward their chronic and worsening “problem with the white working class.” For the most part, pieces like those in Mother Jones, Slate, The Nation, and even Thomas Edsall in The New York Times have rightly blamed Democrats for failing to offer a compelling progressive economic program that would appeal to non-college-educated whites (as the “white working class” is defined in this ongoing discussion). But while these writers all end up with a healthy emphasis on the deteriorating conditions of working-class life (in all its colors), they and others also rely too much on simplistic social-psychologizing and implicit assumptions that are either false or grossly exaggerated.

Even when commentators avoid blatant negative stereotyping, the cast of the discussion implies that middle-class whites are much less “racially resentful” and completely free of racism based on their voting patterns. Nobody says this outright, but college-educated whites (“middle class”) are generally assumed to be more enlightened than those without a bachelor’s degree (“working class”). If voting for Democrats is taken as a measure of enlightenment, this is a little bit true, but only a little bit. In 2012 middle-class whites gave President Obama 42% of their votes while working-class whites gave him only 36% — a six-point difference, which widened to seven points in 2014 U.S. House races.

Even so, the gaps are typically much larger when we look at differences among white voters by gender (9 points in 2014); region (in 2008 Southern whites of all classes voted from 17 to 22 points less Dem than those in other regions); income (where whites making less than $50,000 a year typically vote more Dem than those making more than that); and religion. In 2014, only 26% of white Protestants voted for House Democrats, 12 points less than white Catholics, and about 40 points less than whites who identified themselves as Jewish or as having no religion. Why is there no discussion of what’s the matter with white Protestants, who are still about 40% of all U.S. voters and much more Republican than working-class whites? Cultural and economic conservatism, often accompanied by “racial resentfulness,” are present (and absent) in all white demographics, and the variation by class is likely less than by gender, region, income, and religion.

Another implicit assumption in these discussions is that the white working class was once the solid base of the Democratic Party. While in Rust Belt and West Coast cities that was probably true, nationally whites without bachelor’s degrees have given Dem presidential candidates a majority only once since 1948 (in 1964). And that makes them no different from all white voters, who have given Republicans clear majorities in 12 of the last 19 presidential elections. Thus, while there have been twists and turns over the past 60 years, in general only between 35% and 45% of the white working-class nationally has voted for Dems (see p. 70 of Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy). Though one of the downturns in white working-class support for Dems was in 1968 and 1972, the dramatic narrative that a racial backlash in those years permanently turned a strongly progressive white working class into Fox News conservatives has no basis in electoral statistics.

More problematic is the social-psychologizing in these articles. Here, these writers contend that “many” working-class whites see Democrats as concerned only about the “welfare poor” – the numbers of which these whites greatly exaggerate, while often assuming equally inaccurate racial profiles — and not about regular “middle-class” working people like them. These anti-welfare, anti-undeserving-poor attitudes are widespread among working-class whites, but in my observation, they are also prevalent among middle-class whites, though perhaps with a little less passion. But they are routinely contested within conversations among working-class whites, who have an array of practical, moral, and religious arguments against these views though they sometimes share the same misinformation. To focus exclusively on one strain of thinking without reference to the other presents a singular white working-class “mentality” that is a stereotype, regardless of the careful phrasing (using “many” rather than implying “all”) and the degree of contextualizing empathy the writer might express for that mentality.

A large third of working-class whites vote solidly Democrat no matter how bad the Democrats are, and as Ruy Teixeira has pointed out, these voters are an important part of what he calls “the Obama coalition,” providing nearly as many raw Dem votes with their low percentages as either blacks or Latinos do with their much higher percentages. Another larger third is solidly conservative and Republican. But this leaves a small third of what Andrew Levison calls “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand thinkers.” These are what union organizers call “the persuadables” and political organizers, “swing voters.” They are key to moving the overall white working-class vote from 36% for Obama in 2012 to above the 40% he won in 2008 – a level at which Dems would have a permanent majority, assuming continuing maximum black turnout, growing Latino turnout, and roughly stable levels of Democratic support among all minorities as well as middle-class whites.

I have followed the internal debate among Democrats about how to attract more white working-class votes since Teixeira and Joel Rogers first raised it in their 2000 book, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters. In my judgment this discussion has been a net positive in urging Dems to focus strongly on a progressive economic program to win a larger proportion of working-class whites. Even though Dems have not maintained that focus since the 2008 presidential primaries, and they abandoned it altogether in 2014, the discussion around how to win a larger share of non-college-educated whites has helped keep progressive Dems in the intra-party discussion that influences Democratic politicians.

But now that the debate has reached a broader progressive media that is attempting to explore the (singular) “soul” of working-class whites, I fear it will rapidly begin doing more harm than good. A better focus for slicing and dicing the electorate would be the white vote as a whole, with all its gender, regional, income, and religious as well as age and class differences.  More important, however, and more difficult to sell to Democratic politicians in the Hillary Clinton mode, is debating what would be a bold enough progressive economic program to give white, black, Latino and Asian workers (with and without bachelor’s degrees) a reason to turn out and vote Dem.

The AFL-CIO has gotten out early for 2016 with its recent National Summit on Raising Wages and a laundry list of 35 policies for doing so. That seems to me the right focus, but from that laundry list Dems need a few big policies to emphasize – policies that can be thoroughly explained and argued for within a larger economic narrative about the unjust causes of income inequality and the damage it is doing to our economy and almost everybody in it. That would be a far more interesting and fruitful search than pundits looking for a shared social psychology among the tens of millions of workers who share nothing but a lack of both bachelor’s degrees and melanin.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

Ridiculing the White Working Class: The Bogan in Australian Television

The US has its ‘white trash,’ the UK its ‘chavs,’ and Australia has the ‘bogan’ — a white Anglo-Celtic man or a woman from the working class. Characterized as uncouth, uneducated, unsophisticated, mainly interested in drinking cheap beer, swearing, smoking, listening to loud rock music (such as AC/DC), the bogan favours ‘low brow’ fashion such as mullet haircuts, thongs (flip flops), and tracky dacks (tracksuit pants). I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with this clothing or music taste, but the bogan stereotype reinforces negative perceptions and is generally used to ‘other’ working class people.

The bogan is almost universally a figure of ridicule, and to call someone a bogan is generally seen as an insult (despite the fact that some people define themselves as bogans). In Australia there appears to be free reign to call people bogans and to evoke the stereotype without criticism. This casual classism generally goes unchecked, and while there have been some criticisms of the stereotype, they are still thin on the ground. Chris Gibson suggests that bogans are ‘a soft base, a soft punching bag’ and this is why the mocking of white working-class culture through the bogan generally goes unchecked. The bogan stereotype flourishes in Australian comedy television. While it could be reclaimed and used by working-class people in subversive ways, I don’t think this has occurred as yet in Australia. Instead, the bogan figure remains the comedic device of mainly middle-class creators. The TV bogan also confirms middle-class prejudices about working-class people and allows the middle class to retain superiority.

Bogans are usually depicted as ‘uneducated’ and ‘unsophisticated’ by choice and this arguably makes it easier to dismiss the role of class structures. The impact of class is reduced to an aesthetic, with no acknowledgement of the structural and political sources of class, such as how the accumulation of cultural capital may be affected by limited education opportunities.

Current Australian television offers two main types of bogan representation: the aspirational bogan and the ‘bludger’ bogan (lazy and scrounging). The first is portrayed as someone who has accumulated wealth through trades, small business, or (more recently) working in the mines. Aspiration and attempts to be ‘classy’ are mocked. The aspirational bogan is also depicted as ‘cashed up’ and spending money on showy ‘toys’ such as hotted up utility trucks, large household appliances, expensive jewellery, jet skis, and so on.

A very successful Australian TV show Kath and Kim (2002 – 2007), mocks aspirational working-class characters. The characters were created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley who also play the mother and daughter roles. The humor is parody. The speech, mannerisms, clothes, and behaviours are intended to be read as working-class and are ridiculed. Both Kath and Kim use words out of context and mispronounce words. For example, Kim famously states that she wants to be ‘effluent’ rather than ‘affluent.’ Turner and Riley claim the parody is affectionate, but for me, as someone from a working-class background who still mispronounces words, I find the mockery offensive. This is not to say all working-class people find the show unfunny, but I’d argue that it reinforces class stereotypes. Kath in particular is a stereotypical non-threatening, simple (but kind hearted) working-class woman.

The opposite representation of the ‘bogan’ is the poor, welfare dependant, and vulgar type. In this stereotype, individuals con the system by claiming unemployment benefits or disability benefits fraudulently. They are depicted as petty criminals and as unkempt, uncouth, sexually promiscuous and negligent parents.

Comedy writer Paul Fenech represents extreme versions of the ‘bludger’ bogan in his series Housos. This show is set on a housing commission estate – ‘housos’ (pronounced ‘house-ohs’), is a derogatory term for people living in public housing. The characters are all unlikable. They are violent, constantly drunk or drug affected, unable to care for their children, lazy, and dirty. Viewers are invited to laugh at their ‘antics’ which involve attempts to cheat the welfare authorities or evade the police (and often end up in a neighbourhood brawl).

At risk of being labelled a ‘wowser’ (having no sense of humour), I can’t watch this show without getting angry. I grew up in public housing and the negative stereotypes depicted in the show reinforce the audience’s limited understanding of life in public housing. While I’m not suggesting that there is a more deserving, ‘respectable’ working class, the constant references in Housos to welfare cheating, laziness, and dysfunction masks the real effects of poverty and disadvantage. In this show, characters seem to choose to be unemployed and to depend on government benefits, allowing the audience to dismiss the real concerns of those living in poverty in run-down public housing. This show doesn’t depict the financial and psychological struggle and hardship of unemployment, lone parenting, or life on low wages, and it ignores the strong sense of community that exists in many public housing estates.

Fenech has gone one step further with his reality comedy TV show Bogan Hunters, a show searching for Australia’s ‘best’ bogan. Deeply exploitative Fenech presents the show in character (as Franky from Housos, alongside two other characters from Housos, Kev the Maori and Shazzer the single mum). They meet so-called bogans (who are not actors) and encourage them to behave in stereotypical ways for the camera. The problem here is that many of the subjects are vulnerable. Some state on camera that they are unfit for work due to psychological conditions. Fenech and his team make them objects for ridicule (while adopting an anthropological tone) and always maintain the upper hand.

I’m not suggesting that there is no place for satire based on working-class experience, but I’d like to see comedy that is written from a working-class perspective (there have been examples elsewhere, such as The Royle Family from the UK). Working-class people’s experiences are not homogenous, and stereotypes are dangerous. We can be critical of our own communities, but surely it is possible to be critical while also creating comedy that offers nuanced representations and serves as a critique of class systems? This is where satire comes in. Not to mock the vulnerable and marginalized, but to reveal the effects of the system on people’s lives.

Sarah Attfield

Sarah Attfield is a working-class academic currently teaching in the communications program at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Worker Coalitions and Organizing around Public Transit

I first got involved in transit-related activism in 2010 through my support for organized labor. A major public funding gap threatened the solvency of Pittsburgh’s public mass transit system, and—in line with so many recent attacks we’ve seen on public-sector unions—the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) was taking the brunt of the blame for the projected 30% cut. The myth of the “overpaid” bus driver as an excuse and scapegoat for draconian government austerity measures was hardly unique to Pittsburgh (see, for example, Oregon, Madison, and New York). The gross exaggeration in such accounts of the $100K-per-year driver is beside the point. It’s a line of classist rhetoric that depends upon invoking a sense of meritocratic rage against decent compensation for workers who are perceived to be “unskilled.” Most frustratingly, it shows how easily workers can be divided against one another in a climate where most accept neoliberal economic scarcity as a given.

Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT) was founded as a coalition of riders and drivers to fight rampant layoffs, service cuts, fare hikes, and privatization while building solidarity among the working people who operate and use transit. Indeed, public transit is essential to Pittsburgh’s urban labor force, and over half of all workers in the city’s major employment centers use it for their daily commute, accounting for 86% of all ridership. Service cuts were tantamount to job losses not only for drivers but also for many riders. And yet, the same riders often did not see union drivers as allies in the fight to save their service, lower their fares, and improve the system as a whole.

PPT sought to open the lines of communication and understanding among all people whose livelihoods depend on mass transit. In so doing, we also hoped to reframe the cultural conversation about nationwide transit crises as a funding problem rather than a spending problem, as an issue of human rights and shared needs rather than of profitability, austerity, or “welfare.” Transit workers, users, and supporters came together to draft our core beliefs statement, the Transit Bill of Rights, which the President of the ATU’s Local 85 boldly recited on the marble staircase of the capitol rotunda in Harrisburg before we delivered it with 5,000 signatures to Pennsylvania’s then-governor Tom Corbett.

Now, one major transportation funding bill later (an act, I might add, that passed in spite of a Republican administration and majority in the state legislature), PPT offers a strong case for the power of worker coalitions to change not only the conversation but also the policy around public transit to better serve working people.

The unlikely success of this statewide lobbying effort was a substantial victory, but PPT’s most exciting organizing efforts have taken place after that campaign. Since the passage of the bill that secured most of their jobs, drivers continue to participate in PPT, and the ATU’s support for the organization has not flagged. In the big picture, the ATU International has become an increasingly progressive and activist union in recent years, spearheading events like Transit Action Month. PPT was invited to speak at the concluding D.C. Rally as a representative of the type of union-community coalitions encouraged by the International’s leadership. However, PPT seems unique in its close and enduring collaboration with Local 85.

Since our transit agency has adequate funding to maintain existing service for the time being, we’ve been able to focus on how to improve both our (still woefully insufficient) system—down from 235 routes in 2006 to only 101 today—and our own organization. Specifically, PPT’s current campaigns have emerged out of thinking about how to work together with people at a local level to ensure we all have a meaningful voice in public transit planning processes. In its first few years, PPT led several mass demonstrations and marches against service cuts, but only a handful of committed activists participated in our day-to-day organizing. Now, PPT has begun working with communities to identify their specific needs and help mobilize their own community-led efforts to meet them.

PPT had tried similar tactics in the past, but the response was discouragingly minimal and quickly petered out, making the effort impossible to maintain with our limited resources. Unions are one of the few sources of support available to working-class movements. The volunteer hours of rank-and-file members have made a significant difference for us over time—even more than funding or other forms of institutional support (which often come at a price). Transit workers’ involvement is absolutely central to the success of PPT’s grassroots campaigns. Operators who used to drive routes that were eliminated or who live in underserved communities have taken a lead in identifying neighborhoods and residents that are in dire need of service and have the will to fight for it. Their inside knowledge of the system and relationship with regular riders has been instrumental in mobilizing transit activism.

Rallying with 1000 union members to call for federal transportation funding was an exhilarating moment of movement building, but the most powerful thing I’ve seen as an organizer is members of PPT and Local 85 sitting around folding tables in a borough building auditorium brainstorming with their neighbors about how to bring service back to our communities that have been cut off.

These conversations shape the vision and identify concrete priorities for more inclusive and equitable public transit. To its credit, Pittsburgh’s transit agency has been soliciting public feedback and involvement much more than in the past, but those outreach efforts tend to reinforce the divide between riders and drivers by posing community members first and foremost as customers in a business rather than co-owners of a public service. (For instance, an advisory panel including many finance experts recommended “hospitality training” and improved “service attitude” to “enhance customer experience.” At the report presentation, the panel’s chair noted this as an especially economical improvement since “a smile doesn’t cost a thing.” I doubt that drivers—faced with increasingly demanding routes and passenger loads—agree.)

Public transportation has traditionally had an “image problem” insofar as it was seen as a vehicle of necessity rather than choice. Now that it’s hip to be green and live in cities with compact land use rather than commute from the ‘burbs in gas-guzzling SUVs, public transit is getting a cultural makeover. In the process, mass transit systems sometimes fail to serve those people who have no other option. The focus on innovative infrastructure, like Bus Rapid Transit and transit-oriented development, tends to prioritize those already best served by the system and exclude many dependent riders. Instead of making life better for all residents, transit-oriented development often heralds gentrification that leaves working-class people in a paradoxical bind: they cannot afford to live in places that lack good access to public transportation, but they also cannot afford to live in places that have it.

The riders and drivers of PPT have pushed against such priorities that leave the working class stranded. Public transportation is more central than ever to social, environmental, and economic justice. Worker coalitions organizing locally can help build the cultural movements we need to initiate systemic changes and strengthen public control of resources that are crucial to more sustainable and equitable futures.

Alicia Williamson

Alicia Williamson is a founding member of and former organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit. She now works as a freelance writer and editor in the UK. You’re invited to sign on to The Transit Bill of Rights!

A Tale of Two Universities: Class Differences in Higher Ed

Two years ago, after 22 years of teaching mostly working-class students at Youngstown State University, I moved to Georgetown University, where most of my students come from very privileged backgrounds. Many people have asked about the differences between the two groups of students. Most seem to assume that students at Georgetown are significantly better – and more satisfying to teach – than those at YSU. As with anything, though, it’s complicated.

In some ways, teaching at Georgetown is easier than it was at Youngstown. But that’s not because the students are smarter or more capable. It’s all about privilege. Although about 12% of Georgetown students come from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds, more than 40% come from families that can afford around $50,000 a year in tuition and board. At YSU, tuition is less than $8000 a year and 96% of students receive financial aid. Most also work to help pay their tuition, often more than 20 hours a week, and usually in food service or retail jobs. To save money, they live at home, even if that means a 50-mile drive to campus every day. To take advantage of a flat tuition rate over a certain number of credit hours per term, they take as many classes each term as they can. Add together the hours of work and commuting plus five or six courses, and it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to complete the reading, do more than a rushed first draft of a paper, or participate in campus activities.

At Georgetown, many fewer students wrestle with the same challenges. Nearly all of them live on campus, and while they miss their families, most are too far from home to even consider helping their families with things like babysitting or going home for weddings or funerals of neighbors or second cousins, as working-class students do when they go to college close to home. But that doesn’t mean that Georgetown students aren’t busy. Indeed, many Georgetown students embrace a culture of busy-ness (as seen in a student-made video that circulated last year, with the telling title “Sleep When You’re Dead”), but theirs is a chosen busy-ness, not a matter of survival, as it is for so many YSU students. Instead of working and commuting, they are more likely to take extra courses to complete a second major or to devote hours to volunteering, often on social justice projects. For them, economic struggle is something to work on, not the everyday reality of their lives.

Money, time, and choice all matter, of course, but so does cultural capital. Many Georgetown students come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects. Some have worked, volunteered, or attended school in several countries. Others spoke or wrote about the pleasures of visiting museums or attending the theater with their families. All of that has prepared them well for academic success, but, as our provost noted in a blog last year, many are deeply risk-averse and, at times, a bit too good at following instructions.

YSU students bring a different kind of cultural capital into the classroom. They have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices. Others have overcome addiction, watched their parents deal with lay-offs, lived with poverty, or been to war. This makes them tough, determined, and very practical. In many cases, it also makes them suspicious of the University as an institution and doubtful about their own capabilities. Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.

Institutional cultures reinforce students’ expectations. For most of my time there, YSU accepted anyone who graduated from high school in Ohio. While that brought in many students for whom college was a real stretch, the University also had plenty of highly qualified students who could have attended more prestigious schools. Like many working-class students, they “undermatched,” a choice that, as William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson suggest in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, might actually make them less likely to graduate.  Some would have done better at a place like Georgetown, which accepts only about 17% of applicants every year, more than half of whom graduated first or second in their high school classes. Georgetown students see themselves not merely as successful but as among the best. That fosters a competitive campus culture that values excellence and high standards, which is both productive and problematic. That atmosphere creates significant stress even as it encourages students to view any grade less than an A as a failure.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the smaller, more elite institution also devotes significant attention to advising and monitoring students. Registration is carefully managed, so students rarely take classes they don’t need, and faculty teaching first-year courses have to file midterm advisory grades. A student earning a C on a first paper will be called in for a chat with an advisor. In contrast, while YSU’s Center for Student Progress provides extensive peer mentoring and tutoring to students who are struggling, many students choose not to get help. For some, though, squeezing a mentoring session into an overloaded schedule seems impossible, while others seem to see the offer of help as evidence that they don’t really belong in college. Despite the effort, only 34% of YSU students graduate within six years. At Georgetown, almost everyone completes their degree in four years.

For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance, and that distinction matters when I think about the value of my work as a teacher. At Georgetown, students say “thank you, Professor” at the end of every class, but I think I made a bigger difference at YSU, where students who didn’t expect it got excited about ideas and gained confidence in themselves as thinkers and writers. They brought working-class experience and perspectives into the classroom, and they reminded me to always connect their learning with their lives.

In that way, they taught me. As I wrote 15 years ago in the introduction to Teaching Working Class, I got involved in working-class studies because I wanted to understand my students better. My privileged background makes me more like my Georgetown students, but my working-class students, together with colleagues in working-class studies, have taught me not only about how class works for those from the working class but also how it shapes the perspectives of the more privileged students I teach now. They also taught me how important it is to teach about class to students who think it doesn’t affect them – regardless of what class they come from.

Sherry Linkon

What Pope Francis Can Teach the Democratic Party

Most journalists and political commentators covering papal politics have been consumed with the Church’s recent Synod on the Family that concerned social and religious issues of modern marriage and family life. Some conservative commentators warned that Pope Francis and the Synod itself was sowing “confusion” among the flock, while others praised the Pope for providing a breath of fresh air into traditional Catholic thought. Nevertheless, the Synod brought together various groups in a respectful way to build bridges in an attempt to find a common good. While no decisions were made at the Synod, it certainly laid the foundation for future reform within Catholic Social Teaching on family life.

While consumed with the Synod, the Catholic community, journalists, and politicos missed or deliberately ignored an equally important and much more critical populist speech by Pope Francis at the Conference of Popular Movements in Rome last month that concerned the importance of community organizing and poverty.

In the speech, the Pope praises the conference organizers for their community organizing in getting low-income people and the dispossessed to organize and speak out for themselves. He reminded the audience, “The poor not only suffer injustice but they also struggle against it!” He added that popular movements are necessary “to revitalize our democracies, so often kidnapped by innumerable factors. It is impossible to imagine a future for society without the active participation of the great majorities.”

Pope Francis was critical of both liberal and conservative solutions to poverty (such as some welfare programs) that “go in one direction, either to anaesthetize or to domesticate.” Further, he seems genuinely angry with those who use euphemisms to describe poor people, suggesting that to identify the issues as matters of “segregation” or “disenfranchisement” masks not just the seriousness of the problems but the deliberate injustices they involve. As the Pope puts it, “behind euphemisms there is a crime.”

He noted the special solidarity that exists among the poor and explores its meaning beyond “sporadic generosity.” Solidarity means “to think and act like a community” in “fighting over the structural causes of poverty, inequality, lack of work, housing, and the denial of labor and social rights…and to confront the destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacement, painful emigration, the traffic of persons, drugs, war, violence and all those realities that many of you suffer and that we are called on to transform.”

He understands that talk like this will lead some “to say that the Pope is a Communist,” but he dismisses such criticism, saying that his critics “don’t understand that the love of the poor is at the heart of the gospel” and that the “struggle for land, roof, and work are sacred rights.” That is, he grounds his belief in no overriding political orthodoxy but rather in religion and human dignity.

The Synod and speech got me thinking about the Pope’s approach in dealing with difficult issues and what model Pope Francis might provide for the future of the Democratic Party. For example, the recent midterm election debacle has been most often attributed to demographic factors. For example, the poor turnout among African Americans, Latinos, and women and the inability to attract white voters and the shrinking middle class have been the most common explanations for its 2014 electoral collapse. But commentators like Harold Meyerson have argued that demographics alone cannot explain the results of the midterm election nor “save” the Democratic Party. Rather, Meyerson suggests that Democrats failed to provide a clear and consistent message regarding economic inequality and wages that appealed to the struggling poor, working and middle classes, Latinos, African Americans, and millennials. Without a clear economic message, Howard Dean asked unapologetically “Where the Hell is the Democratic Party” and chided the Democratic Party leadership and operatives that “You cannot win if you are afraid!” But afraid of what? My guess is Democrats are afraid of angering their corporate and business supporters by addressing issues of inequality and poverty in any but a timid and incremental way.

This is where Pope Francis’s approach could help. First, the Democrats could follow the Pope’s model and bring together various factions for a serious discussion about the future of the party in moral and ethical terms. In the process, they could engage in community organizing and pursue the common good of ending poverty and inequality. They could also build a measure of solidarity and support on moral terms for those experiencing the injustices, the struggling working and middle class and those trying to help organize the struggles. Put differently, less politically expedient efforts to garner electoral support and more solidarity and substantive reform based on moral and ethical stands grounded in human dignity.

Such an approach will worry many Democratic politicians and their apparatchiks who cower in the face of uncertain polling data and angering their corporate patrons. No doubt, some will join with Republicans and call this “class warfare.” Some will claim that Democrats can’t win using populist themes, especially in red and purple states. But politicians like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio prove otherwise.

Today, Ohio Republicans control all executive-branch positions, the state Supreme Court, 12 of 16 U.S. House seats, and huge majorities in the state House and Senate. Yet, despite the Ohio’s Republican dominance and having $60 million against him, Senator Brown easily won his last election with broad community organizing with a working class and populist agenda that helped carry President Obama in Ohio.

The country is distressed over the level of inequality and the forty-year decline of the middle class, and we’re tired of euphemisms surrounding poverty and austerity. The Pew Research Center shows that Americans are overwhelmingly concerned with widening inequality. When given an opportunity to reduce inequality, such as increasing the minimum wage, they overwhelmingly vote in favor, even in historically red states. Now is the time for Democrats to follow the Pope Francis’s iconoclastic approach and develop the type of value-based agenda suggested by Meyerson. That could give new meaning to what it means to be a Democrat.

John Russo

Bottom Chefs: A Working-Class Lens in the Competition Kitchen

Last week Top Chef Boston aired its Thanksgiving episode (filmed in July) in which the chefs had to squat over open fires, stir pots with large wooden spoons, and to try to cook a Thanksgiving feast limited by the ingredients (venison, blueberries, clams, squash, goose, etc.) that would have been available during the first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621. Katsuji Tanabe, an eccentric, funny, mouthy chef, the son of a Mexican mother and a Japanese father, won the competition with a dish that combined squash, lobster, and fresh herbs. Tough-as-nails Stacy Cogswell, the only chef who is actually from Boston, was sent home for getting dirt in her clam dish when she had to plate on the ground at the famed Plimoth Plantation.

In the last decade we have seen a prodigious spike in the number of reality shows that feature labor in the kitchen. From the Food Network competitions, to the Master Chef empire, to the Emmy winning Top Chef, if you like to watch people braise, chop, and sauté on TV this is a Golden Era to be sure.

Right now we’re in season 12 of Top Chef, and the Boston area cooking challenges have been decidedly working-class in their orientation. So far the challenges have included cooking a meal for “Boston’s bravest and finest” (police officers) and contributing a humble dish to the Boston Food and Wine festival that the chefs had to base on the first thing they learned how to cook as children.

On Top Chef the humble sous chefs, once just a notch above dishwasher, are now celebrities in waiting—gracing home town newspapers when they appear in these competitions, and often starting new businesses with their new found fame, if not the prize money, when they win. Many of the contestants hail from working-class and/or immigrant families, and their working-class backgrounds are featured in multiple interviews during the show.

Top Chef trades heavily in the exoticization of working-class bodies and voices. Many of the contestants are heavily tattooed, tough, and prone to excessive cursing. They tell genuinely moving stories, direct to camera, about growing up poor, and/or immigrant, and/or being raised by a single mother.

These personal narratives are real—the cheftestants are not faking their hardships, and we know that cooking has long been a working-class vocation. But Top Chef trades heavily in the contestants’ hard luck pasts, in part to increase the drama and/or the tears as contestants talk about how badly they want to win, the sacrifices of their immigrant parents, how they couldn’t afford culinary school, or how their moms worked two jobs when they were growing up.

During the competition the chefs are forced to cook under harsh conditions, including extreme heat, and limited cooking accouterments (as in the Thanksgiving episode). These conditions are designed to increase the tension on the show, but sometimes they cause real injuries. Chefs have cut and burnt themselves, and in some extreme situations, chefs have collapsed or passed out during the filming of an episode. Ironically, perhaps, by forcing the cooks to work in these conditions, and by frequently invoking their working-class lives back home, Top Chef reminds us that for most workaday line cooks, sous chefs, and aspiring “wanna be’s,” the food industry is brutal—the ultimate combination of overworked, underpaid, and uninsured.

This season, Top Chef has found itself in the middle of a bonafide labor dispute, as the show has been using non-local and non-union camera operators and crew. According to multiple sources, a Teamsters protest in July designed to highlight this fact erupted in a scene of members of a Teamster local cursing and hurling racial and sexual slurs at the Top Chef cast, including Padma Lakshmi.

If the allegations are true, these Teamsters should have been fined or worse for their behavior. But their rage—hate filled though it was—is it understandable? Teamsters, who in Boston represent drivers as well as camera operators, and are now trying to organize 1,600 low paid parking attendants, represent some of the last unionized workers in a country that offers less and less to those on the bottom.

Doesn’t it make sense for workers to fight back against a profitable show that has the resources to pay top dollar and to practice what it preaches? The show’s main celebrity Tom Colicchio is a food justice activist as well as a celebrity chef and a restaurateur. He helped to make the film Hungry in America, and he has been publically critical of the refusal of Congress to extend food stamp benefits during these difficult times. On the other hand, Colicchio has been sued for wage and tip violations in his restaurants (in 2008). Colicchio, of all people should know that fair wages are the best way to combat hunger, and he should be making sure that all who work for him on Top Chef, as well as in his restaurants, are paid fairly and decently for their work.

Ultimately, why are cooking shows like Top Chef so popular? Top Chef bills itself as one very unlikely path to the American Dream, a chance for a single humble kitchen worker to become a superstar. But perhaps by accident the show also reminds us of the real labor, harsh conditions, hard luck backgrounds, and low wages of the vast majority of real life cooks and kitchen workers across the country.

As we sit down to feast this Thanksgiving let us remember that those who cook our meals when we’re dining out are among the poorest and the hungriest in America. We should work to feed the hungry, of course, but we should work even harder to ensure that food workers earn a living minimum wage. That way the bottom chefs of America won’t need to compete to win their own spread in Food and Wine magazine or a $100,000 prize in order to have what everyone deserves: the dignity of a decent life.

Kathy M. Newman

Class War in the Tax Code

I know that taxes are a really boring subject, as is talking about billions and trillions of dollars as if any of us could understand such magnitudes. But a one-sided class war is being fought every day in the U.S. tax code, and getting even a glimpse of the amounts of money involved can change our sense of why taxes matter. If the government would stop redistributing income through the tax code and instead tax investors the way it does workers, homeowners, and consumers, many things that we can’t afford today would be easily affordable.

California, for example, doesn’t have enough money to pay home care workers (who are basically state employees) both minimum wage and overtime – the state is short some $350 million. Those workers average about $17,000 a year, with lots of overtime that is paid at straight wages. In Chicago there’s not enough money to have guidance counselors and social workers in the schools where they are most needed or librarians to staff most of the libraries. The Chicago Teachers Union estimates that it would cost about $300 million to remedy these and other deficiencies, but doing so would have a big impact on educational results. In order to save the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection from being sold to get Detroit out of bankruptcy, city workers with $19,000 annual pensions had to give up about $900 each while the state of Michigan found $200 million for a one-time contribution to the city’s pension fund.

These amounts seem very large from an individual perspective. Even the smallest, $200 million, is more than 100 times what an average professional worker earns in a lifetime. The cumulative total of $850 million could fund the payrolls of six top teams in the National Football League. But in the world’s largest economy, whose national government now spends about $4 trillion a year, these hundreds of millions of dollars are the equivalent of nickels and dimes.

I have chosen these state and local situations at random, but thousands of state and local governments are similarly “taxed out” politically, if not economically. States and municipalities compete with each other to keep taxes low in order to attract businesses that, they hope, will create more jobs; few of them are in a position to initiate new taxes on investors. The federal government, on the other hand, has lots of room to run in taxing the top income earners and wealth holders.   Local governments tax property wealth, which is widely distributed among the population, but nobody taxes financial wealth, which is greatly concentrated in the top 10% and 1%. Likewise, state and local governments are highly dependent on sales taxes for things like clothes and meals at Appleby’s, which nearly everybody buys, but there is no sales tax when you buy a stock or bond.

This is how class war is waged in the tax code. If financial wealth were taxed like property wealth, and if buying a stock or bond were taxed like buying a shirt or skirt, all underfunded public pensions could be funded; home care workers could make a living wage; we could have the kind of massive infrastructure program we need; veterans wouldn’t have to wait months to be seen by Veterans Administration doctors; and we could cut our debt and deficit at the same time as we cut other taxes. And if income made from investing rather than working were taxed at the same graduated rates as earned income, we could do even more. We could have smaller class sizes and more teachers. We could staff government agencies at levels that would enable them to actually fulfill their functions – including enforcing our labor laws. Add it all up, and millions more workers could have decent jobs.

So why do we tax income you work for at higher rates than income you don’t work for? Because investors are winning a class war that most workers don’t know is being fought. Why does it seem natural to tax real property (houses, buildings and land) but not financial property (cash, stocks and bonds)? Because investors long ago won a class war that home owners don’t realize was ever fought. And why are meals at Burger King taxed but not stocks and bonds? Because investors are winning a class war that consumers don’t know is being waged.

How much additional money would the government have if unearned income were taxed at the same rates as earned income, if financial wealth were taxed at the same rate as property wealth, and if a sales tax was levied when buying a corporate stock the way it is when buying a pair of shoes? I did a little research and found out that it’s quite a lot – at least $800 billion a year. While implementing an equitable system of federal taxation would involve many administrative, legal, and political difficulties, it could solve financial problems at the state and local as well as the federal levels. None of the difficulties is insurmountable, but first we need to simply ask why investors get discounts and free passes in the tax code. Maybe they really are more valuable and important than the rest of us. But let’s discuss that in public rather than simply assuming it in the tax code.

In the meantime it’s clear that if the government taxed investors like it taxes workers, home owners, and consumers, we’d have more than enough money to do all the things I list above. After all, providing what’s needed for home care workers in California, school children in Chicago, and pensioners and art museums in Detroit would only cost $850 million (with an “m”). We could raise nearly 1,000 times that much — at least $800 billion (with a “b”) — if the government would declare a cease fire in the class war and stop redistributing income.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

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For those who want to check my homework, here’s how I arrived at these big numbers.

Unearned income (capital gains and dividends) is currently taxed at 20% regardless of income level. If it were taxed at the same graduated rates as earned income, United for a Fair Economy estimates it would produce $160 billion in additional federal revenue.

Local governments live off wealth taxes, but these are applied only to “real property” (houses, buildings and land) not to financial property (cash, stocks or bonds).   The average property tax rate is 1.38%. According to Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the total value of outstanding U.S. corporate stocks in 2014 is about $28 trillion. Thus, a 1.38% “property” tax on stocks would produce $386 billion in new revenue. I could not find a number for the total value of bond holdings in the U.S., but a 1.38% tax on bond wealth would surely add enough for a financial property tax to produce at least $500 billion a year.

The Tax Foundation does not compute an average for “combined state & average local sales tax rates,” but among the 47 states that have a sales tax (3 states do not have any), almost all are above 6%. So using 6% as a sort-of-average sales tax and applying it to the $60 trillion in stock trades in 2013, it would produce an astounding $3.6 trillion – nearly enough to fund the entire U.S. Government. This would be wildly unrealistic, as it would wreck the stock market and kill investment, but it gives you a notion of how lucrative even a very small sales tax on stock transactions could be. HR 1000, introduced by Rep. John Conyers, would impose a sales tax of 0.25% on stock trades (that’s a tax of 25 cents on a purchase of $100 in stocks), and that would produce $150 billion in new revenue. This much more modest amount is what I used to get a total of “at least $800 billion.”