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

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



Ridiculing the White Working Class: The Bogan in Australian Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Attfield

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

Talking with the Press about the Working Class

Over the last three months, I have done interviews with and provided assistance to dozens of national and international reporters about various working-class issues, including the American Dream, manufacturing, education, the recession, displaced workers, local and international trade, and, of course, white working-class voting patterns.  A few weeks ago, George Packer, staff reporter for The New Yorker, was a visiting scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies, doing research on book project, and he spoke as part of our annual lecture series. So, obviously, I have been thinking a lot about journalists and reporting on the working class.

Packer titled his lecture, Do Journalist Care About the Working Class? His response was basically, “No!” He argued that the American public is more concerned about celebrity and success stories that often reinforce the American Dream.  While job loss affects people of all classes these days, readers seem more interested in stories about hedge fund managers losing half their fortune than in profiles of manufacturing or service workers losing their jobs.  In part, these attitudes reflect the confusion most Americans have about class.   When asked the open-ended question, “what class do you belong to,” most Americans say they are middle class.  But if given four options — lower, working, middle, and upper class — about 45% choose working class, and about the same percentage identify themselves as middle class.

Packer also points out that hard-nosed, urban, ethnic, and street-smart reporters like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, or Mike Barnacle, many of whom had working-class roots, have been replaced by metro journalists, most with college degrees, who identify themselves as professionals and spend most of their time with people like themselves. Packer quotes Pulitizer Prize winning columnist, Connie Schultz, who has noted that, especially in big cities, reporters have increasingly become privileged by their professional education, social connections, and access to internships and have become a “self-perpetuating” class. As a result, journalists don’t have contacts among the working class or much sense of working-class life and culture. Add to this unsympathetic editors who are more interested in selling upscale readership to advertisers, and journalists these days have natural hesitancy to pursue working-class stories. Put differently, as I heard as a panelist at a Society of Professional Journalists Conference say, there is a high degree of self-censorship among journalists themselves.

In the end, Packer suggested that the recession and the centrality of white working-class voting in electoral politics have made the working class more interesting to some newspapers. I can attest to that, but if my recent interviews are any indication, reporters are generally confused about who is working class, and they don’t understand the political and economic views of the working class.

Most journalists covering electoral politics define the working class as those without a college education. That definition is widely used, not only by reporters but also by some scholars and political analysts, in part because it’s easy to measure. I caution reporters that if they use this definition, then the working class seems to be shrinking as more people attend college.  While some commentators have suggested that this shift makes the working class less important politically, I argue that this is simply a statistical shift.  These days, many working-class people have at least some college education, and the working class continues to matter in American politics. In part because of that, I try to help journalists understand why class is not just a matter of education.  It also has to do with occupation, income, wealth, and – among the hardest aspects to measure – culture.

At the same time, I remind reporters that class is not the only identity that might affect how people view political candidates and issues.  For example, white working-class men might well view economic and policy issues differently from white working-class women or black working-class men. I also try to help journalists understand that the working-class varies politically by region and state, in part because other issues, like race and types of employment, shape working-class cultures.  When we add religious affiliations and social values, things become even more complicated, but that’s the point.  I want to encourage reporters to get beyond their assumptions and stereotypes when they write about working-class voters and issues.

Journalists often ask me to explain why the working class supports Republicans, a pattern that seems to go against their own economic interests. It’s true that a majority of white working-class voters has only supported a Democrat in a presidential election once in the last 50 years, voting for Johnson in 1964, so this isn’t a new phenomenon.  We can’t even tie it to the so-called “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. A number of historians and political scientists have studied this trend, but rather than focus on theories about why the working class votes for Republicans, I point out that the trend is shifting. White working-class support for Republicans has been dropping in the northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the far west, and it will probably drop further  — because of Republican policy formulations.  For example, Republicans want to cut the deficit by slashing entitlements, but many working-class voters believe that such cuts would have a disproportionate impact on them.  While the Republicans put down the Occupy movement, many in the working class, both conservatives and liberals, support its economic and social populism and agree with its claims about injustice, unfairness, and inequality.

Packer is right, both that today’s journalists don’t really understand the working class and that the economy and the election mean that reporters will have to cover the working class anyway.   One of the goals of the Center for Working-Class Studies is to help journalists do a better job of telling working-class stories.  I think we’ve had some influence, largely because we take the time to do more than answer a few questions.  We meet with reporters, help them make contact with other sources, take them around Youngstown, and discuss what they hear from area workers and what the statistics about employment, class identity, and political perspectives really mean.

We all complain about and critique media coverage of class issues.  If we want the media to do a better job, more of us need to be willing to talk with journalists. When the phone rings and reporter asks you to comment on how the recession is affecting the working class, or why white working-class people support certain candidates, or how working-class students will be affected by interest rates on college loans, don’t duck.  Take the time to not only answer the question but also, when necessary, challenge the reporter’s assumptions and help him or her understand the working class more fully.  Think of it as teachable moment.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Calling All Stooges: Slapstick and the Working Class

The Farrelly brothers’ new film version of The Three Stooges opened in theaters 10 days ago to thumps and slaps by the critics. Many of the critics seem to really like the pseudo-violence, the bonky sound effects, and the topical stupidity of The Three Stooges, and they hoped that the movie would deliver satisfying Stoogification to hardcore fans everywhere.

With the return of the Stooges, it is worth revisiting a great, but largely forgotten example of television slapstick.  The ABC series about two slapdash carpenters, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, debuted fifty years ago, in September of 1962, and, after a rough start it won its time slot against another very popular show, Route 66. Sadly, it was canceled after one season, but happily, this spring, we can now enjoy the series on a beautifully curated 3-DVD set from Jim Benson, host of the blog and radio show TVTimeMachine.

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster features two carpenters who are also best friends: a bachelor named Arch Fenster (Marty Ingels), and his married friend, Harry Dickens (John Astin). At least half of the scenes take place at work, where the two friends compete for promotions, run into doors, and fall into vats of concrete. Most of the rest is set at the home of Dickens and his pretty wife Kate (Emmaline Henry), where the duo try to install a garbage disposal, patch holes in the drywall, and fix the kitchen cabinets, usually unsuccessfully.

The home remodeling theme is based on creator and producer Leonard Stern’s experience with his own house, when carpenters accidentally bricked a ladder inside the chimney. Stern was a long-time staff writer for The Jackie Gleason Show and, later, The Honeymooners. He also won an Emmy for writing on The Phil Silvers Show. By 1960 he was ready to strike out on his own.

The show was originally called The Workers, but ABC executives made Stern change it, afraid that if it went into daily syndication it might be called “The Daily Worker.” It is remarkable indeed that Stern was able to get a show featuring working-class characters on television in the 1960s. In the early days of television (1948-1956) there were a handful of working-class families featured in network sitcoms (The Life of Riley, I Remember Mama, The Goldbergs, Life with Luigi, The Honeymooners and Duffy’s Tavern), but by the late 1950s most sitcoms featured suburban families who were decidedly middle class.

Stern’s carpenter comedy earned him the best critical reviews of his career. Life magazine declared it a “surprise success” about “of all people—carpenters.” After one season, though, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was just starting to beat out its time slot competition.  The TV critic Harvey Pack loved the show, and campaigned for it to be saved.  In the end it was canceled, but it retained many loyal fans.

It is not news to readers of this blog that workers, and especially working men, almost always look stupid, silly, fat, bumbling, poorly dressed, and unappealing on network television—no matter what era is under discussion. No one has argued this more forcefully than Pepi Leistyna, whose scathing documentary, Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, shows how cartoonish and buffoonish the representations of working-class TV characters have been, from riveter Chester A. Riley, bus driver Ralph Kramden, sewer worker Ed Norton, dock worker Archie Bunker, to nuclear plant worker Homer Simpson.

Dickens and Fenster fit the pattern. In the pilot episode, Fenster makes some carpentry errors that cause Dickens to run into a door and fall onto his backside. In an episode called “The Joke,” Dickens takes off his safety hat and two heavy items fall on his head. Fenster is also clumsy and hapless. He’s a professional carpenter, but somehow he can’t fix Mrs. Dickens’s garbage disposal or the magnet on her kitchen cupboards.

But the Class Dismissed critique overlooks the fact that many of these working-class shows, came from the slapstick or “burlesque” comedy tradition that has its roots in working-class culture. Burlesque comedy started in seedy strip joints in the 1920s as filler between the strip acts. It was often performed by a comedy team, a “straight man” and a “second banana,” who took turns ridiculing each other and/or the audience. Burlesque humor was full of sexual innuendo, malapropisms, insults, and loads of physical comedy.

When burlesque migrated to television in the 1950s, it continued the tradition of lampooning working-class characters.  Television comedies like Abbott and Costello, Amos n Andy, The Honeymooners, and The Phil Silvers Show featured stock lowbrow characters (gangsters, hoodlums, con-men, spiritualists, gypsies, corrupt landlords, intimidating bosses, pesky in-laws, and corrupt politicians), lowbrow activities (horse racing, boxing, card playing, counterfeiting, contests, insurance schemes, peddling phony medical cures and hypnotism), and lowbrow settings (bars, taverns, pool halls, fraternal lodges, soda shops, pizza joints, urban apartments, diners, and nightclubs). These shows were the polar opposite of those sweet suburban sitcoms where the conflicts were usually resolved when Ward Cleaver doled out a minor punishment to the “Beave.”

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster followed many of the conventions of lowbrow television comedy, but it also had some important differences that made the show interesting. For one thing, Fenster and Dickens dressed in a way that hinted at a subtle class difference between the two men. Arch Fenster always wore overalls loaded down with tools, while Dickens often wore a jaunty army jacket over a black turtleneck. Dickens was more uptight, and, hence, the straight man. He dressed and acted more “middle class.” Ironically, or, perhaps, pointedly, he was usually the one to buckle under pressure. When he was trying to get the job of foreman, he didn’t have the courage to ask his boss. Fenster had to do it for him. In a later episode, when Dickens was selected to read for a television commercial, he fainted, and Fenster had to take over for him, again. Most of the time, the “middle class” Dickens had to be rescued by the more “working class” Fenster, and, thus it was usually the “middle class” Dickens who was the biggest butt of the jokes.

The truth is that many television shows featuring working-class figures set them against some kind of authority—a boss, a landlord, or a friend with more power and prestige. The humor employed by I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and even today in the Farrelly brothers’ updated Three Stooges, has its roots in the American immigrant, turn-of-the-last-century working class. Peter Farrelly called the three stooges “working-class, blue collar, down-on-their-luck guys.” Slapstick humor is working-class humor. As Rob King has argued in his history of the Keystone Film Company, slapstick can reduce “authority to absurdity.”

Of course, in real life the working class today is getting walloped as never before in U.S. history, and it is anything but funny. Easing the pain of the cuts and bruises from the beating the working class is taking in our current culture will be more difficult, to be sure. But if you want to travel back in time to a moment of possibility when the working class could make fun of the middle class, if you want to laugh your tushie off like my eight year old son and I did when we were watching I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, order the three DVD set. These crazy carpenters and their critique of authority have offered me a few good belly laughs and some genuine relief from the depressing political and economic roller coaster that is our current moment.

Or, as Curly once said: “Is this work in competent hands?” “Coitainly—we’re all incompetent!”

Kathy M. Newman

Chavs and the Working Class

A great new book has appeared recently about the working class in the UK. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones, has received a lot of well-deserved attention. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘chav’ has become a catch-all term of abuse for either the working class or elements of the working class. The term itself is not especially new and has a variety of roots. Whatever its origins, the label is one that is now used interchangeably with prole, feral underclass, scum, hooligan, the poor, or those who live in public housing. It captures dress codes, social and moral attitudes, child rearing practices, and even the way people stand on the sidewalk. What links all of these caricatures is that this is a way of talking about the white working class. Indeed many critical commentators, Owen included, have argued that the whiteness of those labelled chav is central to its use and therefore represents the last form of acceptable discrimination allowed in ‘polite’ society. The denigration of the white working class can be seen in a variety of cultural texts, from newspaper opinion pieces through publications such as The Little Book of Chavs and television comedies to a host of truly vicious websites that incite hate against the working class. Type in ‘chav’ to a search engine of your choice, but be prepared!

This breadth of coverage is important in understanding why this label has become so widespread and pernicious for debates about the working class. The heavily classed term chav is — rather ironically — inextricably linked to the rhetorical rise of the idea of classlessness, the notion that we are all middle class now. Essentially the term serves several roles.   It has become shorthand for the new underclass while simultaneously placing the respectable working class somewhere in the middle of society alongside the bulk of ‘us’ or ‘we’. At the same time it allows those who use the phrase to demonize those in the underclass simply for being there. Chav, therefore becomes an ideological and moral way of categorizing the poor – portraying them as unfit parents, workshy and generally feckless. Jones quotes a stream of right wing pundits who are horrified at this new working clas,s such as Carole Malone, who wrote in a piece about council estate (local authority housing) dwellers: “People who’d never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had-not to mention their drink, drugs and smoking habits … [Their] houses looked like pigsties-dog crap on the floor (trust me, I’ve seen it), putrid carpets, piles of clothes and unwashed dishes everywhere.”

The second related function of the term is that it encourages people not to identify themselves as working class. This has obvious parallels with what Jack Metzgar calls the “class vernacular” of the US, which assumes that the great bulk of the population occupy an imaginary middle class that stretches from multimillionaires down to those struggling to get by.

Jones’s book and a wider and growing critical commentary are beginning to call out this class hatred and discrimination for what it really is. In the process, we are seeing a growing willingness to explore the undoubtedly profound changes in working-class life and culture over the last thirty years. One of the most telling points Jones makes is that the working class has gone from being respected –and at times even feared — for the political and economic clout it once possessed to a position where they are derided and at times feared as almost representing a different species.

At the heart of this shift have been the changes in the economy over the decades, especially the collapse of many industries that once supplied jobs to both the skilled and unskilled working class. Worklessness, or more properly precarious employment, is at the root of this problem. Access to good steady jobs acts as a wedge dividing working-class people and their communities. The rhetoric of chavs widens this divide by pushing some to identify with the ‘nice’ middle rather than the ‘rough’ working class. To work, ironically, takes you out of the working class!

Of course this development is not entirely new.  The divide between the ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ (hard living and steady living) working class is as old as industrialization – indeed some historians have seen those labels as more insightful that working and middle class categories. What is new is that this contemporary manifestation of working-class division occurs at a time of massive and growing economic inequality where the super rich are enjoying unprecedented increases in their wealth, and London has become the most unequal city anywhere in the developed world. The label chav helps to hide growing inequality within society by focusing attention – and blame — on those at the bottom. Labelling some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society in this way portrays economic inequality as a question of individual morality responsibility rather than as a wider question that society at large needs to address.

The hope in all this is that books like Jones’s provide a powerful and growing counter narrative to the unthinking use of terms like chav. What is striking is the way those of us interested in working-class issues are collectively drawing on and contributing to debates that show the real nature of economic and social inequality that is too often ignored by politicians and tabloid opinion formers. It shows us that to fully understand class we have to see how it operates on economic, social, and cultural levels. In doing this kind of work, we can perhaps start to recognize the shared humanity and value in working-class community and in turn challenge powerful myths about class more generally.

Tim Strangleman

Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods