The Limits to Entrepreneurship: Why Innovation Won’t Solve Poverty

“Entrepreneurship” generates big buzz and the cacophony is enormously positive. Legions of leaders, organizations, and politicians promote entrepreneurship as an alternative pathway to a better life for the poor, disconnected, and left behind.  For example, Steve Case, who made a fortune with AOL, launched a multiyear “Rise of the Rest” campaign with bus tours and “grass roots” campaigns highlighting the “growth of start-up communities in pockets of the country not generally known … for producing tomorrow’s next big companies.”  With a White House sendoff, Case led well-promoted business pitch competitions in Baltimore, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Detroit, Manchester, Nashville, and Philadelphia.

House Leader Paul Ryan is mostly the opposite of Steve Case politically.  But Ryan’s economic plan is founded on the idea that growth begins with “the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the American people.” In response to Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address, Ryan tweeted, “The answer to poverty lies in entrepreneurs and innovators who are actually making a difference, community by community.”

Cultural icons are held up as evidence that entrepreneurship can lead creative young people out of poverty toward the sweet life of luxurious living, fame, and fortune.  Just model yourself on Jay Z!

Can starting your own business rocket someone from the near bottom to near top of the economic pyramid?  It might work for a few lucky, hard working, dedicated, amazing individuals, maybe. Some do indeed generate new economic opportunities for themselves – and, in a very few cases, even for others in their community.  But that isn’t even half the story.  All too often, the results are much less rosy. It’s not a secret: most entrepreneurs fail.  And those with too little can ill afford more loss.

I’ve learned that lesson through years of work as a senior political advisor, campaign organizer, wonkish researcher, and philanthropy innovator. My entrepreneurship “street cred” is based in six original field research projects on entrepreneurship in harsh rural economic climates of the late 1980s and early 1990s.  We traveled light, from rural Iowa during the farm bust following a historic ag-export fueled boom to North Dakota as communities staggered through an inevitable bust after (another) drilling boom.  We visited persistent poverty areas in Arkansas’ delta counties and Aroostook County in noncoastal, northernmost Maine — places that struggled then and now without a glimpse of “boom times.” We searched for entrepreneurs using varied business models, market niches, and means.  We pioneered methods to measure their numbers and their effect on local economies. We also talked with them about their motives, means, advances, struggles, and losses. Since then, I’ve also studied business innovators at different stages of development, learning about their strategies for attending to  their business bottom line while also generating good opportunities for workers and their communities.

For the overwhelming majority of people in or near poverty, “entrepreneurship” is simply a fancy way to spell “hustle” and “bootstrap.”  Few of the great winners of the entrepreneurship derby realize that for many in the precariat, this is the ultimate flimflam in the cloak of artful words and seeming disregard of some pesky facts.

  • Entrepreneurship Is Driven by the Fortunate: According to the Kauffman 2015 Index of Start Up Activity, eight of every ten new entrepreneurs came out of another job, school, or other labor market status.  Only two of ten started their businesses while unemployed.  And those who did were more likely to start companies with lower growth potential.
  • The Poor Have Less to Invest and Can Not Afford Losses: A comprehensive survey by the Federal Reserve yields a clear snapshot of the income and wealth of American households. Less than one third of those with incomes annually under $40,000 could afford to cover an emergency expense of $400 using cash or credit card that they pay off at the end of the month.  The reasons they are so constrained are equally clear.  70% spend more than they earn, and more than half (53%) have absolutely no savings.  Starting a business or keeping one going entails myriad unexpected expenses and reversals.
  • High Failure Rate: According to Fortune, 9 out of 10 new businesses fail.  That is scary enough odds, but the “growth rate” for firms is actually negative. In one recent year, 400,000 business started in the U.S., but 470,000 firms closed. That statistic masks a good deal of human disappointment, frustration, and real personal and financial loses.  Blues singers tell that if you have nothing then you have nothing to lose.  But when it comes to the time, sweat, and funds plowed in to any enterprise startup, the rich are not like the rest of us.  Their opportunity cost calculation is markedly at odds with our experiences.  And for the precariat, this desperate road often deepens losses and dilutes opportunity.
  • Entrepreneurship Is a Declining Force: Start-up activity in the American economy has been on the decline for a good while, though it dropped further and faster when the Great Recession hit and has bounced around the bottom since then.
  • Entrepreneurship Is Mostly White and Male: The groups who have been left out the longest and furthest – women and people of color — are not reaching the “opportunity rung” of business startups. As of 2014, only 37% of entrepreneurs were women, and the gender gap has actually grown over time. While entrepreneurship rates are higher for Latinos and Asians than Whites or Blacks in the U.S., the predominance of whites in our society means that most entrepreneurs are white.
  • The Financial Fuel for Startup Growth is Geographically Concentrated: The Martin Prosperity Institute analyzed the number and value of venture capital deals in 100 metro areas for 2012.  As the map below demonstrates, venture finance concentrates in California, Northeast urban regions, and to a lesser extent the Pacific Northwest.  Venture finance is not the only way to fund entrepreneurship, but it provides key support for promising ideas and businesses to scale for growth and impact. The relative desert in the rest of the country suggests the fuel stations for developing new businesses are harder to find.  Availability is slight to none in those communities where it may be needed most.

Venture capital map










Finally, we need to look beyond the statistics on business startups and get real about the underlying meaning and effect.  When is an Entrepreneurial Start Up Business a Good Business? My experience with new startup owners from a broad slice of society suggests that many are pursuing intriguing ideas.  Some are skilled business managers to boot.  But most are cobbling together survival strategies. Being an entrepreneur means combining resources to support the family’s needs.  A spouse cleans houses and kids help make and sell crafts on Ebay or Etsy.  After the season ends for landscaping work, the father operates a cash-only snow plow service, collects and delivers aluminum scrap to recycling, and picks up a few jobs as a day laborer, waiting to be selected  from a long line of workers available in a Home Depot Parking lot.  Is it a way of life?  For too many, yes.  But it is hardly a living.  And it is certainly far from the security that working long and hard and playing by the rules should yield.  Does their future look bright because they’ve started four or five “new businesses? Hardly.  They barely keep from drowning financially as debt waters rise and income stagnates.

Robert Rich notes that “the dominant American myth involves two kinds of actors: entrepreneurial heroes and industrial drones – the inspired and perspired.” Steve Case and Paul Ryan believe the “inspired” entrepreneurs are the solution to poverty.  Others see hard work and sacrifice – the perspired –as the bootstrap solution for many.  Neither approach confronts the fact that the rules of our economy in this era are sharply skewed towards the wealthy and against all others.  People living in or near poverty face that reality every day.

Mark Popovich

Mark Popovich is a Vice President for Program at The Hitachi Foundation.  This commentary does not necessarily reflect the views opinions of the Foundation Board, Hitachi America, Ltd, or any Hitachi company affiliate.


Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Health Class

Late last year, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science documenting the rising morbidity and mortality in mid-life white men and women in America, especially for those with a high school degree or less.  They attributed this increase, a reversal of historic trends, to an epidemic of alcoholism, other drug use disorders, and suicide. Their findings are a wake up call for the US. Not only is something seriously wrong — it’s getting worse.

As a community psychiatrist (that is, one who works in the community providing publicly funded care) in Pittsburgh, I was not at all shocked to read the paper and the several others that followed and found essentially the same thing.  Working both in inner city black Pittsburgh and the more racially mixed Mon Valley, the primary site of Pittsburgh’s once vaunted steel mills, I have seen twenty years of increasing psychiatric burden and disability with what seemed to be a marked increase in mortality — all linked to increasingly fragmented, chaotic families, extraordinary work instability, trauma, violence, and alcohol and substance use.  While human services and health care were clearly in the picture in the lives of many (health care increasingly so with the Affordable Care Act), other critical institutions — steady work, solid education, high qualify day care, stable housing, organized communities – seemed to be less present, casualties of deindustrialization and neighborhood decline.  With the economic collapse of 2008 and the rise of the opiate epidemic, conditions have felt like they are in free fall, with tattered individuals and the remnants of families struggling to hang on.

My day-to-day job is to do what I can to help people find ways to overcome their distress and rediscover their capacities and capabilities to find a way forward. Of course, I don’t do this alone. It requires a team effort to help suffering people recover and manage their illnesses and organize the resources they need to put a life together.  We have some resources to do this, such as the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid in Pennsylvania.  But still the observation of Julian Tudor Hart, a renowned British physician working among the miners in Wales, rings true: the people with the greatest need generally have the least access to resources. Hart called this the “Inverse Care Law.”

For a long time and to this day, this has been the American approach to health care, though the ACA does a bit to address it.  Given this, some Americans may assume that the recent increase in mortality among white folks reflects a lack of access to needed care.

The work of two other Brits, Thomas McKeown and Michael Marmot reveals the inadequacy of this belief.  McKeown made the trenchant observation that it wasn’t health care that made people healthy, but rather the conditions in which they lived. Marmot pressed this observation and, in a series of famous studies of civil servants in the British Government, found that health status was tied in a step-wise fashion with class.  Poor working-class people had worse health then their middle-class colleagues who in turn were less healthy than the highly paid executives.  These findings created a fire storm around the world, but some thirty years later, the idea has finally begun to find its way to the US in the form a focus on the “social determinants of health.” Where people live, their income, the resources available to them, the web of social relationships they experience, all come under this rubric. Health isn’t just about people’s lifestyle — whether they smoke or drink — or about their access to health care. It is fundamentally about the kinds of lives people live and how they are socially structured. Health is profoundly ecological– it reflects the social habitat and physical environment people live in.

This new focus permits us to say that what’s happening to the health and well-being of poor white folks is clear evidence that the life worlds and social circumstances of their lives are falling apart.  Their social habitat is strained, and the strain is showing up in a looming body count.

We could do more to make it easier for people to access the resources they need beyond health care and by tapping into their capabilities and capacities to find ways to flourish.  Steps in this direction include concepts like the “medical home”, an expanded version of accessible team- based primary health care that focuses on people’s well-being over the life course, providing preventive and clinical services, promoting health and connecting people to the resources needed for healthy living. In psychiatry, the recognition that people with psychiatric challenges have untapped capacities to recover — to find meaningful ways to live — is reshaping clinical approaches so they connect with and build on those capabilities. These innovations are all good, but they are woefully insufficient given the scale and scope of what the nation faces.

To achieve what we need to achieve, our society needs to move the conversation about health and well-being upstream, away from a focus on health care alone, and link health and health care with general social policy.  The moves towards “the social determinants and processes of health,” “health in all policy,” “population health,” and “health impact assessments,” backed by a politics of social inclusion, are the ways forward to achieve health and social equity.

The country we create determines the patterns of life and death of the people who live here. It’s not a job just for doctors and other health care providers. We are all stewards of the health of the people of this country. Increasing numbers of people won’t thrive and will die young until we fully embrace this responsibility.

Kenneth Thompson

Kenneth S. Thompson MD is a public service community psychiatrist in Pittsburgh whose career has been focused on improving psychiatric care and achieving health equity.

Posted in Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Understanding Class | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

2016 WCSA Awards: The Best of Working-Class Studies

As the immediate past president of the Working-Class Studies Association, it was my task this year (and also my pleasure) to organize the association’s annual awards process. As this year’s organizer, I was caught up in the logistical and clerical tasks related to the process, and so it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I considered this year’s award winners as a group of texts. When I finally had the opportunity to step back and think about them as a whole, I noted several threads and connections that reveal that a focus on work (or the lack thereof), workers, place, and protest continue to preoccupy scholars in the field.

The winner of this year’s Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing is Voices from the Appalachian Coalfields, by Mike and Ruth Yarrow, with photographs by Douglas Yarrow, published by Bottom Dog Press. The book is comprised of “found” poems created by the Yarrows based on interviews conducted during the late 1970s with Appalachian coal miners (both men and women) and their spouses. In her author’s statement, Ruth Yarrow explains that the book “is written as found poems because Mike realized that the interviews revealed strong emotions, rhythmic phrases and vivid storytelling skills that could be poetry.” One judge noted that though the interviewees’ voices are edited into poems, “they retain their authenticity and power.”

Great effort is made here to document and preserve the work and the voices of the workers and their families in this time and place. One judge wrote that these poems “beautifully convey life in the mines and on picket lines, showing the eloquence of the speech of working people. These pieces present the poetry of everyday life and present all the pain, resilience, bravery, humanity and aspiration of poetry crafted by poets. This book is a real and lasting contribution to working-class literature.” Another wrote that the book “captures both regional culture and working-class culture in all its emotional complexity through the competing voices.”

Geoff Bright’s “’The Lady is Not Returning!’: Educational Precarity and a Social Haunting in the UK Coalfields,” the winner of this year’s John Russo and Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences, also focuses on voices from coalfields, but in a different place and from the perspective of the children and grandchildren of former miners. Bright has been doing ethnographic research in communities around former coalfields in the north of England for the past decade, and a central argument of his research is that “the 1984-85 miners’ strike and its aftermath of pit closures are not matters of merely historical interest but are, rather, a continuing—if, more often than not, unspoken—affective context for the lived experience of thousands of young people within Britain’s former coalfields.”

In this piece, Bright is especially interested in community responses to the death of Margaret Thatcher as well as celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the 1984-85 strike. Focusing on young people’s involvement in both, Bright sees evidence of a renewed political consciousness oriented to the future, a consciousness that seeks to come to terms with and work through the social haunting caused by the deindustrialization of the region. Praise from the judges included this assessment: “This essay is absolutely fascinating and breaks new paths, I believe, in developing methodologies for working-class studies scholarship and for comprehending the impact of the horrors and suffering caused by class society over generations. . . .I am thankful for this essay. It was a joy to read. For an academic article, it was a real page-turner.”

The aftermath of deindustrialization is also the subject of this year’s winner of the Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism, Christine Walley and Chris Boebel’s film Exit Zero (based on Walley’s 2013 CLR James Award-winning book by the same name). The focus of the film is the collapse of the steel industry in Southeast Chicago, which shaped multiple generations of Walley’s family. The daughter of a longtime steel worker, Walley became a class straddler when she left home, earned her Ph.D. and became an academic, but in this project she returned home to engage in autoethnography.

One judge praised the film for telling a “complex, gripping, and surprising story that makes it clear that deindustrialization, in the forms that it took, and in the ways in which workers were treated, was not inevitable.” Another judge wrote of being “moved by this remarkable combination of family story and its strenuous relationship to deindustrialization. Steel made this family but also tried to destroy it in the end. Nuanced and balanced portrait of a family’s history, [it] avoids sentimentalizing a working class family and community.”

The focus on place represented in the winners of the first three categories extends to the first of two winners of this year’s CLR James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences, Julie M. Weise’s Corazón de Dixie: Mexicans in the U.S. South Since 1910. Wiese’s work is an important corrective to the mistaken notion that Latinos’ presence in the U.S. South is a relatively recent phenomenon; as the title of her book indicates, that presence can be traced back over the last 100 years. Wiese’s book tells the story of Mexican migration to New Orleans, Mississippi, rural Georgia, the Arkansas Delta, and Charlotte, NC.

One judge notes that “At first glance, a reader might be deceived into thinking that Corazón de Dixie is not necessarily a working-class studies text. It is in fact a deeply intersectional history, concerned with ‘the regional and national politics of race, class, and citizenship’ as related to the Mexican-American immigrant experience; the politics of work, and work’s relationship to how one develops a sense of U.S. belonging on both her own terms and the terms of powerful others, resonates from every page of this book.”

The CLR James Award is also being given this year to Ann Folino White for her book Plowed Under: Food Policy Protests and Performance in New Deal America. White’s book focuses on Depression-era protest and activism around food and farm policy. Among the many reasons that this book stood out among the nominees this year was for its interdisciplinarity. As one judge noted, “The book has a remarkably inventive and interdisciplinary methodology, and it takes a diverse but coherent look at the multifaceted questions of labor, food production, and the relations of class, race, and gender during the Great Depression, questions that have lasting implications for today’s world.” While there is an extensive historiography on the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, her treatment of responses to the AAA as performance is unique—White herself is chair of the Department of Theater at Michigan State University.

Gregory Rosenthal’s dissertation, “Hawaiians Who Left Hawaii: Work, Body, and Environment in the Pacific World, 1786-1876,” is the winner of this year’s Constance Coiner Award for Best Dissertation. Like many of this year’s award winners, there is a strong emphasis on place in Rosenthal’s study, and like Weise’s, Rosenthal’s work is deeply intersectional. The judges of this award all noted Rosenthal’s focus on the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender in the 19th century Pacific World. One judge wrote “What I found exciting about this project is the way Rosenthal frames his study of an overlooked piece of working-class culture and history so clearly through an analysis of how class, race, and gender shape and are shaped by work, capitalism, and global interactions. I appreciate, too, Rosenthal’s attention to the classed, raced, and gendered bodies of workers and to representations.” Another judge wrote, “Without ever using the word ‘intersectionality,’ this dissertation deftly shows how class, gender, race, ethnicity and basic power relations were intimately fused yet distinct amid the economic forces of the 19th century Pacific World.” Rosenthal completed his Ph.D. at SUNY Stony Brook and is now Assistant Professor of Public History at Roanoke College.

I invite you to track down and check out these texts; you won’t be sorry for doing so. In an election year here in the U.S., it seems as though everyone has re-discovered the working class, but what these works show is that many of us have been thinking about the lives and experiences of working-class people for some time now, in ways that are complex, nuanced, intersectional, and that make connections across academic disciplines.

Christie Launius, Past President, Working-Class Studies Association, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh

Posted in Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Working-Class Academics and Working-Class Studies: Still Far from Home?

Academe is a privileged place.  It was designed to serve and continues to be dominated by people from educated, well-off backgrounds.  Its hierarchical rituals and values define the university as separate from and more “refined” than the so-called “real world.” In higher education, people either have or are assumed to desire both the cultural capital and  the professional style of the elite.  Because of this, higher education is not generally welcoming to scholars from the working class, much less to those who view class inequities critically.  Yet as the writers of a series of essays and books published over the past 30 years remind us, working-class academics are not only part of higher education, they also have important contributions to make. Their critiques of higher education helped inspire Working-Class Studies as a field, expanded scholarly understanding of social structures and identities across the disciplines, and shaped pedagogical and support strategies to help working-class students succeed.

My education in working-class life and culture started with conversations with colleagues from working-class backgrounds, and they pointed me to This Fine Place So Far From Home, the 1995 anthology edited by C.L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law. The essays in the book, together with teaching mostly working-class students, helped me see how academic theories of class played out in very human and personal terms for my friends and colleagues from working-class backgrounds.  They also made me more conscious – at times uncomfortable and at times just aware – of how my upper middle-class family had shaped me.  I knew that my life experience was not as “normal” as American culture pretended it was, but to move from knowing that one is privileged to understanding the perspective of those who are not requires education. I have always been grateful for these books, as I am for the colleagues who shared their stories, for the windows they opened for me.

When I first read this and other early books about working-class academics, including Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, by Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey, and Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory, by Michelle Tokarczyk and Elizabeth A. Fay, I assumed that they reflected conditions that were already changing. Foolishly, I thought that things would get better as more working-class people entered the academy.  Worse, I believed that the work many of us were doing in writing, teaching, and advocating about class inequities and cultures would, over time, alleviate if not resolve the tensions many working-class people find in academic life.  I’ve always had Pollyanna tendencies, but my expectation that my profession would become more attentive to and accepting of class differences reflects not only optimism but the limits of my own thinking. Years later, I understand the persistence and embeddedness of both class and classism.

Still, I have to admit that I was surprised, and initially dismayed, to encounter two recent collections of essays by working-class academics – Allison L. Hurst and Sandi Kawecka Nenga’s Working in Class: Recognizing How Social Class Shapes Our Academic Work and “Working-Class Academics: Theories, Mythologies, Realities,” an issue of the online journal Rhizomes, edited by Carol Siegel.  I knew that the problems articulated in earlier collections had not been resolved, and I recognized – in fact, I have made the argument myself many times – that the class in which we grow up shapes people’s perspectives even when material and social positions change.  Nonetheless, my first response when I heard about the latest projects was some impatience.  Haven’t we had this conversation, I thought?

I was especially troubled that few of the contributors to these collections seemed to know or acknowledge that Working-Class Studies existed.  Like the working-class academics and scholars of working-class culture who came to some of the first Working-Class Studies conferences more than 20 years ago, some of the contributors to these volumes seem to feel like orphans, laboring alone on a topic no one else has studied.  One wrote that she knew of no body of research on the lived experience of social class. Reading that breaks my heart a bit, both because I had hoped that younger scholars would no longer feel so isolated and because it suggests that the work many of us have produced over the past couple of decades is either invisible or not valued.

While these new volumes raise questions about the impact of Working-Class Studies, they also suggest three important insights for the field.  First, sadly, even after decades of discussion, higher education remains divided along class lines, and academics from the working class still feel alienated and frustrated.  Indeed, changes in higher education have made the problems worse, as too many working-class academics find themselves caught in part-time or short-term teaching jobs, unable to break through the class barriers that seem to preserve most tenure-line jobs for people from professional class backgrounds.  We also see the class hierarchies of higher education in the struggle of state universities to survive continuing budget cuts and attacks on tenure, even as elite private schools compete to see who can raise tuition the most while keeping acceptance rates the lowest.  Far from being resolved, class divisions in higher education have gotten worse, despite the more visible presence of academics from the working class and efforts to increase and deepen attention to class in both the curriculum and research.

Second, while the new volumes largely ignore the research that has emerged out of Working-Class Studies, their work at once fits well within the ethos and practices of the field and, even more important, they make a significant contribution to it. As in earlier projects, the essays in both Working in Class and the Rhizomes volume often begin with or center on personal narratives, a move that, as I have written before, seems to be a signature intellectual approach for this field.  But like much of the best writing in Working-Class Studies these days, these pieces use experience not as an end in itself but to frame analyses of the social structures, psychological tensions, and discursive complexities of class in higher education. In their deftness in linking theories of class and representation with the lived experience of working-class people, these scholars model a rich and complex approach to the study of class.  A number of the contributors to Hurst and Nenga’s book will be part of a roundtable discussing the book at next week’s How Class Works conference, and I look forward to the dialogue.   I also hope they will feel at home in the field (as a few already do, I think), because we will all benefit.

Finally, these projects remind us of the key challenge that Working-Class Studies faces as a field: our continuing invisibility.  Despite more than 20 years of organizing and publishing, we have never gained the institutional presence of Ethnic Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, Queer Studies, or Critical Race Studies (fields that, it must be said, also struggle for attention, resources, and stability). Working-Class Studies may have faced bigger hurdles than these other efforts, because we do not have an active social movement to help spur institutions to support our work.  But we have also not done enough organizing ourselves. To my knowledge, only one new program has been created in the past five years, the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College. If we want the next generation of working-class academics to feel less vulnerable and isolated, if we want them to recognize ongoing critical discussions about class and to connect with a larger movement of people who share their interests, we need to do better. I don’t have a strategy for doing that, to be honest, but perhaps we can begin by talking seriously with newcomers, like many of the contributors to these new volumes, about how we can all make more significant connections across disciplines and generations.

Sherry Linkon



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Teaching Work and Learning from Working-Class Students

It was my freshman year at university, and we were just back from Easter break for the first tutorial of the summer term. The seminar leader, an older middle-class professor, went around the table asking each of us what we had done in the vacation. As I related my four weeks spent working in a big-box electrical retail store on the edge of my home town, I saw his eyes glaze over.  I was a skilled enough sociologist even then to know it was time to let the next student relate his experience.  After all work was ‘boring’, right?  By contrast, my neighbour told of travelling down Egypt’s River Nile buying antiques for his uncle’s shop back home in London. My tutor liked this story, a fascinating and exotic mix that sank my tales of the shop floor without a trace. It was an early lesson in how working-class experience is often discounted at college while that of the middle-class is privileged almost naturally.

I now teach the sociology of work, amongst other things, to students from a mix of social classes and ethnicities. Perhaps one of the few positives about so many students now having to gain paid employment to see themselves through college is that they have lots of work experience; my class is full of shop workers, builders, carers, gardeners, assorted labourers and a multitude of other occupations.  In the initial seminar, I ask students to talk about their working lives. It’s a great icebreaker, and it shows from the start that they have something valid to say about what we are studying.

The assessment for my course is a long essay about almost any aspect of work, including their own experience.  While working-class students often struggle with abstract ideas or concepts generally on their degree courses, they feel more at home with concrete examples rooted in their own lives, and that, in turn, helps them engage with the more theoretical ideas central to the sociological imagination.  Over the years, I have become braver in encouraging my students to reflect on their working lives, workmates, and customers and use this grounded knowledge as part of their essays. Not all the students who try this auto-ethnographic approach manage to pull it off, but more often than not these essays reveal something of real value.

This year I had three great examples, all from working-class women, which I know I will use as examples for future students for years to come. One of the essays reflected on working in a bar. While there was some discussion of pulling pints and replenishing stock, the student focused on the casual everyday sexism of her managers and especially the regulars she served. She offered a litany of examples of comments, wise-cracks, and leers that are part and parcel of an ordinary contemporary workplace. She described how she tried to ignore comments from men waiting to be served, the advice that she might want to ‘cheer up’ after failing to laugh at their jokes, or the older man who called her ‘daughter’ but then ogled her while she bent down to refill the ice box. Her description was shocking and chilling in equal measure. Another student described working in a women’s fashion shop.  She recounted having to face the Monday morning blues and the prospect of another week at work, traveling in on the train, being told by her boss to remember ‘that smile’, and dealing with one difficult customer after another.

I don’t want you to think that these essays were unrelentingly grim, although truth be told they often explored difficult themes. There were laugh out loud points when I had to stop reading, such as  a story about a customer asking for her goods to be put aside to wait for her boyfriend to ‘treat her’ as she had just learnt she was pregnant – and waving the pregnancy test wand in my student’s face! The essays also offered spaces of hope and humanity, such as an essay by a student working as a care assistant at a residential home for seniors. Her story about accompanying her client to the emergency room after a fall was a moving reflection on the stress of having to deal with an adult with dementia while waiting for four hours to be seen by a doctor, only to be looked down on by the medical staff because she was just a ‘carer’ and not a medical ‘professional’. The student felt humiliated by this classed interaction, but she was proud that she had coped with a difficult client for hours with only her wits to help her, especially when the medics reached straight for the chemical cosh to sedate the client – whom they saw as a problem –as quickly as possible.

These personal accounts offer real insight into the contemporary world of work – the petty insults, the repetition and boredom, and the way people simply get themselves through each work day. But these insights also allow us to understand how workers humanise their workplace experience and find meaning, identity, and humour in the most unlikely of settings. These essays reveal both the hidden injuries and rewards of class as well as the complex nature of working-class identity that entwines sham, dignity, and pride.

These essays have also taught me that working-class students’ academic writing comes alive when they are encouraged to explore complex issues through their own experience. They demonstrate that complex abstract ideas can be beautifully illuminated through first-hand accounts and that students who ordinarily struggle with ‘Theory’ can apply it perfectly well when they are given licence to draw on it as they interrogate their own world. I feel proud to have in some way enabled my students to find their voices on my course. Their essays are all their own work, but they can only do this kind of writing if faculty are prepared to listen and value what they have to say. As teachers, we can do more than act as passive if empathetic sounding boards.  We can – and we should — challenge, provoke, and push our students to reflect on their lives in a rounded and critical way. We need to make sure that class matters in what we teach but also in how we teach.  We need to think about how our pedagogic practice enables students to combine raw experience with more abstract concepts to make better sense of their world.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Justice for Hillsborough: Working-Class Solidarity Prevails

“When you walk through a storm,
Hold your head up high.
And don’t be afraid, of the dark,
At the end of the storm.
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark…”

‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, a show tune from the 1945 Roger and Hammerstein musical Carousel, rung out from the steps of an English courtroom on April 26th, 2016, as justice campaigners celebrated a 27 year fight to clear the names of the people killed in one of the worst stadium disasters in British football history. The tune was adopted by supporters of Liverpool Football Club in the 1960s as a pre-match rallying song but gained increased emotional significance following the disaster in the match involving Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. A crush on the terraces in the opening minutes of the 1989 English Football Association Cup semi-final resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans and left hundreds injured. At the time, after 10 years of sustained attacks on working-class communities, which Margaret Thatcher’s government described as ‘the enemy within’, compassion for the victims and the search for the truth were of little concern. To appreciate last week’s ruling, we should consider the grassroots campaign by the bereaved and their supporters that forced this process.

At the match on April 15th, 1989, Liverpool supporters were put into ‘pens’ in the stadium, with fences at the front to prevent any possible attempts by supporters to enter the field of play in a ‘pitch invasion’. At 2.50pm, ten minutes before the start of the match, the pens were full to capacity and a crush of people trying to get in began to develop outside the stadium. At 2.52pm, the police ordered an exit gate opened to alleviate this, and thousands more people entered the already full terraces. Six minutes after the start of the match, at 3.06pm, the police ordered that the match be stopped due to the developing crush. Minutes later the situation became a tragedy: a crush barrier collapsed, and as the crush intensified, some could not expand their chests to breathe in. They died of compression asphyxia.

What followed was one of the most extensive cover-ups and miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Minutes after the crush began, South Yorkshire Police had begun to concoct a version of events that would lay the blame fully with the supporters. Witnesses and relatives of the dead were interviewed as if they were criminals. The emerging narrative described the supporters as drunk, violent thugs who failed to comply with police orders to move back and form an orderly queue.

The coverup of the Hillsborough tragedy was part of a sustained attack on working-class communities and culture throughout the 1980s.   The local police knew that their lies would prevail, because of their role in the government’s class war on working-class communities. They had become increasingly militarised during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and they and the Thatcher government had won a number of key battles.

The war on the working class extended to football– the working person’s game. Following a 1985 stadium fire in Bradford that led to the deaths of 56 supporters, an editorial in the Sunday Times called football “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people”. Such rhetoric also appeared after Hillsborough, most infamously in another Rupert Murdoch publication, The Sun, which emblazoned its front page with the claim, from unnamed police sources, of ‘THE TRUTH: Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PCs giving the kiss of life’.

The initial 1991 inquest into the disaster recognised some police failings, but it did not question the validity of police and witness statements. The inquest ruled that victims had died by accidental death, a verdict that the bereaved rejected, and many refused to collect death certificates. They argued that responsibility lay with the senior police officers on duty, whose actions amounted to criminal negligence. The British Establishment – across the political spectrum – refused to heed the calls of the bereaved to open a new inquiry. Following the election of the Labour Party in 1997, many hoped that a supposedly left leaning government would lead change direction. Instead, when the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, refused to re-open the public inquiry, the families denounced the Labour government. Following this, the bereaved families established the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to demand the reopening of the public enquiry into the disaster and to offer support to all affected. This grassroots campaign would be instrumental in securing the justice sought for the victims.

The consistent refusal of those in power to reconsider the verdict meant that the police version of events was accepted and regurgitated for almost 27 years. Outgoing London Mayor, Boris Johnson, wrote in 2004 that the city of Liverpool had a ‘victim status’ and had failed to acknowledge ‘even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans’. In 2013, Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, refused to apologise for a letter he wrote to a bereaved fan stating that Liverpool should ‘shut up”’ about Hillsborough and accept that the fans were to blame.

But the city of Liverpool refused to shut up and accept this version of events. The city remained united in their condemnation of South Yorkshire Police, the Government, and their allies in the press. Many across the city continued to boycott The Sun. The Justice campaign maintained a strong public presence.

At the 20th anniversary commemoration service in 2009, local Labour MP and Government Minister Andy Burnham was booed, heckled, and jeered whilst addressing the crowd. It became apparent that this community would not quietly go away. Following this very public shaming, Burnham became the champion of the Justice cause and demanded that confidential documents not available at the initial inquest be opened for consideration, leading to a new public inquest. It became the longest inquest in British history, lasting two years. The panel sat for 300 days and heard from nearly 1,000 witnesses. When it came to its conclusion, the campaigners and the city waited for the two answers that they had fought for 27 years to hear:

Judge: “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?”

Jury: “Yes.”

Judge: “Was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation?”

Jury: “No”.

Cries of hallelujah, sobbing, and celebration broke out in the courtroom. One of the most sustained cover-ups and campaigns against a working-class community by the British Establishment had ended in justice for the smeared, the dead, the bereaved, and the city of Liverpool.

The Hillsborough story demonstrates that working-class solidarity can ultimately overcome government attacks supported and repeated by the police and the media. The significance of this victory cannot be understated. This rulingprovided immediate impetus to the campaign for a public inquiry into the “Battle of Orgreave” during the Miners’ Strike, when this same police force were accused of acting as an occupying army on behalf of the government and repeatedly attacked striking miners and their families.

The British Establishment during the 1980s, and beyond, used all of its power to tarnish and destroy working-class communities across the country in a campaign of violence and intimidation. The bereaved families of the Hillsborough victims demonstrated that this can be challenged and that solidarity can lead to victory. May it be a beginning, not an end, to success in the many fights for justice in dismantling the myths and lies propagated during this time.

Andy Clark

Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy. He recently spoke with BBC Scotland about the Hillsborough verdict.

Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Parts and Wholes: Unpacking Reports of White Working-Class Death Rates

The white working class has been getting a lot of attention lately — not just for how they’re voting in primary elections, but also for dying at increasingly high rates.  As we might expect, a lot of this attention is classist, especially when politics and death rates are discussed together, but even thoughtful and probing commentaries too often confuse parts and wholes, leading to loose generalizations that couldn’t possibly be true.

The discussion of death rates was initiated late last year by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton who found “rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans.”  I suspect one reason their study attracted so many political commentators, including some who tried to link it to support for Trump, was because Case and Deaton define the white working class the same way political analysts do – whites with less than a bachelor’s degree.  The man-bites-dog news value of the study, however, was that it showed death rates of a large group of Americans increasing rather than decreasing. Since 1900 life expectancy at birth has risen from 47 to 79 years, nearly doubling the average American lifespan. So it was big news that the death rates of U.S. whites aged 45 to 54 had increased by 8% from 1999 to 2013.

When Case and Deaton divided this white cohort by educational attainment, however, they found that all of the increase was accounted for by increased deaths among whites with high school educations or less.   What’s more, this group of whites had substantially higher death rates than blacks or Hispanics in that age group, including much higher rates of deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, and chronic liver cirrhosis.

Mortality rates in 2013 for persons aged 45-54, organized from low to high (deaths per 100,000 population)

“Racial”/Ed. Group All-cause mortality Poisonings

(drug OD)

Intentional self-harm


Chronic liver cirrhosis
White non-Hispanic w/BA or more  









Hispanics (all races)









White non-Hispanic w/some college  









Black non-Hispanic









White non-Hispanic w/high school or less  








SOURCE: Compiled from Case & Deaton, Table 1, p. 3.

This was startling news because we are so used to seeing blacks and Hispanics at the bottom of these kinds of lists.  These “racial” minority groups consistently have much higher rates of unemployment and poverty – often double and triple white rates — and lower average incomes and much lower accumulated wealth.  Why would any group of whites be dying at higher rates than minorities, let alone killing themselves or poisoning themselves with drugs and alcohol?

Speculations about causes range from broad-based economic factors to the psychological impact of crushed expectations. A few have even suggested that folks with white-skin privilege are not as resilient in dealing with hard times as blacks and Latinos, and others have claimed that personal morality has “collapsed” in the white working class. These speculations move very carelessly from one white age cohort – those who would have graduated high school between 1977 and 1986 – to the white working-class as a whole.

A confusion of parts and wholes, however, began with Case and Deaton themselves, as we can see in the table above. Whites are by far the largest group, so it makes sense to break them into three parts by educational attainment, but that leads Case and Deaton to compare all Hispanics and all blacks with three separate segments of the white population. It could well be that blacks and/or Hispanics with only high school or less have even higher death rates than comparable whites. We can’t tell because parts are being compared to wholes.

But the reverse is just as important: comparing patterns between white and black, with no recognition of class differences, erases substantial differences in life conditions and life chances among whites. Dividing the white population by education reveals that white-skin privilege may not be all it’s cracked up to be among the largest group of American whites – those with only high school educations or less.

Janell Ross recently provided a thorough rundown of black-white disparities in The Washington Post: “On just about every measure of social or economic well-being, white Americans fare better than any other group. That’s true of housing and neighborhood quality and homeownership. That’s true of overall healthhealth insurance coverage ratesquality of health care receivedlife expectancy and infant mortality. That’s true when it comes to median household earningswealth (assets minus debt), retirement savings and even who has a bank account.” Ross’s bouquet of links, based on very solid sources, documents an appalling degree of racial injustice, especially toward blacks. But, unlike Case and Deaton, these sources all compare the entire white population with the entire black and Hispanic populations, with no internal differentiation. As with death rates, all these disparities might look very different in a five-category comparison like Case and Deaton use. I’m betting, for example, that whites with only high school educations or less have nowhere near the “typical” white family’s wealth of $131,000. Routinely differentiating the white population by educational attainment would not show that we overestimate racial injustice, but it would almost certainly show that we grossly underestimate class injustice.

Differentiating the white part of the population by three levels of educational attainment provides a somewhat surprising profile of the American population, I think, even if it downplays class differences within other racial groupings: 

“Racial” composition of U.S. population, 18 & over, in 2014, with “class” by educational attainment for non-Hispanic whites

“Racial”/ed. Group % of U.S. pop. # in millions
White non-Hispanic total        65.5 156.8
         WNH w/BA or more        21.8 52.2
         WNH w/some college        19.4 46.4
         WNH w/ high school or less        24.3 58.2
Hispanic        15.2 36.4
Black non-Hispanic        12.3 29.4
Asian          5.6 13.4
Others          1.4   3.4

SOURCE: Compiled from U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2014

One surprise, I suspect, is that whites with only high school educations or less are the single largest group – nearly a quarter of all Americans 18 and older, some 58 million adults. This is not some small leftover group atypical of whiteness in the 21st century, and if they have high and increasing death rates, that’s not a “pocket of poverty” problem. Combined with much larger percentages of blacks and Hispanics with only high school educations or less, who also likely have higher death rates than what Case and Deaton report for blacks and Hispanics as a whole, they constitute more than 40% of our adult population. These are not canaries in a coal mine – they’re the miners, and the mine walls are collapsing.

It should be obvious that the entire group of whites without bachelor’s degrees, nearly 105 million people (adding those with “some college”), is too large to possibly share a single personality type, a uniform social psychology, or any one political ideology – as so many commentators are wont to assume. Why do critics insist on making judgments about working-class resilience and morality based on a handful of misunderstood facts?

Rising aggregate death rates, and especially those related to self-harm, drugs, and alcohol, are indicators of increasing stresses being experienced by a population. But only about 1/10th of one percent of whites without bachelor’s degrees are killing or poisoning themselves. They tell you nothing about how most people in that population are dealing with those stresses. Within my own extended white working-class family, a small sample to be sure, the addicted and de-moralized are a decided minority, with sometimes dramatic changes across their life stages. The vast majority, given the destabilizing challenges they’ve faced, demonstrate near-heroic levels of personal morality and resilience – and they rightly feel considerable pride in their capacity for “taking it.” If anything, their sturdy commitment to these admirable qualities may undermine their capacity for the kind of broader collective action that could change their fates – fates that could and should require a lot less resilience.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

Posted in Class and the Media, Class at the Intersections, Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class | Tagged , , | 4 Comments