The Return of the Undeserving Poor

In the nineteenth century, critics and policy makers made a clear distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.

 

This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading op-ed pages lately. While no one has yet directly accused today’s poor people of being “undeserving,” scholars and pundits have been fretting about their morals. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argued that declining morality among the lower class (which as one reviewer noted, Murray was “too polite” to name) was creating economic and social dysfunctions. Robert Putnam traces similar patterns in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, though Putnam also notes the role of deindustrialization in shaping those patterns. But in response to Putnam’s study, David Brooks focuses on the moral issues rather than economics or policy. In many poor areas, he writes, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life.” He suggests that we should hold the poor and working class “responsible” for their choices.

These and other commentaries suggest a shift in focus in American public discourse about economic inequality. Rather than hearing about the power of a few elites to influence policy so that they gain an ever larger share of wealth, and rather than analyzing how business and employment practices contribute to the stagnation and decline in wages – the kinds of issues raised by the Occupy Movement — the debate increasingly focuses on whether those who have less are victims of policies and business practices or of their own flawed morality.

 

Poor and working-class people, some critics argue, contribute to their troubles by not having stable marriages, giving birth to too many children from too many fathers, not being reliable workers, and over-indulging in drugs and alcohol. They focus on momentary pleasures rather than long-term planning, and parents aren’t sufficiently willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives. For commentators like Murray and Brooks, these behaviors are based in weak morality, not in social or economic conditions. The discussion echoes ideas that surfaced in the 1960s, when the Moynihan Report famously blamed the economic struggles of African Americans on the rise of the matriarchal family.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects on children – and on the wider social fabric — of drug and alcohol abuse, household instability, or domestic and neighborhood violence. These are real problems, and they undermine children’s sense of security and connection and teach children to have low expectations for their futures, which in turn can contribute to problems in school. However, analyses that look only at the problems in poor and working-class communities miss important strengths that may not be visible to the more elite outsiders who conduct these studies and write the columns. They may miss the networks of mutual aid that help people survive when they lack other resources, and they undervalue the street smarts and resilience that children can learn from growing up amid struggle.

 

More important, they too easily dismiss the structural and policy causes of these patterns and underestimate the challenges of creating stability in an era when steady jobs are becoming ever more scarce. How can people establish stable home lives when so many jobs are temporary, poorly paid, and require workers to juggle constantly changing shifts at multiple work sites? One explanation of the instability of many poor and working-class households appears in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which outlines how instead of reducing drug use or the drug trade, the war on drugs ensured that many poor children grew up with their father in prison instead of in the home. As Alexander notes, after prison, fathers often can’t return to their homes or find stable employment.

Critics too often oversimplify both the causes and the debate. For example, Ross Douthat suggests a false and simplistic divide, claiming that those on the left blame poverty entirely on money, while those on the right blame it on morals. Putnam’s book makes clear that both the issue and the debate are more complex than this. But though he ties the social decline of the poor and working class to the loss of industrial jobs, he then suggests solutions that focus on strengthening families and education, suggesting policy changes that don’t address the larger economic causes. And in today’s political climate, his prescriptions reflect wishful thinking rather than realistic strategies.

 

To be fair, both Brooks and Douthat temper their concerns for the morality of the poor with calls for the elite to change, as well. As Brooks writes, “privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.” Douthat offers an even stronger critique of the elite, though he still casts the problem in moral terms: “our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of ‘safe’ permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about the elite’s role, focused less on personal morality and more on social responsibility. What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?

Sherry Linkon

The Fissured (Working-Class) Workplace

One of my favourite exercises when teaching the sociology of work is to ask my students about the concept of a ‘job for life’. I started doing this a decade and a half ago at the beginning of my lecturing career. I asked the eighty odd twenty-somethings in the class in front of me ‘who’s heard of the phrase “a job for life” ’? When I first did this, maybe half the hands went up. I then asked, ‘Who here expects one’? That first time, and in subsequent trials, no hand went up. One guy did shout out, ‘But who would want one’? Over the years I’ve often tried this experiment with different classes, even asking it during open-day presentations for prospective students where the presence of their parents give an intergenerational frisson and a knowing look from the greyer heads in the audience. The receding knowledge of the term and the expectations that went with it speaks volumes about what has happened to our contemporary ideas about work.

I was thinking about that experience reading David Weil’s book The Fissured Workplace, a thoughtful and thought provoking reflection on the contemporary US workplace. By ‘fissured’ Weil means the wide range of ways in which work has been desiccated. Where traditional work was stable and intelligible, increasingly one is never sure who is responsible for the product supplied or service purchased. Weil outlines a number of types of fissuring, from subcontracting to outsourcing to franchising. Weil persuasively groups together a range of diverse strategies through which ownership and control are exercised through layer upon layer of intermediaries. The book offers a litany of corporate attempts to squeeze more profit from the bottom-line by laying-off risk and responsibility, citing examples from industries as diverse as cell phones, hotels, and coalmining. Fissuring is about saving money and restricting liability, ideally removing it all together.

Many of the instances of fissuring that Weil gives are not new for working-class people. Many working-class and trade union struggles have been over the attempt to secure at least some kind of work stability. The interesting thing about Weil’s metaphor is that it transcends blue-collar work, where poor conditions are more common, and increasingly affects traditionally middle-class white-collar environments such as journalism and publishing. This idea of fissuring adds to the emerging lexicon describing the contemporary and potential future nature of work. Like the idea of precarity that Guy Standing has talked about, fissuring makes sense of the common features and patterns that cross industries, sectors, and whole labour markets. The concept describes the splitting apart and the simultaneous corrosion or erosion of workplace sociability and culture. Fissuring gets to the heart of how contemporary work offers workers, their families, and whole communities even less of the limited stability that they enjoyed in the past.

For working-class people on both sides of the Atlantic, the ability to access good work is important for a number of obvious and perhaps less obvious reasons. Ask anyone why they work, and as like as not they will say ‘money’ and give you a look as if to say ‘are you crazy’? But dig deeper and it becomes apparent that while the cash is vital, so too are a whole range of other features of work that Studs Terkel described as things that ‘make the day go faster’. To some extent, all work socialises us, and that, in turn, allows us to play our part in socialising others. When I interview workers, the older ones especially, they often reflect on the significant people who have marked out times of transitions in their life — the most obvious moment being the initial move from school or college to their first place of employment. It often takes a whole lifetime of work before the subtlety of what they enjoyed becomes apparent to them, the way people and places helped to shape them as humans. It is only in the reminiscence that they see the value of workplace culture, even though their younger self may have ignored or hated the experience at the time. In various ways it moulded them, and they in turn help to cultivate and mature others. I am not saying that all work in the past was great, nor that ‘good work’ was accessed by all. Rather, I think a critical mass of working-class people experienced a level of stability that made a difference to their lives inside and outside the workplace. I’d go further and say that critical mass made a difference to the quality of work elsewhere, too. It afforded some working-class people the space to think and grow through employment.

When I read the David Weil’s book, I thought of the effect this fissuring has on working-class employment. The patterns of workplace culture have been undermined and changed hugely over the last three decades, but the shifts explored in The Fissured Workplace add a new and urgent dimension. What Weil describes is nothing less than the breaking down of any sort of medium or long term stability for workers. In the fissured workplace, relationships are contractual rather than social. The ability of people to join together, to socialise and be socialised, becomes increasingly limited.

For the young people I teach, The Fissured Workplace probably reads like a description of their experience of the world of work rather than as a critical analysis. We should not to romanticise the work of the past, indulge in ‘smokestack nostalgia’, but equally we need to acknowledge a world we may be losing. While the ‘job for life’ may have been a fleeting experience for a few, the social patterns that that stability engendered were profound for generations of workers and can still be seen working their way through the contemporary workplace. As for my student’s question about who would want a job for life, I would probably answer now that many working-class people would at least like the option of one.

Tim Strangleman

Adjuncts Struggle to Unionize at a Liberal College

Adjunct Action Day on February 25 highlighted the working conditions of adjuncts, who make up about 70% of the American professoriate. Adjuncts usually make $20,000–$25,000 a year, often by teaching courses at various institutions each semester. They have no job security, and frequently receive no health or retirement benefits. But they have begun fighting to improve their lot. SEIU is organizing in several states. In the Baltimore/ DC area it has formed adjunct faculty unions at several colleges and universities, Georgetown and American University among them. At Goucher College in Baltimore, SEIU is struggling to have a pro-union vote recognized by the administration.

For the past 25 years I’ve taught at this small liberal arts college that purports to value inclusion and fairness. We value diversity in staff, faculty, and students. We do anti-racist work. Yet approximately 60% of our faculty are adjuncts—lower than the national average, but shockingly high for an expensive selective college. When SEIU came to Goucher with the goal of representing full-, part-, and half-time adjuncts, the College’s values were put to the test, and the College failed.

In the fall of 2014 SEIU assisted adjunct faculty members in forming an organizing committee. It also enlisted the aid of some tenured faculty members, myself included, and student activist organizations. The administration declared it would remain neutral on the matter, but the President also urged adjunct faculty members to carefully weigh a pro-union vote claiming that a union would change Goucher’s culture. (Given that he had been at the College for 3 months at the time, many questioned his understanding of that culture.) The administration also emailed faculty, acknowledging that union organizers were on campus and advising faculty to call Security if they were fearful. Union supporters were enraged by this line, as it reinforced a stereotype of union organizers as thugs. It was not the rhetoric we expected from a progressive college. We also did not expect a progressive college to hire Jackson Lewis, a law firm known for its anti-union work. But despite the College’s efforts, a majority of the adjunct faculty voted to hold an election on being represented by SEIU.

Although the December union election was initially declared a tie, the union clearly would have won if challenges had not left the outcome in the balance. Goucher contested a substantial percentage of the votes, about 10%, despite the fact that the College itself had provided the list of eligible adjunct faculty to SEIU. After a hearing, the NLRB ruled against all but two challenges. The union had won, though both sides had two weeks to file exceptions to the ruling. At 5 PM on the deadline day, Jackson Lewis’s lawyers contested the accepted ballots. The case is now going to federal court. This is the Goucher Administration’s version of neutrality.

My commitment to unions is rooted partially in my experience growing up working-class. When I was very young, my father was laid off from a deli. Desperate to support me and my pregnant mother, he tried selling tombstones door to door, wearing the requisite 1950s suit with white shirt, starched with pasta water my frugal mom had saved for this purpose. Because my father eventually got a union job, my family could have a small house, a car, and, most important, economic security. “Without unions, the working person is nothing,” Dad said. I knew he was right.

As someone from a union family, I am angered by the Administrations’ response, but I am also disappointed in many of my colleagues. We pro-union tenured faculty members circulated a letter of support among our other tenured and tenure-track faculty. A number signed, but several refused without explanation or repeatedly made excuses about being too busy. More troubling, some adjunct faculty were openly hostile to the union. Often these were faculty members in relatively good adjunct positions (full- as opposed to part-time, with access to some benefits), and often they had partners with high incomes. Some were wealthy. Many of these faculty members were active in causes such as prison education, anti-racist work, and advocacy for the homeless, yet they did not empathize with faculty members who need their Goucher salaries. They did not want to advocate for social justice at home.

Also, some faculty enjoy the prestige of teaching at a formerly women’s college that was once seen as a step away from the seven sisters. They do not want to be associated with the Service Employees International Union, or perhaps not with any union. One full-time adjunct faculty member described joining a union as “the last resort.”

While the faculty response to the unionization effort was disappointing, the student response was overwhelmingly positive. Approximately 500 of Goucher’s 1400 students signed a letter in support of the union. We might chalk up this action to youthful idealism, but I think the commitment goes deeper. Students, perhaps especially liberal arts students, are well aware of the paucity of good jobs. They know that after four years of college they may be asked to take an unpaid internship. The term “precariat” describes so many of their slightly older friends’ lives. Young people know they likely cannot rise on their own merits and that their lives will be markedly more difficult than their parents’, if something doesn’t change.

As a tenured full professor, I have no vested interest in an adjunct faculty union at Goucher College or anywhere else. However, I want all the people with whom I work to have economic security. As distasteful as the actions of the Goucher Administration and other college administrations that have taken anti-union stances may be, they could not be successful if tenured faculty were not complicit. It is up to the tenured faculty at Goucher to demand social justice for adjunct faculty. It is up to the tenured faculty at all institutions to advocate for fair treatment of all faculty.

Michelle M. Tokarczyk

Michelle M. Tokarczyk, a professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, has been active in working-class studies for over twenty-five years and has published numerous books and articles in the field.

The Soft Show of Force in Australian Police Reality Television Shows

Summer in Australia (December to February) is the non-ratings period on television, which means the expensive dramas (both local and foreign) are replaced by cheaper alternatives. Locally made police reality TV shows dominated this summer, such as Gold Coast Cops, RBT (about Random Breath Test units), Kalgoorlie Cops, Territory Cops and Highway Patrol. I found myself somewhat obsessed with these the fly-on-the-wall style ‘ride along’ documentaries that follow a formula, stretching four or five stories into a one-hour episode.

While watching, I started to wonder why I found them so fascinating. After all, like many people from working-class backgrounds, I am ambivalent towards the police. Working-class people often have cops in the family, like my mother, who was a member of the London Metropolitan Police in the 1950s. But working-class people are also likely to have witnessed or experienced police harassment, discrimination, and sometimes, brutality (especially if they are working-class people of color). When I was growing up on a public housing estate in London, my peers taught me to call the police ‘pigs’ or ‘the filth.’ At the same time, adults told me to call a police officer if I was in danger, and the police are usually the first people we call when trouble occurs.

I find myself having arguments with some of my middle-class left-wing activist colleagues who are often quite quick to describe the police as the violent arm of authority, and I have seen police use heavy handed tactics when I’ve been involved in rallies or pickets (as a white woman I have never experienced police harassment due to my race) . But I can’t help but think of the police as individuals, usually from working-class backgrounds, who in the end often share the same concerns as the protestors. I am aware that some police are racist, sexist, and homophobic. Some are quick to use violence, and many are blind to the entrenched racism within their ranks. But there are good police, too, who try to make a difference and view their work as a community service.

The relationship is complicated. I am often disturbed and outraged by police behavior, but I love to watch police reality TV. I like the characters, both the cops themselves and the people they interact with (who are usually working-class, too). Police reality TV is one of the only formats in Australian TV that depicts people working. The audience is given the chance to ride along with the officers as they work through their shifts. I value these representations of a working day (or night). We get to see the cops filling out paperwork and waiting around as well as chasing down suspected criminals. It isn’t all high drama (at least not in the Australian shows), and it looks very different from the slick police dramas that dominate the ratings for the rest of the year. Some of the police are charming, others are brusque. Some are overweight or unfit, some share interesting insights, and others just get on with the job. They don’t always catch the criminals, and we witness their frustration or resignation when things go awry. Some seem to be extremely patient as they calmly take notes while being subjected to a barrage of abuse. Others seem to be keeping a short fuse tightly under control for the sake of the cameras. And there is diversity, too, in the cultural backgrounds of the officers and in the gender mix.

What do these shows communicate? Do they educate? Entertain? Provide good police PR? Criminologist Paul Mason suggests that many people gain an understanding of the police from representations on television, so it’s possible that the shows educate the public on police procedures, protocols, and duties. The audience can learn police jargon and terms such as DUI (driving under the influence) or about potential punishments for the alleged crimes depicted (the shows often include a coda explaining what happened to those arrested). As a viewer, I like to watch the officers preparing a breathalyzer test or reading suspects their rights. These aspects highlight the repetition of their jobs and provide insight into the everyday aspects of policing, in contrast to the unrealistic glamour represented in many police dramas. They demonstrate that work is often tedious and frustrating (as well as dangerous).

These shows can be educational in other ways, too. They raise social issues, such as alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or the role police play in assisting people with mental illnesses. They might also send a warning to people thinking about driving while drunk or behaving anti-socially, reminding viewers of the consequences of such behavior (and implying that the cops are present and will catch those who break the law).

 

How do they operate as entertainment? There is an enjoyable voyeuristic element to the ‘ride on’ format, not just in terms of watching the cops but also watching the public interacting with them (whether they are the suspects or those calling for help). Riding along by watching these shows also offers vicarious pleasure, feeling part of the arrests and the chases and helping the public.

The shows also operate as excellent PR for the police and depict the police in a sympathetic light. The police units involved cooperate with the program makers, and police chiefs often endorse the shows. Although the shows might include the occasional harsh word or impatient tone, or even a slightly heavy handed, physical restraint of a suspect, they never show police brutality. There is no hint of racism, sexism, or homophobia on the part of police. There are no police shootings (which contradicts the reports of shootings seen regularly in the press). There are no deaths in custody, or suggestions of corruption. The world of the reality show cops is wholesome. Sometimes it might be a little bumbling, but it is never sinister.

Overall, I think the shows work on a variety of levels, but ultimately they represent the police in a positive way. That means we need to pay attention to what they leave out. Enjoying the representation of working-class jobs is all very well, but the gaps need to be exposed and relationship of working-class people with the police (often fraught with contradictions) should be acknowledged.

Sarah Attfield

 

Getting By: The Fight for Community

Over the years, I have been involved in many community projects and campaigns, but not since the 1980s have I experienced the militancy and anxiety among working-class people that I see today. At first glance, you may miss it, or misinterpret their anger and rising class-consciousness as the way members of an underclass exclude themselves from British society. But these are the simplistic, stigmatizing, and cruel critiques that the mainstream media, and mainstream politicians, choose to deliver about the poorest members of our society.

In Getting By, my book about the council estate in Nottingham where I lived and raised my family for more than 20 years, I map my life from very poor housing close to the mines where my family worked, to the city centre of Nottingham, where I lived in public housing as a single mother with my mixed-race son, to finding myself at the University of Nottingham as a thirty-something working-class, mature student. I spent eight years researching the neighborhood where I lived for 25 years and writing about the consequences of de-valuing people and communities. I map how working-class people in the United Kingdom have become de-valued by successive governments and policies in the last thirty years. I show and explain how people who live in social housing have become problematized in the public psyche, stigmatized, and reduced to figures of ridicule, and hate. In particular I examine what it means to be a working-class woman, and how you learn at a very young age that shame will be part of your life – and that your respectability has to be sacrificed in order to ‘get by.’ The book is set within one neighborhood within the United Kingdom, although stigmatization and the de-valuing of working-class people is embedded throughout the country. For the last 18 months, I have lived in east London, continuing my academic research and also becoming involved in campaigns in London, where the de-valuing process of working-class people is stark, particularly around issues of housing. Rents within the capital are so high it is becoming impossible for poor families to stay in London.

unnamedWe can see one vivid example in the Focus E15 mothers, a group of young women with small children who, in 2013, were forcibly evicted from a homeless hostel that sits in the shadow of the billion pound developments of the Olympic Park and the Westfield Shopping Centre. Their evictions were treated with a complete lack of empathy for their welfare by the local authority and Mayor (both Labour Party). They were told that the only social housing available was in other cities around the UK where they have no connections or family — a crude form of class cleansing.

The Focus E15 mothers have gone on to support other families being made homeless in their neighborhood, leading to the group being labelled ‘agitators’ and ‘band wagon jumpers.’ This is what happens when powerless and de-valued women fight back — refuse to ‘know their place’ — without deference to an organized top-down political party.

Meanwhile, multi-million pound housing developments in London are segregating less well-off tenants from wealthy home-buyers by forcing them to use separate entrances. A Guardian newspaper investigation discovered that in upmarket apartment blocks, which are required to include affordable homes in order to win planning permission, poorer residents are increasingly being forced to use alternative access, which some have dubbed “poor doors.” Even bicycle storage spaces, rubbish disposal facilities, and postal deliveries are being separated to avoid class mixing. When I first read about one of these buildings, ‘One Commercial Street,’ I immediately knew that this was wrong. I didn’t need to consider whether de-valuing a person and making them walk round the back was better than providing no home at all, an argument levelled at those of us who spent 20 weeks protesting outside this symbolic monument to capitalism. But this sort of social Apartheid is wrong and needs to be called out for what it is.

It seems that social cleansing, social apartheid, and social inequality have been accepted as ‘common sense’ by the political elites, whether that means social cleansing the poor out of London altogether, providing different entrances to buildings to ensure that the rich don’t need to meet the poor, or de-humanizing people through ridiculing the places where they live, their culture, and their lives.

Perhaps ironically, this kind of hard-line neo-liberal thinking can generate class consciousness born out of a sense of unfairness . Grass-roots activism is thriving among groups united in their experience of being treated harshly and having very little or no power. They are fighting for their lives and the futures of their children as we fought in 1984 against pit closures. Many think the fight in 1984/5 was about coal and the closure of mines, and to some extent it was. In truth, our struggle as a striking family was much greater than coal and mines. It was about safeguarding our community, our way of life, and our culture — everything that made us proud working-class men, women, and children. We lost that fight, the mines were closed, 193,000 miners lost their livelihoods, and thousands more local jobs connected to the industry also disappeared. We lost our communities, we lost our families as each generation had to move out of the mining towns to find work elsewhere, and we lost our collective politics and our strong proud culture. This is what happens when thriving and tight knit communities are destroyed and de-valued.

The fight in London is also about saving working-class communities, and this fight has become especially apparent among mothers in the UK who were not politically active, perhaps, until they faced eviction, like the Focus E15 women. Recently, I have met women with their children on protests who have never been involved in politics before, who are now organizing solely by their class and their experiences.

Getting By shows how important community, family, and neighborhood still are to working-class people. Although there is an absence- a void left by professional politicians in how working class people ‘do politics,’ the book shows that there is a collective and a political identity emerging out of the concept of ‘belonging and community’. I feel confident that energy and class consciousness are rising among people who even a year ago had little interest in politics. Working-class people are becoming angry at the levels of inequality they see and the unfairness and injustice they are experiencing. I am hopeful because the discontent and change in working-class politics are coming from the grass roots, from mothers with babies on their hips, connected to no organized political party, shouting ‘shame on you’ at the police protecting the buildings and the power of the elites. The energy and the fight-back in the capital has both overwhelmed and inspired me to the point where even I — a very cynical working-class academic — believe that change is not only coming, but is happening.

Lisa Mckenzie

Lisa Mckenzie is a research fellow in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working on issues of social inequality and class stratification through ethnographic research.

 

Class War and Sociology

I no longer get as angry as I probably should when I witness middle-class professionals engage in the kind of dismissive class prejudice that Classism Exposed so insightfully reveals almost every week. It is so common that in many middle-class settings I more or less expect a certain haughty ignorance of working-class people and their lives and, what’s worse, an astounding willingness nonetheless to make up stuff about “them” – sort of like discussing “the French” among Americans who, like me, have never actually known a French person. But I expect more from sociologists, especially those who take the time to write a book.

Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America is in many ways an effective liberal counter to Charles Murray’s mean-spirited portrayal of the working-class family in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Both books are concerned with the decline in marriage among lower-income families and the negative effect they think this has on children. The percentage of mothers who were unmarried at the birth of their children is now nearly 41%, having doubled since 1980. Both Cherlin and Murray focus on the fact that out-of-wedlock births are much higher among lower-income than higher-income, college-educated families. Neither Cherlin nor Murray establishes that whatever negative effects there are on children are due to family form rather than low income itself. Instead, they focus on what they see as the causes of what both agree is a potentially disastrous trend. For Murray the decline in marriage is a result of a creeping moral rot – specifically, an ongoing decline in industriousness, honesty, and religion – among lower-income and non-college-educated people. For Cherlin the cause is a combination of working-class men’s outdated cultural commitment to a male-breadwinner version of marriage and a labor market that increasingly does not provide living-wage jobs that could support a traditional male-only breadwinner. For those interested in this topic, I recommend Cherlin’s Chapter 5.

The rest of the book, however, is a woefully simplistic digest of much better studies by historians and sociologists like Stephanie Coontz, Michele Lamont and Annette Lareau. Cherlin, for example, at several points assumes that all working-class men are both taciturn and patriarchal, a combination that seems to me hard to put together in one individual. Maybe this seems so outrageously false to me because I had a very talkative, bossy, working-class patriarch for a father while his older sister, my aunt, was a very talkative, only slightly less bossy, working-class matriarch. But surely a sociologist should understand without ever having talked with any working-class people that it is highly unlikely for a working class that includes tens of millions of people to have only one personality type!

There are many other breezy stereotypes built atop other stereotypes in Cherlin’s account, but he turns defensive and vicious in responding to Michele Lamont’s nuanced comparative studies of working-class and professional men in the U.S. and France. Lamont found that these men had starkly different systems of status and morality by class but only nuanced variations by nationality. In The Dignity of Working Men she writes: “For many professionals and managers I talked to, socioeconomic success and moral worth go hand in hand, the former confirming the latter. In contrast, when evaluating the upper half, most workers disentangle socioeconomic and moral worth . . . . . [critiquing] the moral character of upper middle class people, mostly by pointing to their lack of personal integrity, lack of respect for others, and the poor quality of their interpersonal relationships.”

Instead of trying to understand how different social classes might see the world differently and might place themselves differently within it, which is what Lamont does, Cherlin takes offense at how people like him (and me) are often characterized by both American and French workers.   Having taken offense, he could have argued that this view of professional middle-class people is inaccurate or, at least, an over-generalization or even a stereotype, but he doesn’t do that either. Instead, he sees only name-calling and answers with a sociologist’s fancier version of name-calling: “This morally based sense of dignity was a reactive identity: it was not constructed by people who had the option of taking high-paying management or professional jobs or who could easily find meaningful work.” Implicitly defending a middle-class “proactive identity,” Cherlin blithely assumes that all working-class jobs are both meaningless and experienced as meaningless and that given a choice everybody would choose a job like his. He goes on in the following pages to claim that “working-class men commonly define their self-worth against an ‘other,’ an outside group toward which they can feel superior in their work habits and personal responsibility,” implicitly assuming that middle-class professionals do not routinely do this as well. He goes on to point out that racism is widespread among white workers (while presumably absent among middle-class whites) and, finally, to claim that blue-collar men are stuck in an “older utilitarian self” and are having trouble adopting a more modern “expressive self.”

Nearly all of this (and much more) appears to be simply made up. With no or very little evidence, Cherlin seems to feel entitled to simply imagine what workers must be like and to speculate about how their unconscious minds must work given what they actually have said to other sociologists. Worse, Cherlin takes generalized concepts based on extensive interviewing by others and turns these concepts into simple class character traits applicable to millions, with no nuances, variations or exceptions. But the way he comes unhinged at the kinds of things American and French workers sometimes say about people like us points to a much larger and more important problem – a professional middle-class blindness to other class cultures that in American social science can so easily turn into a kind of “there’s-only-one-right-way” cultural imperialism.

Middle-class professionalism is a strong and vital culture, but it’s still just a culture – with strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages – that can be enriched and improved by access to and engagement with other cultures.   There is a vital strain in American social science that has begun to explore these class cultural differences in an empirical and thoughtful way – including Working-Class Studies scholars Barbara Jensen, Betsy Leondar-Wright and Jeff Torlina, as well as the authors noted above and numerous others. But it is a minority strain in academia, where any expression of appreciation for the strengths and advantages of working-class culture tends to bring out the class warrior in even well-intentioned social scientists like Andrew Cherlin. That’s a fight worth having.

Jeff Torlina argues that the common sociological understanding of social classes as necessarily hierarchical is based on a systematic misunderstanding of how supposedly hierarchical occupations actually work together to get jobs done. He argues that social classes should be conceived as “arranged on a horizontal plane, each superior or inferior in some dimensions but not in others,” which is a fairly common way that blue-collar workers see it. Such an approach would turn American social science upside down, and thus is more than a bit utopian. But at the very least social scientists should agree with Torlina that any endeavor aspiring to be a science “cannot base its . . . categories only upon the cultural logic of the class represented by the scientists themselves.”

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

 

Taskers: The Precariat in the On-Demand Economy (Part One)

Revolutionary changes are taking place in the global labor process, creating new labor relations while expanding the ranks of the precariat. Informed observers predict that within the next decade, one in every three labor transactions will be done online as part of the “on-demand,” “sharing,” “gig,” or “crowd labor” economy.

New words are creating a new vocabulary of work and labor, often meaning something quite different from what they might imply. As I have explained elsewhere, whereas labour has exchange value and is usually remunerated, work consists of many activities that are productive or reproductive that mostly have use value, although many are done out of necessity because we are obliged to do them. We will overcome the confusion, but it may take time.

Essentially, the emerging labor process revolves around three entities: (1) Rentier corporations (labor brokers), which control the technological apparatus, the apps; (2) Labor “requesters”, the middlemen; and (3) Taskers, those who do the jobs. The apps and smartphones are the equivalent of the old labor hall, without the bustle that at least indicated the bargaining position of brokers and laborers. Taskers are basically piece-rate workers, but they should be distinguished both from employees, who are covered by labor law and collective bargaining, and the self-employed. Taskers come in three forms, each posing challenges to those concerned with the world of work.

First, in the on-demand – or, more cruelly, ‘concierge’ – economy, labor-broking corporations are bypassing old forms of market transaction, connecting final customers with taskers who supply services, such as taxi driving, bed-sharing, food delivery, shopping, legal advice, or medical care. These service providers (or errand boys or “task-rabbits”) should be distinguished from workers, since the broker treats them as self-employed, thereby excluding them from entitlements or protections that the state supposedly grants employees.

On-demand taskers must be available at most times of day and night or risk losing income or future opportunities. Unlike the classic proletarian employee, they own the means of production, in the form of a car, apartment, bicycle, machine tools, or whatever. And they do not have fixed or even known hours of labor. They must do a lot of work-for-labor, work neither compensated nor even recognized as work. They must wait around, unable to devote themselves to other activities in case the iPhone calls them to do a task.

On-demand taskers are usually isolated, without bargaining power. They are in a buyer’s market, having to accept a price set by the buyer. While many may feel “grateful” for the opportunity to earn a little, they must bear all the risks – accidents, ill-health from stress, loss of friendships, non-payment, repairs to vehicles or tools, replacement of stained carpets, health insurance, and so on. They face constant uncertainty — of income, tasks, costs, and personal comforts. And they are in constant competition with other unknown taskers.

A second type of tasker is part of the crowd-labor pool, an expanding phenomenon already involving over 12 million people, a third in the USA. Here, labor intermediaries are pivotal. Direct producers contract with a brokering corporation, such as Amazon Turk, ODesk, or eLance, which in turn utilize requesters to sub-contract tasks to successful bidders — taskers — from a potentially global crowd-labor pool. This involves a Dutch auction, in which requesters announce on line that so many such-and-such tasks are up for bid, to be completed within a stipulated period, and that bidding will close within, say, five days. Often the requester announces at the outset a maximum price or piece-rate, and taskers then bid each other down. Taskers can bid to undertake as many tasks as they think feasible at a price they think is right for them. At the end, requesters select from the lowest bids. So, somebody in Boston can be bidding against someone from Bangalore, Dakar, or Manchester. This is invidious, because the most insecure will tend to bid the lowest.

Because crowd-labor taskers do not know how many people are bidding or where they are, they may easily believe competition is more intense than it is. For the broker, that is ideal. But tasks may turn out to be more complex or time-consuming than taskers had been led to believe, resulting in even more self-exploitation. Many worry about their ability to finish tasks on time or satisfy the quality demanded, especially when they have no means of seeing what others are achieving. And in practice they have no means of redress should the broker decide not to pay or to delay payment on some pretext.

The larger the global crowd-labor pool, the easier it will be for brokers to impose demands and penalties on individual taskers. For instance, if a requester in New York unilaterally decides that a tasker in Dakar did not do something well enough and refuses to pay, the solitary tasker probably will not be able, or be confident enough, to try to recover her money. The scope for scams is enormous.

A third type of tasker is someone hired as a nominal full-time employee but who is on a zero-hours contract. This growing ruse involves paying only for the hours they are actually required to labor. They must be on stand-by at all times and travel to and from workplaces without compensation, often not knowing if they will get work or for how long. Over 1.4 million people in the UK are on such contracts.

All these taskers face insecurity, low and fluctuating incomes, chronic uncertainty, and lack of control over time. They have no fixed hours or workplaces. Unlike workers in the industrial time regime, where life could be measured in blocks of time, they live in a tertiary time regime, in which labor and work blur into each other, without payment for downtime, waiting, retraining, networking, and so on. They have illusion of freedom while also feeling that they are under incessant control. This is debilitating, with psychological consequences that we have only begun to explore.

The process depresses wage rates, whether taskers are paid on a piece-rate or time-rate basis. The decline is greater than is measured, since much of the tasker’s work is unrecorded, including time for rest, preparing, and waiting. The process also increases the precariat’s volatility of earnings, leaving them without non-wage or state benefits.

Driving down wages in general creates even more profits for the broker corporations. In this respect, Uber has set the bar for ruthless opportunism, and in spite of protests by licensed taxi drivers, it is operating in over 200 cities in 51 countries. It is decimating the ranks of licensed taxis, and depressing the earnings of taxi drivers. Critics fear that once Uber has succeeded in marginalizing taxis, it will raise its rates, especially in surge periods.

The process also accentuates the dismantling of occupational communities. Occupational guilds defined working life for hundreds of years, setting standards, codes of ethics, means of training, and sources of social protection. They stood against the market. The neo-liberal agenda hinges on dismantling them, and the on-demand economy is both a consequence and an accelerator of that. The costs include loss of occupational ethics and routes of social mobility through professions and crafts

The on-demand economy also reverses a capitalist mantra. Instead of capitalists, or firms, owning the means of production, they are ‘owned’ by the precariat. The former maximize profits through patents and other forms of intellectual property. They draw investment from venture capital, which thrives on short-lived, high rates of profit.

The precariat in this zone is isolated, in permanent competition with each other. The atomization drives down wages and transfers risks, hazards, shocks, and uncertainty onto the precariat. Taskers have minimal means or opportunities to coalesce.

Dangers for taskers include under-insurance, due partly to the difficulty of working out the risks with any insurer, especially where the potential insurer could not presume that the supplier would be properly qualified or be able to take due care.

The “sharing economy” has a cultural dimension, as well. When someone “shares” for money a car, apartment, or utensils, they convert zones of privacy and use value into alienated commodities with exchange value. It is an instance of the “Lauderdale Paradox,” in which the act of commodification is one of privatization that contrives scarcity of space or time.

These forms of labor intensify the pressure to commodify one’s life. It is a sad way for the precariat to respond to adversity, intensifying self-exploitation. It is how those experiencing declining wages and living standards cover up the decline, for a while.

In the upcoming weeks in Working-Class Perspectives, I will consider what can be done to improve the long-term income and economic security of taskers and the precariat.

Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a Professor of Economics, SOAS, University of London.