Posts Tagged ‘Middle Class’
Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
For the past several decades, the idea that high levels of inequality were good for the economy dominated political and economic thought. Politicians believed the trickle-down theory that enabling “job creators” to get richer would help us all, and economists provided cover for this line of thinking because they thought there was a tradeoff between growth and equity.
But, as inequality has risen to extreme levels in the United States, the foundations of the economy have weakened, and America is now experiencing the kinds of problems that plague less-developed countries. The United States now must confront high levels of societal distrust that make it hard to do business, governmental favors for privileged elites that distort the economy, and fewer opportunities for children of the middle class and the poor to get ahead—wasting vast quantities of human potential.
Fortunately, a new class of economists and policymakers are now challenging the old, flawed, ideas about inequality. Academics have begun to rethink their views about the decline of the middle class, and progressive politicians are finally starting to openly contest the logic underlying supply-side after years of failing to do so. There is a growing realization that a strong middle class is not merely the result of a strong economy—as was previously thought—but rather a source of America’s economic growth.
The new direction on economic policymaking cannot arrive soon enough, because our economy continues to suffer deeply from a financial crash caused in large part by high levels of inequality. Rebuilding the middle class is critical, as a strong middle class performs four vital functions in the US economy.
First, a strong middle class helps society run relatively smoothly, with higher levels of trust among its citizens. People need to be able to trust one another enough to do business with one another. When there is little trust, the cost of doing business shoots up—or, as economists put it, transaction costs increase.
Second, a strong middle class leads to better governance. A thriving economy depends on a well-functioning government that provides critical services, such as roads and schools, with relatively little corruption. As the middle class has weakened and inequality has risen, the wealthy have gained excessive political power and the middle class has become less civic-minded, leading to a host of governmental dysfunctions.
Third, the middle class is a source of stable consumer demand, which enables businesses to invest in new products and hire additional workers—thereby fueling growth. As consumer demand in the years prior to the Great Recession was based heavily on middle-class debt, the economy was unstable. And now that the middle class is so weak—burdened by stagnant incomes, high debt levels, and underwater mortgages—it can’t consume enough to keep the American economy going.
Finally, a strong middle class creates more human capital. In the modern economy, a skilled, healthy, and entrepreneurial workforce is a driver of economic growth—at least as much as the physical capital of factories and machines. As inequality has risen and the middle class has weakened, America has not developed the full human potential of its middle and working classes.
To have strong and sustainable growth, the economy needs to work for everyone. That’s why we need to focus policy on rebuilding our economy from the middle out.
About the Author: The author’s name is David Madland. David Madland is the author of Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn’t Work Without a Strong Middle Class and the Managing Director for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Follow Madland on Twitter: @DavidMadland
Thursday, September 20th, 2012
The middle class is the great engine of the American economy, but that engine is sputtering. Today, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the AFL-CIO and more than a dozen other worker advocate and economic research organizations are proposing “10 Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class for Hard Working Americans: Making Work Pay in the 21st Century.”
The guiding principles of the road map to rebuilding the middle class are values we all share: that work lies at the center of a robust and sustainable economy; that all work has dignity; and that through work, all of us should be able to support our families, educate our children and enjoy our retirement.
The report does not focus on the urgent need to end our jobs crisis, but it does point to the recent report by professor Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil, founder of the Roosevelt Institute, “Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy for All,” which sets out a comprehensive agenda to create good jobs. We cannot rebuild the middle class without putting America back to work.
As too many Americans cannot find work at all, too many workers are toiling in jobs that don’t pay enough to support families. Meanwhile, the jobs that will grow the most in the next decade are expected to be low-wage and stripped of benefits. Says NELP Executive Director Chris Owens:
For a lot of Americans, simply having a job no longer means you’ll be able to support a family or pay for your basic needs. We have a low-wage recovery and most new jobs in the next decade are expected to follow the same path. If we are going to rebuild the middle class and restore national prosperity, we need to make today’s jobs better and tomorrow’s jobs good.
Here’s a quick overview of the 10 steps:
1. Make every job a good job. Today, the majority of the high-growth jobs in america—retail sales, home health and personal aides, food prep workers and the like—pay very low wages and provide little chance of promotion. We will not build the strong middle class we need to power the economy forward in the 21st century unless we make sure that today’s jobs and tomorrow’s jobs provide good wages and benefits.
2. Fix the minimum wage. Restoring the lost value of the minimum wage, indexing it to inflation and raising the tipped-worker wage will increase take-home pay for 28 million hardworking Americans and boost consumer spending and job creation in communities across the United States.
3. Save good public and private jobs. Public employment has been a pathway to the middle class for millions of workers, but today, public employees are being laid off in record numbers or having their jobs privatized to low-wage firms. And big corporations are outsourcing good jobs from the United States to other countries around the world. We need to stop cuts and privatization of good public jobs. and we must stop rewarding corporations for shipping jobs overseas.
4. Ensure health and retirement security.
- Continue to implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which will provide financial incentives for businesses to contribute to health coverage and sliding-scale tax credits for workers who do not get coverage at work. Add a public option to further control costs.
- Ensure states implement the option under the ACA to expand Medicaid to cover workers who earn less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level—$31,000 for a family of four.
- Protect Medicare benefits by controlling costs through incentives to increase quality and enforceable budgets.
- Do not cut Medicare benefits or replace its guarantee of benefits with a voucher for private insurance.
- Ensure all workers have a secure retirement plan.
- Strengthen Social Security by eliminating the cap on earnings subject to tax. Improve benefits for low-income earners, the elderly and college-bound survivors. Do not cut benefits or privatize the Social Security program.
5. Uphold the freedom to join a union. Unions are key to creating good jobs, and not just for union workers. But outdated laws and corporate-driven policies have severely weakened the ability of workers to freely join a union and collectively bargain. The decimation of unions is a big reason why wages and benefits are down and our economy is sputtering. Our public policy should uphold the freedom for all workers to stick together and choose to be represented by unions.
6. Make the modern workplace pro-family. The rules of the workplace have not kept up with the changes in the workforce. Managing work-family conflict is toughest on the lowest-wage workers, who have the least access to paid leave. Earned sick days and affordable family leave are indispensible to today’s workforce, our communities and economy.
7. Stop the wage theft. We all should get paid for the work we do, but the reality is that wage theft is all too common, particularly for low-wage workers, in wide variety of jobs. We must strengthen and enforce the laws to stop employers from stealing wages as many currently do by: paying workers less than the minimum wage; not paying for overtime; and sometimes not paying workers at all.
8. Require that your boss be your employer. Stop employers from escaping responsibility for paying their workers decent wages and benefits by stopping the use of hiring permanent temp workers and the misclassifying of employees as independent contractors and by directing public dollars to employers who hire worker directly.
9. Give unemployed job-seekers a real, fresh start. It is tough enough to be out of work, without having to face discrimination because you are unemployed and the fear that you will lose your unemployment insurance before finding a job. We should stop hiring discrimination against unemployed job seekers and, instead, help them get good jobs and keep them solvent while they are looking for one.
10. Toughen laws protecting worker safety and health. With millions of workplace injuries and illnesses each year, the law must be strengthened to punish employers who create unsafe work conditions and retaliate against workers who speak up. In addition, injured and ill workers need a stronger social insurance program that is transparent and unbiased and ensures immediate access to health care for workers and adequate compensation for lost wages.
Rebuilding the great American middle class in the 21st century will once again require deliberate action by working people, through our government and by businesses that understand that our mutual long-term prosperity depends on treating workers everywhere with dignity and giving them the means to a decent standard of living. It will mean taking a U-turn from the policies of the past 30 years, which have squeezed workers in the pursuit of short-term profits, slowly hollowing out the middle class on which our long-term prosperity is built.
Read “10 Ways to Rebuild the Middle Class for Hard Working Americans: Making Work Pay in the 21st Century.”
This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on September 13, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About The Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Monday, June 18th, 2012
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Columbia University Professor Dorian Warren both say the best way to solve the nation’s economic crisis is to grow the middle class rather than allowing wealth to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. Unions, they say, will play a vital role politically and economically in building a strong middle class.
O’Malley and Warren spoke on a conference call with reporters Friday to counter recent attacks by Republican lawmakers on workers and their unions.
O’Malley pointed to Maryland’s top 10 ranking in job creation, its AAA bond rating and the fact it has the highest median income in the nation to show that economic prosperity is “achieved by a partnership with unions, not by scapegoating labor.”
We don’t see unions as an impediment to growth but organized labor helps us grow and maintain balance, invest in skills of the workforce and ensure people receive a decent wage for a decent day’s work.
From the post-war era through 1973, when one in three working people had a voice on the job, said Warren, the nation had the smallest economic gap ever between the rich and the poor, because of the growing middle class with good union jobs.
But as efforts were made to weaken unions and attempts to modernize and strengthen the nation’s labor laws were blocked, the middle class began to shrink, said Warren.
There are consequences to declining union strength and now we have the highest levels of economic injustice ever. Our economy has moved to an hourglass model with jobs at the top end and bottom end, but with the middle hollowed out.
When working people have a “strong collective voice,” said Warren, “we get a stable and strong economy with continued economic growth. Unions still remain the best tool and best route for workers to improve their lives.”
In the face of growing efforts to silence workers and their unions and the explosion of corporate cash and 1%ers’ campaign donations, Warren said:
Unions can challenge the money and power that threatens our democracy’s legitimacy….With union households accounting for about 25 percent of the electorate, union votes will be a major factor and, in battleground states, a decisive factor.
This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on June 17, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.
Friday, May 11th, 2012
The ability of American workers to be upwardly mobile in the economy depends heavily on where they live, according to a state-by-state analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts. The study, the first of its kind, found that workers in a group of states largely clustered in the Northeast and Midwest are more likely to achieve upward mobility, while workers in southern states are far less likely.
For the most part, the states in each group differ on one major characteristic: the states where upward mobility is more likely are almost all union states, while the states where mobility is less likely almost all are not. Of the eight states that outperform the national average for upward economic mobility, seven are union states, with Utah the lone exception. Eight of the nine that underperform the national average, however, are so-called “right to work” states, with Kentucky the only exception:
Chart via USA Today
When relative mobility is considered, union states look even better. Every state but one (Utah) that outperforms the national average on relative mobility, defined as the percentage of residents starting in the bottom half of the national distribution who move up 10 or more percentiles in a 10-year period, is a union state. Meanwhile, 14 of the 15 states that come in below the national average are right-to-work states, with Missouri the only exception:
Chart via Pew Charitable Trusts
Though the study didn’t find (or attempt to find) a direct correlation between union representation and mobility, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Michigan told USA Today that higher mobility there is likely linked to higher wages in manufacturing and public sector jobs, both of which tend to be more heavily organized. Those ties also exist in the other union states, which rely more on manufacturing than the right-to-work states.
As ThinkProgress has previously noted, unions played a significant role in the construction of the American middle class, boosting the mobility of lower-income workers. The decline in union representation, meanwhile, correlates closely with a sharp rise in income inequality over the last 40 years. Other studies have shown that workers who join unions earn higher wages and are more likely to have health and retirement benefits, and that union membership increases the likelihood of upward economic mobility.
This blog originally appeared in Think Progress on May 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.
Tuesday, September 27th, 2011
As ThinkProgress previously reported, unions are a key building block of the middle class, and as unionization rates fell in the 20th century, so did the middle class’s share of national income.
Now, the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s David Madland and Nick Bunker have crunched the numbers and found that if unionization rates were just 10 percentage points higher — meaning there would be a net rate of 22.2 percent as opposed to the current 12.2 percent — the typical middle class household would earn $1,479 more every year. That number is almost equivalent to the $1,638 more these families would earn every year from increasing college attainment rates by 10 percent:
The table below shows the state-by-state impact of unions on income. If unionization rates increased by 10 percentage points—to roughly the level they were in 1980—the typical middle-class household, unionized or not, would earn $1,479 more a year.
To put that number in context, increasing college attainment rates by 10 percentage points would boost middle-class incomes by $1,638. Similarly, decreasing unemployment rates by 4 percentage points—bringing rates down to pre-Great Recession levels—would increase household income by $772 per household.
Madland and Bunker charted out the estimated gains from a 10 percent increase in unionization for typical middle-class households across the 50 states. They range from a $1,096 gain in Nevada to a $1,969 gain in New Jersey. Find your state in the chart below:
This post originally appeared in ThinkProgress on September 26, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Zaid Jilani is a Senior Reporter/Blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Zaid grew up in Kennesaw, GA, and holds a B.A. in International Affairs with a minor in Arabic from the University of Georgia. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Zaid interned for Just Foreign Policy and was a weekly columnist at The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s official student newspaper. He is a co-editor at the Georgia-based blog Georgia Liberal and a regular on RT America’s The Alyona Show and The Thom Hartmann Show and has been a guest host on Al Jazeera English’s The Stream. He is also an occassional contributor to the op-ed pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His Twitter handle is @zaidjilani.
Friday, February 5th, 2010
Credit: Joe Kekeris
Jack Cafferty at CNN this week asked viewers one of his seemingly routine questions. But the responses to: “How has definition of ‘middle-class American’ changed?” reveal a cataclysmic shift in our nation’s economic identity.
Gary from El Centro, Calif., summed up the vast majority of the nearly 200 responses when he replied:
You should ask this question of the three or four people in the country still remaining in the middle class.
The comments reflect more than the run-of-the-mill griping about taxes or middle-aged discontent. They demonstrate a visceral understanding of the deep forces underlying the dramatic change that in recent decades has eroded the solid financial footing of America’s working families—America’s middle class.
In short, the American public knows what most lawmakers in Washington and policymakers around the country have yet to figure out: The nation is losing its middle-class backbone and bifurcating into a have/have not country.
As Karen from Idaho Falls writes on Cafferty’s site:
In my world, there is no middle class–only the very rich, the rich, the poor, and the very poor. Most of us are hanging on to being “poor” by our fingernails and hoping that we won’t join the ever growing “very poor” class. Somewhere along the line, “middle class” disappeared.
The not-so-Great Recession is just the latest and loudest part of the long decline of the middle class. From the end of World War II to the early 1970s, wages grew along with productivity. But since then, wages have been stagnant or declining—while productivity skyrocketed. The decline in a family’s earning power was offset by the entrance of vast numbers of women in the labor market—and then by wage-earners holding multiple jobs. By the late 1990s, debt—from second mortgages or credit cards—kept the middle class afloat. And now what is revealed is a middle class held together by nothing more than string.
One of the most consequential but least recognized aspects of the current economic disaster is the growing length of time workers are without jobs. In December, the average jobless worker had been unemployed for 29.1 weeks. In contrast, when the recession began in 2007, the average unemployed person had been out of work for 16.5 weeks.
At Economix blog, Catherine Rampell points out in an tellingly titled post, “A Growing Underclass,” that the longer unemployed workers stay out of work, the less likely they may be to find work.
First, their skills may deteriorate or become obsolete—especially if they are in a dynamically changing industry like high technology.
Second, the stigma—both internal and external—of their unemployment grows. Studies have linked job loss to declines in self-worth and self-esteem, meaning these people will probably make less compelling job candidates.
So, even if there were jobs available—there are now more than six unemployed workers for every one job—getting one becomes harder and harder the longer you’re out of work. Jobs are so few, in fact, even a weekly columnist at Forbes had this to say:
For many, many Americans there are no jobs and few prospects. For them the Great Recession is not a cute aphorism but a major cataclysm.
Long-term joblessness is one more nail in the middle class coffin. As Working-Class Perspectives describes it:
Unlike in past business cycles, the middle class has not been able to recover so far, despite increases in productivity and stock prices. In “America Without a Middle Class,” Elizabeth Warren documents how the de facto unemployment rate, credit debt, “underwater” mortgages, increased use of food stamps, personal bankruptcies, and the loss of pensions and health care have all dramatically increased. Middle-class households have depleted their savings and are increasingly accruing debt to pay for college, health care, and other expenses.
Some experts believe that the decline in jobs will only continue. For example, Alexandra Levit predicts significant losses in a number of key industries between 2008 and 2018: semiconductor manufacturing (33.7 percent), apparel manufacturing (57 percent), newspaper publishers (24.8 percent)….Corporations are moving many of these jobs offshore or replacing them with technology rather than paying middle-class wages and benefits. The economists are right that new jobs are being created in place of these. But as Jack Metzgar discussed last week, most of the new jobs offer even lower wages and benefits and require less education.
Jobs are offshored while the jobs that remain in the United States are low-wage, with little affordable health care or retirement options. Meanwhile, the smooth of face and soft of hand financial wizards who turn their noses up at the industrial manufacturing sector fail to realize that when the United States loses its ability to make things, it also loses the research and development power that fueled the nation to greatness. And it loses something a lot more. Louis Uchitelle interviews Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) about the humiliation of building a new World Trade Center with no glass made in the United States:
“Imagine China,” he said in an interview, “building a huge structure intended to be an important national symbol and importing glass from the United States to build it. There is no way the Chinese would do that.”
And a low-wage job nation fuels income inequality. This from a stunning report by economist John Schmit at the Center for Economic and Policy Research:
From a peak just before the 1929 stock market crash through the early 1950s, wage and income inequality, broadly measured, were declining. From the early 1950s through the late 1970s, inequality was flat, or even falling slightly. Since the late 1970s, however, inequality has skyrocketed, climbing back to levels last seen in the 1920s. In 1979, for example, the top one percent of all U.S. taxpayers received about 8 percent of national income; by 2007, the top one percent received over 18 percent. If we include income from capital gains in the calculation, the increase in inequality is even sharper, with the top one percent capturing 10 percent of all income in 1979, but over 23 percent in 2007.
Back at Cafferty’s site, Chad from Los Angeles knows why:
The middle class has turned into the “peasant class.” We have been taken over by a few wealthy people who control our politicians and government. We have become an Aristocracy. Except the ones in control are not royalty, they are businessmen hiding behind a cloak of deception that is Corporate America.
In the short term, critical steps must be taken for immediate relief. The first is getting the Senate to extend unemployment insurance (UI) for the long-term unemployed. As usual, the House already has acted, extending UI in December, while senators dither. (Click here to tell your lawmakers it’s time to act.) Extending UI is part of the jobs initiative the AFL-CIO is pushing for immediate relief for jobless workers.
But before the current crisis fades, the nation must begin to reverse the more than 40-year trend in which the gap widens between rich and poor and the middle class falls out of the bottom.
Silas from Boston—a city not unfamiliar with fomenting revolutions—offers an intriguing insight:
We’ve allowed the “upper” class to become too big to fail. As a result, the middle class is an endangered species which has to bail out the class that got us into this mess to begin with. This is how the French Revolution started.
*This blog has been crossposted with permission from Campaign for America’s Future.
About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (they were represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009
“White underclass” is a term I’ve used often in my writing, and most American readers seem to know what I mean. They’ve got eyes and live in the same nation I do. But in a sudden burst of journalistic responsibility, I decided that if I am going to throw around the word underclass, then I should offer some clearer, perhaps more scientific definition.
So I started writing this with a pile of published research papers before me. Now they are in the trash can by my side. Looking down on them, I can see the gobbledygook titles, the stuff of which government policy and political platforms are made. They run together in slurry of the language of our society’s commissars: Concerning-Prevalence-Growth-and-Dynamics-Concentrated Urban Poverty Areas- block-level vs. tract-level segregation-800-tract-tables-urban abstracts-Defining-and-Measuring-the-Underclass-from-The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management-statistical-summary-of…
What I find is that nobody in social science seems to agree on the term, or, being firmly placed in the true white middle class themselves, even agree if such a thing as a white underclass exists. You can’t smell the rabble from the putting green. To others, some blacks for example, the term white underclass is an oxymoron, or maybe yet another new white social code word to be deciphered. I can’t blame them for their wariness. You have to be an American to even get these code words. For instance, for all practical purposes and to most Americans, regardless of race, the term “middle class” means “white.” Plain and simple. We all know that, even members of the “black middle class.”
Middle class also has implications of people’s occupations, usually white collar occupations, though it also includes some of the ever thinning ranks of blue-collar workers. But this comes down to describing human beings solely in terms of their jobs in the capitalist labor marketplace, and assumptions about income and whether one takes their daily shower before they go to work or after they come home. By that definition, anyone of working age who doesn’t have a steady job of the right type, for whatever reason, is in some sort of “economic underclass.” In other words, they are the people that middle class folks feel should damned well be working, if they are over age 18 and have a pulse. (“If I gotta do time in this meaningless workhouse of a nation, you do too!”) This underclass includes any people of color seen on the street at midday during the week, single mothers, and paraplegics too, now that the middle class is paying taxes for handicap parking spaces and wheelchair access to the public shitters.
Another way we define underclass is as “losers.” People who cannot talk, think, or act like middle class professional and managerial workers, people who cannot even be posers. There is absolutely no excuse for these people. We’ve got television 24/7 to show’em how to behave. They could learn to act like the blue collar workers we see on the endless reruns of The King of Queens (an American sitcom about a parcel service delivery truck driver.). They could at least be funny and amiable fer godz sake.
From reading the studies, I can see that social scientists dislike plural nouns, and thus shun the word losers. So they call this the “educational underclass.” Either way, it comes down to folks too wooly and uncurried for office water cooler society. Nobody is denying that they all should have jobs, of course, just nowhere near the water cooler.
Yes, eight to eighty, crippled blind or crazy, Americans generally agree that every man or woman in America should have a full-time job, except those women who manage to snag a wealthy man. They are exempt, as are the middle class commissariat’s own beer guzzling spawn keeping the pizza delivery and the all-night video arcade businesses thriving in college towns across the republic.
Then you’ve got your moral underclass. Like the rest of us, they come in two major varieties — male and female. Females who don’t bother to get married before they have babies (the non-technical term is “welfare sluts”), and men who have things more serious on their national police state blotters than a parking ticket. “Non-mainstreamers,” in socio-demographic speak. Many of these are men who say, “Screw it, I ain’t gonna even bother to work my ass off and be treated like dirt for six bucks an hour. I’d rather shoot pool.” Me too.
The unwed mothers come in two varieties. There are those who decide they want children, but are choosy about the husband that traditionally comes with the deal. And there are those who are so young and naive due to cultural circumstance and environment they do not know what this country does to, not for, single mothers. They often find themselves working at least part time (workfare), yet permanently institutionalized into poverty by our social services industry, instead of being lifted out of it. More than 45 percent of U.S. single mothers are poor, compared five percent in Sweden and Finland, where no stigma is attached and substantial public resources are applied to child health and development. But research done in Europe shows that even if U.S. women had a zero rate of single motherhood, poverty among American women would still be higher than in European and other socially advanced nations.
Armchair sociologist that I am, I have a theory about this: Millions of American women are in poverty because they are paid poverty wages. I could be wrong, I often am, but there seems to be a connection between poverty and money. I started developing this theory when I was in a Melbourne, Australia hotel and learned from a single mother hotel housekeeper there that she made $19 an hour, had government assisted childcare and was going to college at night toward becoming a medical technician. Hmmm Over here we tell single mothers, “Get a six dollar an hour job or get married bitch! Workfare, baby, workfare.” Then too, contrary to the American middle class belief system, out-of-wedlock babies are increasing at all levels of white American society. Even more contrary to popularly held notions, as many of these children turn out to be as well adjusted people as do children of the middle class. But for damned sure poorer in most cases.
And finally we have simple snottiness as a line of underclass demarcation — one’s manner of physical gesture or accent. Believe me from personal experience, a Southern accent in America is no ticket to the top. But even with a Southern accent, if you talk like a college grad, don’t wear bib overhauls or gang banger gear, and appear to know where South America is on a map, Americans will deem you middle class. Actually, if you smile a lot, and sound like any sort of white customer service type, it will fly. It’s called having the appropriate social and cultural skill set. Yeah, right, appropriate to be hired as a telemarketer so you can piss people off by interrupting their dinner hour.
But even if you gather aluminum cans from dumpsters for a living, with effort, you can “pass” like light skinned black folks used to do in this country. As testimony to this, I, who am a high school dropout with a Southern accent, have successfully managed entire magazine publishing groups for a living. (The secret is balls). If I’d been black or Hispanic though, I’d have been distributing the urinal cakes in the rest rooms at night. So yes, there is a slight edge to whiteness, though not nearly as much as minorities assume. Still, you gotta make the most of that little edge.
In the end, race, gender or sexual preference are just moving parts of the class machine, with middle class perceptions setting the standard. You can indeed be black or queer, but with the properly buffed patina of white middle class mojo you can make it to the top, or near to the top of the heap (in America, proximity to the top of our cultural garbage heap is everything. All the rest of us are mere consumer refuse, as the Michael Jackson Morbidity Festival demonstrated. You can even be celebrated as an icon of diversity if you act white and middle class enough. Obama is Harvard white guy enough, Ellen DeGeneres is going strong ten years after coming out, gay Congressman Barney Franks still gets reelected. They’ve all got white middle class mojo. Al Sharpton on the other hand, has cootie mojo. (Tip for Al: They need golf cart drivers at the Congressional Country Club. A year of that and you’d know all you need to know about the white mojo shtick. Because you can watch Obama play golf there).
When it comes to the underclass, there is no arguing that some people are members because they are so damned uneducated they cannot count their toes or read well enough to fill out a job app, the causes of which are too deep and tangled to go into at the moment. Others just don’t care to do the smiling grammatically correct wimp assed customer service zombie thing. They prefer swinging a bigger hammer than that — doing real work, like America used to do. And doing it without kissing ass, which is why they are called the “permanently jobless.” As sociologist Christopher Jencks points out, “There is no absolute standard dictating what people need to know in order to get along in society. There is however, an absolute rule that you get along better if you know what the elite knows than if you do not.” He also cautions that “the term underclass combines so many different meanings that social scientists must use it with extreme care.”
Which is fine. But I’m no social scientist. If in my travels and experience in American life I see that tens of millions of Americans being screwed silly by a handful of chiselers at the top, or if I see one percent of Americans earning as much annually as the bottom 45 percent of Americans, then that 45 percent is an underclass. When I see a 70 year old man on his second pacemaker limping through Wal-mart as a “greeter” so he can pay at least something on last winter’s heating bill this month, then he is part of an underclass. When I see the humiliated single mom waitress tugging downward on the ridiculously short red plastic skirt she must wear at the Hooter’s type joint so her crotch won’t show, she’s part of an underclass of humiliated and socially oppressed people. Screw the hairsplitting about who qualifies as underclass and what color they are. Just fix it. Or reap the consequences.
We’re finally starting to hear a little discussion about the white underclass in this country. Mainly because so many middle class folks are terrified of falling into it. Frankly, I hope they do. We’ve got room for them. All the lousy, humiliating jobs have not yet been outsourced. The Devil still has plenty for them to do down here.
Call all of this anecdotal evidence. You won’t be the first. I was on a National Public Radio show last year with a couple of political consultants, demographers as I remember. One, a lady, was obviously part of the Democratic political syndicate, the other was part of the Republican political mob. The Democratic expert said dismissively of my remarks, “Well! Some people here seem to believe anecdotal evidence is relevant.” Meaning me. I held my tongue. But what I wanted to say was this:
Sister, most of us live anecdotal lives in an anecdotal world. We survive by our wits and observations, some casual, others vital to our sustenance. That plus daily experience, be it good bad or ugly as the ass end of a razorback hog. And what we see happening to us and others around us is what we know as life, the on-the-ground stuff we must deal with or be dealt out of the game. There’s no time for rigorous scientific analysis. Nor need. We can see the guy next door who’s drinking himself to death because, “I never did have a good job, just heavy labor, but now I’m all busted up, got no insurance and no job and it looks like I’ll never have another one and I’ve got four more years to go before Social Security.” He doesn’t need scientific proof. He doesn’t need another job either. He needs a cold beer, a soft armchair, some Tylenol PM and a modest guarantee of security for the rest of his life. Freedom from fear and toil and illness.
And furthermore, Sister, we cannot see much evidence that other, more elite people’s scientific analysis of our lives has ever benefited us much. When you’re fucked, you know it. You don’t need scientific verification.
I wanted to say that on the radio. But I didn’t. The little white guy mojo voice in my head told me not to. So I just laughed good naturedly. Like any other good American.
May God forgive me.
With ironic gratitude to Christopher Jencks of the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University.
Joe Bageant: Joe Bageant is author of the book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com (Random House Crown), about working class America. He is also a contributor to Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland (AK Press). A complete archive of his on-line work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on ColdType and Joe Bageant’s website, joebageant.com.
This article originally appeared on JoeBageant.com on July 17th and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
Wednesday, June 10th, 2009
As I noted yesterday in connection with the bankruptcy of General Motors, I am in favor of spending money on trying to save peoples’ jobs–we are talking about the survival of communities and the lives of thousands of people. But, having now spent the morning reading various media reports about the GM bankruptcy, it’s startling how little, if any, of the dialogue makes broader connections to other parts of the economic system. Put another way, it’s great to spend money to address a crisis but if you don’t see the crisis in a broader way, the money will be wasted. Here is what I mean.
GM, and the rest of the U.S.-based auto industry, arrives at this crisis because of at least four problems. One is mismanagement. So, you have to ask the question–why isn’t there an entire housecleaning, removing every top manager and executive who has had significant role in running the company into the ground? Why would we turn over billions in taxpayer money to people who have shown they are thoroughly incompetent?
Second problem–which would lead me to be a tad less vocal on the first problem. Part of the crisis that led GM to the brink is a worldwide collapse of auto sales brought on by the general economic crisis. So, not to at all excuse the performance among the ranks of pathetically incompetent managers, you can also give a Bronx cheer for this sad situation to the leaders of the financial system (Robert Rubin, please take a bow).
But, you know, the above two problems pale in comparison to my other two points. First, and this is a point I have made countless times over the past number of months when I’ve played the role of TV pundit-talking-head-defender of labor, the crying shame is that we could have avoided the auto industry collapse if we had had a single-payer, “Medicare for All” health care system which would have relieved the auto companies of tens of billions of dollars of costs that have dragged down their balance sheets. Here we have the most prominent example I can think of where stupid ideology (“We can’t have a government-run health care system, that’s socialism”) has triumphed over sound economics. If we don’t learn from that mistake, the GM money goes to waste.
And, finally, if an auto industry job was, thanks to the UAW, a ticket to the “middle-class” or, at least, some promise that you could retire with some dignity, then, you would think someone would say: whoa, so now the auto companies are seeing their future in moving more jobs to Mexico and other countries. Wonder why they are doing that? Huh–could that be because of lower wages? Nah, that’s just “protectionist” talk. Point being: sure, we should be fine with our tax dollars helping people save their jobs BUT where are the leaders who are ready to rethink a trade policy that put us precisely where we are: a world where competition is based on the lowest wage possible.
About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.
This article originally appeared in Working Life on June 3, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.