Becky and the Grind

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar Author

Becky’s aunt had given her $300 to catch up on her electric bill so the power would not be turned off in her apartment.  But when Aunt Millie checked with the electric company, the outstanding bills had not been paid.  Becky had spent the $300 on something else, maybe something more important than electric power, but probably not.  Regardless, Becky had lied to Aunt Millie and, thus, had crossed a moral Rubicon that raised doubts about whether her extended family would provide any future financial assistance, which she often needed.  Worse, it was a huge lapse in her usually fierce self-respect and familial reliability.   As aunts and uncles talked it over, they debated “cutting her off” vs. “how to get her turned around.”

Now in her late thirties, Becky had grown up poor and had struggled since she got pregnant in high school, but for most of her life she had been exemplary in turning her lemons into lemonade.   In better times and in a better place, her exertions and street-wise savvy would have been enough to get her a better life.  She had finished high school while raising her daughter and working a variety of low-wage jobs, some requiring a 90-minute commute on a string of buses.  Her daughter, now in college on a scholarship and loans, had been the center of her life, and she had been a mother we all admired for her grit and determination – her gutsy interventions in schools and the various bullshit jobs she endured.  Her latest job, however, had been as an off-the-books home care worker for an elderly man to whom she got very attached; when he died recently, she had to do her grieving while being unemployed and ineligible for unemployment compensation.  Worse, she had injured her shoulder lifting the old man from bed to chairs and back again, and now she needed an operation that Medicaid would pay for, but she wouldn’t be able to work for months while she recovered.

Becky’s own mother and father, now separated, were both too poor to be much help financially, though they tried to help out in various ways when they could.  Collectively the extended family had the means to help Becky fill some of the gaps for a while, but they might not do that if they couldn’t count on her to keep her word and do what she had promised.  The aunts and uncles had seen others of Becky’s generation fall under the weight of the daily grind of working dead-end jobs that didn’t pay enough to reliably put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  One wrong move and you could fall into a downward spiral of cascading personal and financial problems.  Just the threat of living on that edge was stressful enough to drive many into alcohol and drugs for temporary relief – which, of course, always made things worse, making multiple wrong moves more likely, if not inevitable.   Becky’s brother, for example, had pretty much succumbed to the grind a few years after high school, and how he gets by now nobody wants to know.

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Have Ohio Democrats Learned Anything About the Working Class?

John Russo Visiting Researcher, Writer, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University

In presidential elections, Ohio has long been a swing state. Its voters supported Obama in 2008 and 2012, then swung right in 2016 to support Donald Trump. On the state level, however, Republicans have dominated for the past two decades. Only partly due to gerrymandering, they have a 12-to-4 advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Democrats hold only nine of the 33 seats in the Ohio Senate and only a third of the 99 seats in the Ohio House. Republicans have also held the governorship for all but four years since 1990. Progressive U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, now seeking his third term, remains the only Democratic candidate to consistently win statewide elections.

Why has the Democratic Party lost so much ground in Ohio? To a large extent, it’s because they have lost the support of white working-class voters.

As in other Rust Belt states, a majority of Ohio voters are white people without college degrees. Fully 55 percent of the state’s voters belong to this demographic, while only 31 percent are white and college educated. In the polling booth, the gap between those with and without higher education has steadily increased, according to pollster Ruy Texiera. To win in Ohio, he argues, Democrats must “find a way to reach hearts and minds among white non-college voters.”

After two decades of losses, you might think that the Ohio Democratic Party would have figured that out. But for the most part, it has not. Instead, the current crop of Democratic candidates has focused on critiques of Trump, Kasich, and the Ohio legislature. They’ve raised concerns about gerrymandering and voter suppression, the opioid crisis, Ohio’s pitiful record on women’s issues, and the almost uniformly bad performance of for-profit charter schools. Valid concerns all, but the Democrats running for office in 2018 have offered almost nothing in the way of concrete economic platforms.

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Budgets and Values: How Republican Cuts to College Loan Forgiveness Will Harm the Working-Class

Tim Francisco Director, Center for Working-Class Studies

This summer, a Pew Research report attracted significant attention in media, policy, and academic circles because it revealed that for the first time, a majority of conservative Republicans believe college is hurting our country. The report reflects a political climate that is increasingly anti-intellectual and anti-institutional. While it may not be surprising, the poll suggests that college and class are becoming increasingly stratified and polarized in our national conversations and in public policy.

According to the study’s authors, “A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year.” The number of Republicans without a college degree who believe universities help America dropped 20 percentage points in just the last two years. The decline for Republicans with a degree was 11 percent. That’s a point worth repeating: this dramatic decline occurred over a period of only two years – about the life cycle of the presidential primaries and campaign, and it appears among both college educated and non-college educated respondents. It is striking that this trend does not apply to Democrats, 72 % of whom say universities are good for the country.

This study has spawned many debates and analyses over what the findings mean. Is this a reaction to highly publicized free speech struggles on campuses that have become a staple of conservative media? Or is it due to presidential candidates’ escalating anti-intellectualism? Or does it stem from increasing college costs and debt with little certainty of economic return? I’d argue that all of these causes contribute.

A more important question is this: how might this pervasive Republican anti-higher education sentiment shape policy, and what consequences might this have for working-class college students and other vulnerable populations?

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The Precariat: Why a Basic Income is Vital

Guy Standing Research Associate, University of London

We are in the midst of a global transformation orchestrated by powerful financial interests espousing an ideology of market liberalisation, commodification, and privatisation. The global market system they advocate increases economic and social injustice, including widespread precarity. In the face of this transformation, how can we create new systems of regulation, distribution, and social protection to achieve a more just society?

Central to the transformation has been the owners’ control of physical, financial, and intellectual property from which they overwhelmingly benefit. Unlike the post-war period when shares of income going to capital and labour were roughly stable, in today’s globalised economy, the income distribution system has broken down irretrievably and the share of rentier capital – that is, income from rents, trusts, and subsidies rather than production or trade — has risen sharply.

This economic transformation has enormous implications for a growing class, the precariat. I define this group as a class because it has distinctive relations of production, relations of distribution, and relations to the state. And it is the precariat that will define the counter-movement in the global transformation.

The precariat faces a life of unstable, insecure labour. As we have seen with Uber, Task Rabbit, and other new non-traditional work structures, casualization has been extended by indirect labour relations in the ‘concierge economy’, while online crowd labour in platform capitalism and on-call contracts has spread. Within the next decade, a majority of transactions may be of this type, as labour brokers and apps become more ubiquitous. The old relations of production, built around direct employer-employee relationships, may become the exception.

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Equal Opportunity Is Not Enough

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar Author

We middle-class professionals are a crafty bunch, especially our intellectual elite.  One of our cagiest moves recently involves our expressions of concern about increasing income and wealth inequality in the U.S.  While eloquently expressing how guilty we feel about our privilege, we never come close to suggesting that some money be moved around.  “Redistribution” is either not in our vocabulary or “something we need to discuss,” which is our standard way of ending discussion by putting it off to an indefinite future.  But our craftiest move is how we routinely slip and slide in our discussion of the inequality of money (which is what income and wealth are) into ways to improve equality of opportunity.

Richard Reeves’s Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It is a reductio ad absurdum of this crafty slip sliding, but Reeves makes two important contributions.  First, he widens the target from the top 1% to the top 20% of households.  Second, he inadvertently demonstrates the absurdity of applying equality of opportunity to income classes and of understanding social mobility as simply about equalizing opportunities to be in that top 20%.  Worse, though a generous soul gently tweaking our class privilege, Reeves ends up recommending that the primary solution to equalizing opportunities is for our class to improve “human capital development” in the working class, including “home visiting to improve parenting”!

As misguided as I think Reeves is, Dream Hoarders is well worth reading because he pulls together a lot of recent research on how professional-middle-class privilege is being passed on across generations to such a degree that the U.S. has become an “hereditary meritocracy.”  In doing so, he shifts the focus from merely the top 1% of households whose average income tops $1.6 million to a much larger group ranging down to $121,000 a year (in 2016).  This is the top 25 million households, whom he rightly says are “the single most dangerous constituency to anger” because we are “wealthy enough to have influence, and numerous enough to be a significant voting bloc.”  While often humorously chiding his own behavior, he shows the wide range of ways middle-class professionals use our social and cultural capital to improve the chances of our children and grandchildren ending up in that top 20%.

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The Work Lives of Uber Drivers: Worse Than You Think

By Katie Wells, Kafui Attoh, and Declan Cullen

To be an Uber driver is to work when you want. Or so Uber likes to say in recruitment materials, advertisements, and sponsored research papers: “Be your own boss.” “Earn money on your schedule.” “With Uber, you’re in charge.” The language of freedom, flexibility, and autonomy abounds, and can seem like a win for workers.

But the reality of our research shows something very different. The price of flexibility in the gig economy is substantial. Last year we conducted 40 in-person interviews and online surveys with Uber drivers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Our project—which creates one of the first independent, qualitative datasets about the rideshare industry—found that the economic realities of precarious work are a far cry from the rosy promises of the gig economy. In exchange for flexible schedules, Uber retains near total control over what really matters for drivers, namely the compensation and costs of work.

Aman bought a Lincoln Town Car in 2012 after he been approved to drive for Uber Black, the brand-new private car service. As an Ethiopian immigrant in Washington, D.C., he had supported himself by driving a taxi so he already had the chauffeur license that was then required. In 5 or 6 hours of driving, he earned what would have taken him 8 hours in a taxi. But, not long after he took on the $35,000 loan for the car, Uber changed a policy about how old cars could be, and the Lincoln Town Car no longer qualified. Aman could no longer drive for Uber Black, and he could no longer make his car payments.

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Women Hold the Keys to New Working-Class Prosperity

Lane Windham Associate Director, Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative (K.I.) for Labor and the Working Poor

America rediscovered its working class during the 2016 election, and many Democrats and progressives now call for fresh policies to address the nation’s crisis of bad jobs and stagnant wages. Twenty-first century working-class prosperity, however, must involve a reinvigorated labor movement.   And women, especially women of color, will be more central than ever before.

Pundits and politicians often use “working class” as code for a white guy in a hard hat.  Yet America’s working class is primary female and is disproportionately brown and black.  This is true no matter how we define the working class.

The media usually defines the working class as people without a four-year college degree, which includes two-thirds of Americans. By this measure, women are the majority of the U.S. working class. In fact, 52 percent of people over age 25 without a four-year degree are women, according to census data, and a disproportionate number are women of color. If we describe class by education, people of color will be a majority of the nation’s working class by 2032, earlier than in the overall population.

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Religious Liberty: (Not) For All

Ken Estey Associate Professor, Author, Brooklyn College

Freedom of religion is a central idea in the United States. Most descriptions of U.S. history emphasize flight from religious repression as the main motivation for colonial settlement. The U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea of freedom in the very first line of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Proponents argue that religious liberty means that everyone may participate in a free “marketplace” of religious ideas and practices. Neither atheists nor believers pay taxes to support a state church. Believers are free of taxes on property and activities associated with their church, temple, or mosque. In this open market, the benefits are said to be spread evenly – from the rich to the poor, from the 1% to the working class. However, institutional actions in the name of religious freedom can have negative consequences for working-class people.

No one seems to question whether individuals should be free to follow their conscience or to practice the religion of their choice (or no religion at all). But how should we evaluate religious freedom claims for institutions, especially when they involve workers, services, and public funds? Discrimination in certain employment practices is generally non-controversial. For instance, a church would not be subject to discrimination claims if it refused to consider rabbis as candidates for its pastoral leadership.

But other employment cases are not as clear cut. For example, in the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012), the Court not only recognized a “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, but extended it. Cheryl Perich, a teacher at Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, filed suit claiming that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). She became sick and was on leave for several months. Upon her return, she faced pressure to resign but refused to do so, and the school terminated her employment. In the court case, the school successfully argued that she functioned as a minister in that context. In the ruling, the court valued the religious freedom doctrine over Perich’s medical condition and ADA regulations. The long-term consequences of this ruling remain unclear. How much deference will the courts give to  religious organizations rather than to employees?

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Springsteen’s Born to Run: Memoir as “Repair”

Pamela Fox Professor, Georgetown University

Few rock music memoirs have caught the attention of esteemed novelists such as Richard Ford, whose New York Times review of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (2016) exalts the musician as not simply an extraordinary artist and showman but a literary writer who “paradoxically” hails from the “humblest” of American locales.  Over the last four and a half decades, Springsteen has been branded America’s working-class troubadour—at once an ‘every man’ and singular artist whose song catalogue has been compared to the best of Whitman and Steinbeck (not to mention Bob Dylan).  His boisterous tales of the Jersey shore and more intimate Guthrie-esque portraits of post-industrial America are beloved in no small part because they tell truths from Bruce’s own life story and give voice to largely forgotten communities. Given his music’s definitive autobiographical components, what does Springsteen accomplish by publishing a 500-page version of his life saga?

Born to Run reads as a challenging mixture of several memoir subgenres: 1) working-class life writing—specifically, a variant of deindustrialization personal narratives; 2) music celebrity memoir; and 3) disability life narrative.  Springsteen’s bombshell revelation of his long-term battle with what appears to be bipolar illness erupts a third of the way through the book, disrupting the familiar unfolding of his rise to superstardom. No one in his inner circle knew about his condition except for his manager Jon Landau and, eventually, his wife and band member Patti Scialfa. Yet while this destabilizes his autobiographical claims, it also frees him to double down on the rewards of autobiography as a tool for social change.  His vulnerability finally allows him—and us—to interpret anew the connections between his life, his art, and political resistance. As he becomes more comfortable with exposing his “brilliant disguise,” Springsteen comes to function as a kind of ghost writer for his own text. He confronts what has haunted him throughout his past and re-envisions his future.

As with nearly every other aspect of his life, mental illness is intimately connected to his father.   Doug Springsteen has achieved legendary status in his son’s music due to their acrimonious relationship, and his own untreated paranoid schizophrenia emerges as another potential ‘inheritance.’  This disclosure forces us to re-examine one central preoccupation of the text:  Springsteen’s rise from a “working man’s son” to a multi-millionaire icon. Working-class and disability life narratives merge in his depiction of that fraught transition as a material and psychological metamorphosis that never quite holds.

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Is the Worst Yet to Come for Unions?

John Russo

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

With the decline of good paying jobs in the private sector, public employment has been particularly important for working-class people. These state and local workers also provide important public services ranging from street cleaning, to home health to emergency services. Such employment opportunities have benefited African-American workers and their families especially.

This is true even as union membership declines overall. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that 10.7% of wage and salary workers belong to unions.  Union membership would be even worse if public sector union membership weren’t more than five times higher (at 34%) than the private-sector rate (6.4%). Like other working-class people, union members, including those in the public sector, have seen both the number of jobs and wages decrease dramatically. The situation is about to get worse as the result of Trump’s election, with the refiling of the Friedrichs case and state Right-to-Work (RTW) initiatives. Both Friedrichs and RTW undermine union membership, which reduces the power of union both politically and in the workplace by taking away the dues money that enables unions to advocate for and protect workers.

Union membership is a working-class issue because it helps workers improve their economic condition and helps to alleviate economic inequality. Even non-union workers benefit from unionization as a result of what economists call “wage pull.” What’s more, public-sector union strength helps prevent private-sector wages from falling further, even as public-sector unions are weakened by the decline in private-sector membership.

In January 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which involved agency fee agreements that cover the costs of union representation without becoming a union member. The Friedrichs case is a direct attack on the right of public sector unions to exist. Without agency fees, many unions will collapse economically. They will have less money for organizing, representing, and lobbying for members.

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