Veterans’ Healthcare: A Workers’ Comp System That Actually Works

Most American workers who get injured on the job or develop an occupational disease soon become familiar with the inadequacies and injustices of our fifty state system of workers’ comp. Private employers fight their claims. Rehabilitation services are fragmented and managed by private insurers. If they’re unable to work and lose their original job-based health coverage, even workers who’ve been  approved for treatment for specific work-related injuries or illnesses can’t pay their other medical bills. .

The situation is very different for the nine million men and women who qualify for medical benefits from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). The VHA—much under attack these days by President Trump and Republicans in Congress–functions as a federal workers’ comp system for former members of the military with service-related ailments. While vets’ medical problems are not always recognized as quickly as they should be, once a vet is in the VHA system, any single malady of the mind or body makes them eligible for any other kind of treatment they need in the future–from hip replacements to cancer surgery or hospice care.

Eligible veterans end up on an island of socialized medicine within our larger for-profit healthcare industry. Like residents of the UK covered by the National Health Service, VHA patients gain access to an integrated network of public hospitals and clinics, employing doctors, nurses, and therapists who are salaried not paid on a “fee for service” basis. About a third of the VHA’s 300,000 staff members are veterans themselves, which helps create a unique culture of solidarity between patients and providers that has no counter-part in U.S. private sector medicine.

The VHA has a predominantly poor and working-class patient population because that’s who enlists in our professional armed forces these days. But military work also exposes non-combat veterans to injuries or illnesses like those suffered by millions of civilians in blue-collar jobs. As Rick Weidman from Vietnam Veterans of America explains, “the military is a collection of very dangerous occupations.”

For example, the most common complaint of VHA patients is hearing loss and tinnitus. That’s because almost every branch of the military exposes enlisted men and women to high levels of noise. In the Air Force and Navy, there’s the constant roar of jet engines. In the Navy, there’s the metallic clanking that rebounds through the echo chamber of a submarine or other naval vessel. You don’t have to deployed to the Middle East to be deafened by explosions from improvised explosive devices (IED’s) or the U.S. military’s own ordinance. Just going through basic training can be enough to insure diminished hearing capacity later in life. Similarly, infantry training leads to musculoskeletal problems because it involves hauling around 60- to 100-pound packs that place an excessive burden on necks, shoulders, knees, backs and ankles.

Veterans also bring signature issues from particular eras. In Vietnam, draftees and enlisted men were exposed to Agent Orange. Other Cold-war era soldiers and sailors found themselves involved in chemical warfare agent experiments, nuclear weapons testing, and base cleanups with little personal protection. Troops sent to liberate Kuwait came back with symptoms of “Gulf War Syndrome.” Veterans of multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan were often exposed to lung damaging and cancer causing toxic burn pits. Insurgent use of IEDs in those two countries has led the VHA to become a leading center of research on and treatment of traumatic brain injuries suffered by thousands of troops (and professional football players as well, who now arrange to have their brains sent to the VHA for post-mortem verification of their condition).

Combat veterans often suffer from mental health issues, like PTSD. In researching a new book called Wounds of War, I spoke with men in their eighties or nineties whose searing memories of death and destruction in Germany, Japan, or Korea still disturbed their sleep at night. Veterans who suffer from mental and behavioral health problems—whether acquired in or exacerbated by military service— are more prone to substance abuse, particularly opioid use if chronic pain is involved. They also become a bigger suicide risk. An estimated 20 veterans a day kill themselves, although three-quarters of those have never been to the VHA for treatment. Between 2006 and 2015, the number of veterans receiving specialized mental health care at the VHA rose from 900,000 annually to 1.6 million, a reflection of continuing collateral damage from open-ended foreign wars.

VHA caregivers are trained to identify and treat these very specific wounds of war.  Every VHA employee gets training in how to better recognize and assist patients who are suicidal. Thousands of VHA mental health providers are taught the latest evidence-based treatments for PTSD. (Outside the VHA, only 30% of private sector providers use such treatments).  And primary care providers and specialists alike recognize the kind of diseases produced by toxic exposures, such as Agent Orange related diabetes or burn-pit created respiratory problems.

The VHA ranks with Kaiser Permanente as one of the most heavily unionized health care systems in the country; the American Federation of Government Employees, National Nurses United, and the Service Employees International Union have more than 120,000 members serving veterans. Thanks to this union role, management pays more attention to the kinds of occupational hazards that are rampant in health care work generally, particularly in non-union hospitals. The VHA was the first – and may be one of the only U.S. healthcare systems – to install the kind of lift equipment that helps nursing staff avoid debilitating and often career ending back, neck and shoulder injuries.

Due to the mental health problems of some of its patients, the VHA goes to great lengths to insure a safe workplace for health care providers. In Northern California, VHA staff labor under the shadow of what happened at The Pathway Home, a private not-for-profit program housed at a state run veterans’ facility in Yountville, last March. Three professional caregivers – one a current and another a former VHA employee –were shot and killed by a vet who then committed suicide.

The VHA is far from perfect. As even its defenders note, veterans’ health care could be far more comprehensive and effective than it is. Unfortunately, both Congress and recent presidents have made it harder for VHA to care for veterans. Congress has allowed the Department of Defense to give hundreds of thousands of veterans other than honorable discharges, making them ineligible for VHA care. In some cases, soldiers have been discharged for active duty misconduct related to PTSD or brain injuries – yet they have a particular need for coverage.  Congress has also consistently underfunded and understaffed the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA). This is the separate agency that determines whether a veteran has actually suffered from an occupational illness or injury—and to what degree of disability.  As a result, there are far too many eligibility determination delays before veterans become VHA patients.

Under the Trump administration, the VHA faces even greater challenges. Earlier this year, Congress – with the support of a majority of Democrats — passed the VA MISSION Act, which  will siphon billions of dollars away from the VHA’s budget and direct that money toward private doctors and hospitals that are often ill-prepared to treat veterans.  As the VHA is starved of needed funding, health care providers will be laid off (there are already an estimated 49,000 existing staff vacancies) and facilities will close. That will undermine the quality of patient care, and Republicans (with support from the Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America) and their Democratic Party enablers will use that to make the case for total privatization of the system.  Their aim is to starve the system so that care and services will decline even more. Those who oppose Medicare for All would then use the VHA as a poster child for the “failure” of single payer models, instead of a shining example of how they work better.

Fortunately, members of veterans’ organizations, union-represented VHA staff, and community allies around the country are fighting vigorously against VHA privatization. And given voters’ concerns about health care, Democrats could use the threat to the VHA as a “wedge issue” against the right wing. If more Democrats would embrace this cause, they might actually win back voters from military families who believed that Trump would defend veterans and their health care.  The fight to save the VHA from the profiteers will help protect a model of healthcare from which all Americans benefit.

Suzanne Gordon

Suzanne Gordon co-authored a 2017 report on veterans’ health care for the American Legion called “A System Worth Saving.”  She is the author, most recently, of Wounds of War: How The VA Delivers Health Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans, from Cornell University Press. She will be speaking about the book around the country over the next month. She is also a Senior Policy Analyst at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute. She can be reached at

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Politicizing Immigration Wears Thin in Iowa

For weeks during the summer of 2018, the case of a missing University of Iowa student occupied statewide and national attention. Mollie Tibbetts, 20, who was housesitting in Brooklyn, Iowa (population 1,391), went jogging at night on July 18 and disappeared. On August 21, police identified Tibbett’s alleged killer, who led them to her body in a cornfield. The news story may have ended there, except for one fact: the man charged with her murder was a 24-year-old immigrant from Mexico, alleged to have entered the U.S. illegally.

Those who have followed the politics of immigration could anticipate what would happen next. As POLITICO reported, “within hours, the tragedy emerged as a polarizing wedge issue — just in time for the fall campaign homestretch.” Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds — campaigning to win a full term — tweeted hints of a new political strategy: “We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer.” Iowa’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, also linked the murder to the immigration system, echoing Reynolds’s position.

That evening, President Donald Trump furthered the provocation at a rally in West Virginia: “You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman.” The next day, the White House ramped up the message with the release of a video compilation of families victimized by violence from undocumented immigrants. A tweet accompanying the video said “The Tibbetts family has been permanently separated. They are not alone.” The phrase  “permanently separated” contrasted this family’s story with the presumably less-permanent separations of thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the southern U.S. border.

But as the Republicans prepared to ride a red wave to the November elections on immigration scare tactics, something unexpected happened. The Tibbetts family rejected the politicization of Mollie’s death, as several family members made clear in social media. On August 21, Tibbetts’ aunt posted a message defending immigrants against a wholesale attack: “Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races.” Tibbetts’ second cousin pushed back at a conservative commentator on Twitter: “hey i’m a member of mollie’s family and we are not so fucking small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals.” Another cousin wrote “You do not get to use her murder to inaccurately promote your ‘permanently separated’ hyperbole.” Finally, on September 1, Rob Tibbetts, Mollie’s father, responded with a guest column in the Des Moines Register: “The person who is accused of taking Mollie’s life is no more a reflection of the Hispanic community as white supremacists are of all white people. To suggest otherwise is a lie.”

This story offers several lessons about the politics of demonizing immigrants, the uncertain allegiance of rural voters to Trump, and the role of immigrants in the rural economy. First, a family in mourning who takes a stand for fairness and charity despite their loss is a powerful moral force in a news story, and defying their wishes crosses a line of decency. After the Tibbetts family spoke out, Iowa’s GOP quickly dropped the demonization of immigrants political strategy, at least for this election cycle. The issue does not appear on Reynolds’s campaign website, and she didn’t mention it in any of the three gubernatorial debates. A reporter brought it up in the final debate, asking Reynolds if she had any regrets regarding her comments, which were “chastised for coming off as political, too soon in the grieving process.” She responded “this isn’t about politics, it’s about policy.” Her challenger, Fred Hubbell, replied “the governor’s statement was completely political. . . . matter of fact, that’s exactly what the Mollie Tibbetts family said, ‘let’s not politicize this.’” So a residue remains on Reynolds for trying to exploit Tibbetts’ death for political advantage.

Second, this case reminds us that “pivot” counties can pivot again. Poweshiek County, where Brooklyn, Iowa is located, is one of the 31 pivot counties in Iowa that voted for Obama twice and flipped to Trump in 2016. The push back on Trump’s immigration rhetoric in the Tibbetts case suggests that he has no lock on pivot counties. Iowans could easily pivot back to support a Democrat who offered something better than two years of “build a wall” and disparaging brown and black people.

Third, immigration is both an economic and a social issue. The alleged murderer had worked for at least four years at Yarrabee Farms, a dairy farm, and he lived in a trailer owned by one of his employers, Craig Lang, a high-profile Republican. The Lang family said they screened the man when they hired him but now realized they didn’t use the more robust E-Verify system. Although Yarrabee Farms received threatening messages after the identity of the alleged murderer broke, few people in Iowa were calling for more immigration restrictions after this case, perhaps because they understand the importance of immigrant labor to the state’s economy. In fact, with Iowa’s unemployment rate at 2.5 percent in September, it would be hard to argue that immigrants were “stealing” native-born Americans’ jobs. The problem of low, stagnant wages is one Trump has yet to address, but it suggests that his anti-immigrant policy is not a solution for stark inequalities for the working class in the economy.

Instead, the President’s immigration policy increasingly adds up to a long list of problems. Not only is his stance based on a lie — immigrants actually have a lower crime rate than native-born citizens — it is also unethical, as the border separation policy illustrates. Further,  the Des Moines Register pointed out that Trump’s policy has hurt tourism, caused foreign student enrollment at Iowa’s public universities to drop by 20 percent, and undermined economic growth in all of Iowa by preventing needed workforce expansion.

But that hasn’t stopped him from demonizing immigrants as the midterm elections near, stoking fears about a horde of Central American immigrants walking toward the U.S. border. Will these fearmongering messages work? Or will some pivot counties pivot back? We’ll find out next week.

Christopher R. Martin

Christopher R. Martin is author of the forthcoming No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Communication Studies and Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.



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Red State, White Evangelicals, and a Blue Wave?

Voter registration at the University of North Texas. Photo from the Dallas Morning News.

Eyes are locked on Texas. And deep in its heart are white evangelicals who could be part of a blue wave many hope will wash over that red state to carry Ted Cruz far out to sea.  In tight race between Cruz and his energetic Democratic Party opponent Beto O’Rourke, New York Times reporter Elizabeth Dias suggests that white evangelical women could be open to Democratic candidates. Her interviews with long-time Republican voters point to an increasing disenchantment that could temper the unwavering evangelical support that Republican incumbents and candidates view as their inalienable birthright.

White evangelical women from Texas, Dias explains, are not poised en masse to bolt from the Republican Party. But Trump’s leadership has down-ticket implications even for Cruz, his bitter opponent in 2016. In this competitive U.S. Senate race, even a slightly depressed turnout among the Republican base combined with a healthy number of party-switching voters could make a decisive difference. The evangelical women whom Diaz interviewed see a “stark moral contrast” between Trump and O’Rourke. They view  Trump’s policies and behavior, including banning Muslim refugees, separating children from their parents at the border, and Trump’s disrespect of women, as  “fundamentally anti-Christian. ”. When an older white evangelical man said to one of Diaz’s interviewees, Tess Clarke, that she couldn’t be a Christian and vote for O’Rourke, Clarke responded:  “I keep going back to who Jesus was when he walked on earth. This is about proximity to people in pain.”

These faint stirrings of discontent among white evangelical women in Texas are connected to larger questions about class and theology.  If Jesus really was close to people in pain and suffering in his peripatetic ministry, the transformative possibilities of following that Jesus are revolutionary.  Such a Jesus is a human Jesus with whom people can identify. He is also one who cares about the hidden and open injuries of class. For those who suffer with those wounds, the gospel offers the prospect of solidarity and its active healing ministry.

The codependent relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican Party has the whiff of eternal truth to it. But it has not always been so. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was established in 1942 as an effort to gain influence in Washington, D.C. The NAE invited individual churches, whole denominations, and pastors to join in united action to represent evangelicals to a country still dominated by mainline Protestants. What the NAE wanted most of all, though, was to have a freer voice over the radio waves to spread the gospel. The Christian Right had not yet emerged, Moral Majority was two generations in the future, and evangelicals had not yet sold their soul to the Republican Party.

Leading evangelical theologians in the generation after World War II, notably C.F.H. Henry, warned about the dangers of imbuing any economic system or political system with divine authority. Instead, in the spirit of evangelical independence based on a God who transcends all human endeavors, he urged that evangelicals should always remember that earthly economic or political institutions are under the authority of the gospel not the other way around. So the nearly complete alignment between evangelicals and the Republican Party in our time would have deeply alarmed Henry and many evangelical leaders of that era.

Now, however, some evangelicals seem to be waking up to the nightmare of a deeply unevangelical sell-out of the Kingdom of God for a gaudy, earthly imitation. A closed-door consultation of around fifty evangelical leaders convened at Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater, and often called the evangelical’s Harvard) in April to deal with concerns about the future of evangelicalism and concerns that “their movement has become too closely associated with President Trump’s polarizing politics.” According to Katelyn Beaty, editor at large for Christianity Today, the meeting was an attempt to sort out their alliance with Trump and to be engaged in “self-reflection on the current condition of Evangelicalism.”

Contrary to any hopes raised by even the scant possibility of evangelicals looking for a balm in Gilead outside of the Republican Party, we’re not likely to see evangelicals running to join the Democratic Party. What I’d really like to see are evangelicals who follow the Jesus they claim to know as he walks close to people in their pain and their powerlessness. Jesus the Savior meets Jesus the prophet of social change.  If evangelicals followed this Jesus, as  Tess Clarke suggests, they would be in a position to challenge both Republicans and Democrats when their politics and their policies favor elites who want to preserve power and status. This would be a major theological challenge, and in Texas, at least, it is coming from white evangelical women who are lightyears ahead of their own leadership.

Evangelicals make a particular point of adhering to the Chalcedonian formulation from 451 AD that affirmed Jesus is “truly God and truly man.” Despite the evangelical commitment to this major creed of the Church, they still emphasize his divinity to the neglect of his humanity. Sometimes it seems that they love Paul more than Jesus. It was Paul, after all, in his letter to the Galatians who argued “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Paul underlines the power of Jesus Christ to overcome all human divisions so that a universal human family is possible through faith in Christ.

But many evangelicals have relied on Paul’s teaching about being “one in Christ Jesus” to avoid the sharper divisions that Jesus drew. They shrink from a gospel that cuts against the grain call out the well-heeled on behalf of those who are down-at-the-heels. As Jesus emphasized in his discussion with the rich young man who sought the Kingdom of Heaven, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:21-23). Granted, it is not impossible, but it is hard.

The power of the gospel that evangelicals teach has been diminished by their own sense of limitation and fear – the limits they place on a God they believe to be omnipotent based on a fear that God can’t or won’t act in human history without help from the GOP. Yet when evangelicals return to Jesus and consider the multitude of possibilities inherent in concrete and tangible ministries with those in pain, as some brave souls are doing in Texas, then they start to do the unexpected. Beto O’Rourke is but the smallest beginning. A new generation of evangelicals is emerging. Who can wager what they might do when a gospel informed by compassion and care replaces the one now chained to party and platform?

Ken Estey

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What Does the New Doctor Who Offer Working-Class Whovians?

BBC Studios. Photo by Sophie Mutevelian

The new season of British Sci-Fi show, Doctor Who has created a buzz due to the casting of a woman to play the Doctor for the first time in the show’s fifty-five-year history. I’ve been a life-long fan – the show first aired five years before I was born, and I don’t know a world without the Doctor and the Tardis. I have followed the Doctor through multiple regenerations and enjoyed all the stories despite the show’s middle-class sensibilities.

The Doctor is an alien Time Lord, and as a young viewer I accepted the implied superiority that came with this title. A Lord was elite, aristocratic, and for me as a working-class girl, this already made them special and other-worldly. The actors who played the role during the classic era of the show, lived up to this suggestion of upper classness. My favourite Doctor from the 1970s (the fourth Doctor) was played by Tom Baker, and despite the actor’s working-class origins, his character spoke with a ‘posh’ accent and displayed the airs of a middle-class person. Subsequent Doctors maintained this sense of class superiority through their accents and/or their costume. The Doctor’s class has usually been highlighted by their interactions with the companions who have shared their adventures through time and space. These companions, even when treated with fondness by the Doctor, were generally portrayed as inferior in intellect and lacking the cultural capital displayed by the ancient wandering alien.

The class dynamic of the show changed in 2005, when the series was rebooted after a sixteen-year hiatus. The ninth Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston, an actor who often comments on his working-class background and the obstacles faced by working-class actors. Eccleston’s Doctor spoke in a working-class regional accent, and his companion, Rose (Billie Piper), was a working-class girl who lived in public housing. The tenth, eleventh, and twelfth Doctors reverted back to middle-class characteristics, although some of the companions were working-class.  Recent companions, such as Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) were working-class. In series ten, Potts, who was introduced as a cafeteria worker, is mentored, Educating Rita style, by the Doctor (Peter Capaldi). But, through most of the series, the companions seem inferior to the Doctor in terms of intellect and cultural capital. As a working-class viewer, I was used to the lack of working-class representation on screen, and I enjoyed the show regardless. A fan can be very forgiving.

The new series seems to offer something quite different. The latest regeneration of the Doctor – the thirteenth – is played by Jodie Whittaker, an actor already well known to British television viewers. The new Doctor is a welcome change, not just because the character is now played by a woman, but because Whittaker seems to be playing the Doctor as working-class. Whittaker uses her own regional working-class accent (Yorkshire) in her portrayal, and the first episode suggests a distinct shift from the middle-class superiority of the majority of her predecessors. The new incarnation comes across as no nonsense, practical, and collaborative. In the first episode she works as a team with four locals – all working-class – in an effort to save a man (also working-class) from a hostile alien. The locals include bus driver Graham O’Brien (Bradley Walsh) nurse Grace (Sharon D. Clarke), warehouse worker Ryan Sinclair (Tosin Cole), trainee police officer Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill), and crane operator Karl (Johnny Dixon). They have working-class accents, and they are diverse in terms of gender, race and age. They are representative.

For me, the gender of the Doctor’s physical form was secondary to the shift in the class consciousness of the show. The working-class companions worked together to defeat the threat – they cooperated with each other. They used their initiative and came up with their own ideas; they didn’t just wait for the Doctor to tell them what to do. They displayed working-class ingenuity and resourcefulness, and they demonstrated how working-class networks operate as they tapped into their networks to gather intelligence on the threat at hand.

Representation matters. For new and loyal fans in Britain and around the world, Doctor Who’s new inclusive approach could make a big difference. The series could show that working-class people can be brilliant physicists, engineers, pilots, historians, diplomats – roles that the Doctor often takes on. It can also show that working-class people like bus drivers and warehouse workers have agency and multiple skills that are effective, not only in the everyday, but also in times of crisis.

I’ve always loved Doctor Who, regardless of the characterisation, but now there’s an opportunity for someone with a working-class background to actually identify with the Doctor and her companions. This is a step towards addressing the lack of working-class representation on screen, and I’m hoping the rest of the season will continue with its celebration of working-class life. I’ll be watching the new season with interest.

Sarah Attfield

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First-Gen or Working-Class?

Working-class studies scholars often complain about how some researchers use a single aspect of people’s lives – most often education — to determine their social class. Anytime we define class in one way, we oversimplify it and miss important insights about how class works. That both class and the working class have often been ignored, dismissed, downplayed, or misunderstood is part of what makes them such fascinating and important subjects. Unfortunately, the slipperiness and complexity of class also explains why it often gets sidelined. As the coordinator of a research center on race and gender once told me, explaining why she didn’t highlight class in her project, “Class is just too difficult.”

I’ve been especially troubled by an increasingly widespread version of that: the adoption of “first-generation” as the dominant way of identifying student services programs aimed at what I would call working-class students. As I have argued in various settings, institutions need to do more than recruit these students or try to make college affordable (something that Sara Goldrick-Rab argues they have not done very well). We also need to help students get the most out of higher education. I’m excited to see more and more schools establishing resource centers, mentoring projects, student groups, and other efforts to help working-class students, many of them students of color, thrive academically and socially. Yet I am troubled that so many of these projects describe their work as serving “first-generation” students.

No doubt, “first-generation” has some advantages over “working-class” as a label. While it zooms in on one element of a student’s experience, whether their parents went to college is a good predictor of several other factors – class, income, race, immigration status. It also points to two of the challenges these students face: feeling out of place and not knowing how to navigate the institution. Students whose parents went to college, and especially the significant number at elite institutions whose parents went to the same college they now attend, often feel a sense of ownership and belonging. They see themselves as having a right to be there, while first-gen students may feel like interlopers. They may also feel displaced from home as they begin to construct their student lives in the privileged world of the university. Similarly, students whose parents went to college have in-house experts who can provide advice on where to get help and encourage a student to feel entitled to ask for help. All of this reflects experiences rooted in whether one or both parents went to college. “First-gen” also highlights the significance of cultural capital, which might include familial attitudes about reading and knowledge, travel experiences, exposure to Culture with a capital C, and  so one. In this sense, “first-gen” is an accurate and useful term.

“First-gen” may also be more inclusive and inviting than “working-class.” Despite evidence that more Americans than we might think identify themselves as working-class (see the General Social Survey question on class identification, or recent studies suggesting that younger adults are becoming more likely to define themselves as working-class), the term also carries negative connotations. In Working-Class Studies courses at Youngstown State University, my mostly working-class students often shied away from using the term – not only to refer to themselves but even to refer to the writers or subjects of the books we read. Nearly every semester, students explained that they saw “working-class” as an insult. To call someone “working-class” drew attention to their failure to succeed in our supposedly equal-opportunity society. My students always got past that, but those class discussions taught me why announcing a project as aimed at working-class students often doesn’t work. Students not only don’t necessarily define themselves as working-class, they may actively resist that language. And that may be especially true for students of color, who given political discourse these days, may reasonably hear “working class” as code for “white working class.” Similarly, students from rural areas or whose families work in service jobs may assume that “working class” refers primarily to industrial workers (or to those who used to do such labor), not to people like them.

“First-gen” on the other hand, is both clearer – it refers to a single, explicit fact – and relatively neutral. While some raise questions about whether a student counts as “first-gen” if their parents have some college or if only one of them went to college, for most, it’s a straightforward definition, and because it’s a fairly new term in higher education and public discourse, it carries almost no baggage. Indeed, for many students, being the first in their family to go to college is a source of pride, while coming from a working-class family can, unfortunately, be a source of shame.

Still, “first-gen” hides some important issues about how class influences students’ experiences. In a way, “first-gen” efforts may go too far in the direction that I and others have advocated, putting the focus on culture and self-efficacy, all in the name of helping working-class students succeed. But that can also mask the sometimes dramatic economic problems that Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues have identified. I’m sure many of these programs acknowledge the economic inequities, and some also address them directly, by actively helping students access basic needs like food, housing, winter coats, and so on. Still, I was struck by the words of Emily Loftis, writing about the “anger of a first-generation student” on the Class Action blog a few years ago:

No one told me about the anger I’d feel when 90% of my class raises their hand when the professor asks who has visited country x, y, and z when I’ve never left the country. Or how frustrating it feels to have to check my bank account before every purchase while my classmates receive money week after week from parents’ seemingly bottomless bank accounts. The anger that springs up when I’m searching for a summer internship because they’re all unpaid and I don’t have enough experience for the paid ones because I spend my summers working. The anger from spending my holiday breaks cleaning houses while my classmates take trips around the world.

Clearly, Loftis’s anger is primarily about money, not her parents’ education, and that needs to be part of the campus, political, and public discussions of the challenges working-class students face. Indeed, it may well be money more than culture that accounts for the decline in college attendance among first-generation students.

More important, “first-gen” erases the systemic and collective elements of class. To identify as “first-gen” is to define oneself based on the specific conditions of one’s own family, not of a large and varied class that shares many experiences and whose opportunities are systematically – not incidentally or situationally – constrained. This not only individualizes students’ experiences, functioning perhaps inadvertently to push students into middle-class culture. It also emphasizes the pressure students feel to be the one to lift their families out of their economic marginalization. The answer to a family’s struggles, this suggests, is education, which in turn enables individual success. To be fair, first-gen projects often work hard to foster a sense of community and shared experience among students, but that solidarity is not necessarily tied to broader social conditions or conflicts. The neutrality of “first-gen” draws students in, but I also want these programs to encourage them to understand and take action on the injustices that shaped those conditions.

So I’m torn about “first-gen.” Because I want students to take advantage of the support that universities can provide, and because I want those programs to engage working-class students from a wide range of backgrounds, I recognize the value of organizing these efforts as services for “first-gen” students. At the same time, I don’t want us to lose yet another opportunity to talk about class or to recognize how the commonalities (and differences) of working-class life influence not only students’ experiences in college but the lives of their families and their own life paths after graduation. As bell hooks wrote in reflecting on her own experience as a first-generation college student at Stanford, class matters. When we erase that, we undermine the possibility for organizing against the economic and political constraints faced by the working-class families first-gen students are leaving behind.

Sherry Linkon


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Is the Fever Breaking? Ground Zero Youngstown

Two years ago, I described the Youngstown area as “crossover ground zero” for Donald Trump and the politics of resentment in working-class and rust belt communities. In local rallies during the 2016 campaign and since he took office, Trump has repeatedly promised an economic renaissance and immigration reform. These issues resonated with local voters.

His success in Youngstown might seem surprising, since Mahoning and Trumbull Counties usually vote by large margins for Democratic Presidential candidates. In 2012, 63.5% of Mahoning County voters supported for Obama, even more than in 2008. But in the 2016 Republican primary, more than 6000 Mahoning County Democrats switched parties, and another 20,000 people who had not been registered voters signed up to vote. Clinton won the Presidential race here by less than 1%, and Trump won in Trumbull County.

When I returned to Youngstown this summer, I wondered whether Trump’s support remained strong. In this highly nationalistic working-class community, the first thing I saw driving into the city were American flags were plastered wall-to-wall on overpasses. No wonder Trump made a “rare Presidential visit” in July 2017 to boost his flagging support and renew his appeal to “Make America Great Again.”

But as the summer went on, I sensed an undercurrent of uneasiness, especially among the area’s much-touted swing voters. While Trump crows about what a “great job” he’s doing, some of his supporters wonder whether local residents will benefit from the tax cuts. The national debt climbs to over one trillion dollars, and rising health care costs and gas prices have eroded any financial gains for most Americans. Yes, unemployment rates have fallen, but underemployment, low wages, reduced pensions, low property values, and increasing precarity in the Mahoning Valley have made it hard to believe in Trump’s economic happy talk. And talk among some in Congress about cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits to offset the deficit is adding to the local anxiety.

The local economic picture clearly does not offer many signs of hope. The GM Lordstown plant has eliminated two shifts, cutting 3000 jobs since Trump took office. According to recently retired UAW Local Vice President Tim O’Hara, about 40% of union members voted for Trump in 2016.  Dave Green, the current union President, has appealed to GM and President Trump to help bring a new car to the plant that currently builds the Chevy Cruze, but Trump has remained silent, and GM will not make a commitment. In fact, the company responded to the President’s trade policy by announcing that it will build a new car at its Ramos, Mexico plant, which also builds the Cruze. The local paper, The Vindicator, offered a blunt “reality check: Donald Trump is not going to intervene to save one of the leading employers in the Mahoning Valley.”

Yet Trump’s trade policy still appeals to many local voters. Youngstowners have long blamed the loss of its steel industry on unfair trade, and many here still support the protectionist ideas of Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and local free trade critics like Democrats Sherrod Brown and Tim Ryan. But local steel producers and fabricators have indicated that instead of expanding their labor force here, they may downsize or move facilities to Mexico because of Trump’s trade policies, so more local workers can expect to lose good-paying jobs. As Trump supporter and local steelworker Michael Lang said in an interview with Reuters, “I voted for Trump because I thought he’d straighten things out, not do something like this.”

Few of the  retail, public sector, and healthcare workers I’ve spoken with admitted they had supported Trump. Those who did were evasive and seemed uncomfortable talking about him. It seems likely that workers in these jobs are anxious about the continuing budget cuts, loss of local state funding and government assistance, and more recently the closing one of the two local hospitals, which displaced 400 nurses and other staff. Service workers who supported Trump may be starting to understand the limits of the politics of resentment.

Clearly, neither Trump’s campaign promises nor his policies are making Youngstown great again. The question is, will the community’s continuing economic struggles lead people to turn against Trump and the Republicans? Or bring them back to the Democrats? NPR reporter Asma Khalid, who has tracked Trump’s support in Youngstown for the past two years, is uncertain. Among the “disillusioned” Democrats she spoke with, some still support Trump, though they also  plan vote for Democrats like Brown and Ryan this November.

Mahoning County Democratic Chairperson David Betras also doubts whether the Trump fever has broken in Youngstown. The best he can say is that “the temperature is going down.” His advice to Democrats: follow the lead of Brown and Ryan — stress concrete economic programs, healthcare, education, and building trust. A focus on the economy, Betras believes, will win out, even as Trump and the Republicans try to distract voters with often-racist cultural divides, like whether NFL players should be allowed to kneel.

Yet many in Youngstown are fed-up with both parties. When I asked retired small businessman, Democrat, and Trump enthusiast Sam Carely who he supports in 2018, his response reflects a distinct lack of enthusiasm: “I am not sure if I will vote. But if I do I would probably vote for a Democrat — if I could find a reason.” Carely is tired of interparty fighting, and he is not alone. Many would prefer to vote for Democrats, but they are desperate for an economic plan that isn’t just campaign rhetoric.  For them, as for many voters around the country, the Trump fever will only break when Democrats give them something to believe in.

John Russo



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Working-Class Politics and The Foremen Problem

In a recent unpublished paper, Larry Bartels (author of Unequal Democracy) and Kathrine Cramer (author of The Politics of Resentment), reported a finding sure to surprise many who have been blaming “the white working class” for the election of Trump: “Contrary to much recent speculation regarding the political impact of long-term income stagnation, we find a strong correlation between upward economic mobility and increasingly conservative economic and political views.” Go figure. The party of greed, glory, and devil-take-the hindmost appeals to those who have moved upward?

Given my own interest in social mobility and working-class politics, I wondered how this finding applied specifically to working-class people. Too often we ignore social trajectory when we talk about class (when we even do talk about class!).  It is as if people are fixed in place, like museum pieces, but in reality, people’s positions and situations change over time. They are also influenced by parents and grandparents whose stories and values they embrace or reject as they make their way through life.

How might working-class people’s class identifications and loyalties affect their political choices?  We all know that there are workers who identify with the working class, who work in solidarity with their fellow workers, who seek to advance their interests as a class, while others identify with the boss and  seek to advance their interests on their own.  Traditionally, foremen (and they are more often men than women so I am keeping the archaic nomenclature), who stand in a contradictory location betwixt workers and owners, have embraced bossism, a term I am coining here to mean identification with the boss through disciplining of other workers.   They are like Fer, the sadistic prisoner in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, who takes the side of the camp guards and is trying to rise to the position of engineer at the construction site.  Or like “Yock,” the evil foreman who Jack Metzgar describes as getting into interminable duels with his father and other workers on the line in Striking Steel.  Like prison guards, they work for the master. They are trained in cruelty and rewarded for being hard on everyone else, including those who look like them but especially those who don’t.  I am sure there are many good and kind forepersons out there, but most enterprises that run on fear and intimidation need the unkind kind.  Anyone knowledgeable in history knows that capitalism thrives when it keeps workers in line.

Is it possible that the candidate who promised tax cuts for the wealthy and strong discipline for the unruly appealed particularly well to foremen and supervisors among the working class?  Could workers who vote Republican be, well, tools of the master?  And so I turned to the General Social Survey (GSS) to see if there was something going on with this. And I found some interesting patterns.

But first, let’s consider the white working-class’s supposed swerve to the right during the Reagan era.  Many did turn away from the Democratic Party in the 1980s, but only to a point.  Where most used to vote Democratic pretty regularly, they are now about evenly split, including many independents. Equally important, the move to the Republican Party was greatest among the group of workers I call Builders (mostly construction trades), a category that includes a pretty high proportion of foremen.

GSS data from elections over the past 50 years shows that people in working-class jobs who identify as middle class are more likely to vote Republican than similarly situated working-class people who identify as working class or lower class.   (GSS doesn’t include data from 2016, but I extrapolated the percentages based on information from American National Election Studies.)

If we look only at white working-class men, who may be especially prone to bossism, we find even greater differences, not just between those who voted Republican and those who voted Democrat, but also those who did not vote at all.  White working-class men are (a) more likely to vote Republican if they identify as middle class and (b) less likely to vote at all if they identify as working-class, lower-class, or poor.  These are men in the same job categories.

(ANES) data from the primaries lets us factor in income. Among workers whose household incomes fell below $75,000, those who identified as middle class were twice as likely to have voted for Trump in the primaries and half as likely to have voted for Sanders.

Why might some people regard themselves as middle class and others as working class?  Some say that people just don’t understand class in the US, so “most” people identify as middle class.  But this is a condescending simplification.  Class is not merely an objective social position, defined by occupation and power, but also something relational whose contestation can take the form of identification.  In other words, by claiming middle-classness, workers can identify with the winning side against other workers.  And, vice versa: by claiming working-classness, workers can align themselves with the collective struggle against the bosses.  This is not simply a matter of class consciousness, but of where one wants to align oneself.

I found some evidence of this in earlier GSS data on workers’ identification with the industries they worked for and whether they disciplined other workers or took part in other tasks of worker control (such as scheduling).  In all those cases, I found a strong correlation between these elements of bossism and voting Republican.  Identifying with the boss and identifying as middle class appear to have a multiplier effect on voting Republican as well.  For example, 71% of MC-identified White Working-Class men reported disciplining other workers, and 80% of such men agreed with the statement that they work more than their fellow workers.

Today many see workers (especially white men) embracing candidates and policies that seem to have little to do with working-class solidarity. Workers are no longer automatic votes for the Democratic Party.  The more privileged classes don’t always vote Republican (indeed, highly-educated professionals are now the backbone of the Democratic Party).  Instead of boss and workers, the divisions today may appear to reflect cultural rather than economic divides: Red State/Blue State, old/young, racist/globalist, Christian Fundamentalist/everyone else.

But the data I presented here suggests that class still matters. We just have been paying too little attention to the importance of class realignment and allegiance.  Within all classes, those who earn more, particularly as a reward of supporting and enforcing the system, are more likely to vote Republican.  Working-class foremen, thinking that they are better than the workers they police, embrace the Republican Party’s mean-spirited Trumpism, as do the very rich, who are jealous of their privileges and threatened by the highly educated.  In every class, Trump draws from those who believe in a game of winners and losers rather than a world of justice and solidarity.   The sad thing is that, as our workplaces get meaner, the mean-spirited will have even more people to draw from.

Most Americans are working class, but as I have argued previously,  they do not all share the same experiences, values, or beliefs.  And they do not all share the same politics.  We cannot hope for justice to emerge out of a beaten-down isolated working class, and the decline of unions means we have lost one of the great training grounds for working-class solidarity.  Revolutions have only been successful when workers come together to recognize their shared interests and common enemies.  We will need the foremen on our side, too.  So we have a lot of organizing to do.

Allison L. Hurst

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