Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

I was thinking about the American work ethnic. The economically well off like to blame the poor for not working hard enough. They seem to be suggesting that any person willing to work can do just as well as they did. The implication is that, therefore, all poor people are inferior and deserve what they get (or don’t get).

If the poor person can’t find a job, it’s there fault that so many jobs have disappeared in this country. If they are working several jobs just to pay the bills, it’s there fault for not getting a college education to get a better job. If they get a college education and still are unemployed but now also in debt, it’s because kids are lazy these days and they should have gotten a practical skill like plumbing. And on and on.

God forbid we look at larger environmental causes that are putting many Americans in impossible positions.

Just work harder. That is just the worst thing to tell most people. The one thing Americans don’t lack is a love of work. I see homeless guys working harder than the average employed person. They walk around non-stop all day, every day collecting cans or looking for stuff thrown out in dumpsters that can be sold at consignment store. Even the guy standing with a sign asking for money for endless hours year round, rain or shine, cold or hot, hardly can be called lazy.

Maybe we should ask why there are so many unemployed. Maybe we should ask why the permanently unemployed aren’t counted as part of the unemployment rates. Maybe we should ask why there are so many poor and homeless in a country with so much wealth, land, resources, and housing.

I had another thought about what we should be asking. With the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on prostitution, the war on the poor, we have created a large criminalized underclass that works in a massive black market. Many of the people called unemployed and those never even counted are actually working jobs, but it isn’t official taxed employment.

In some countries, the black market might be larger than the legal market. Realizing the significance of the black market, a few countries have begun to include the black market in their calculations of GDP. It’s an interesting thing to do. Everyone knows the black market exists, but it is something one isn’t supposed to talk about in polite company, especially not in mainstream media and politics.

To talk about the black market would mean we would also have to talk about all the problems related to the black market. That is where the resistance comes in. That is what someone like Bill Cosby can’t mention when speaking of blacks needing to work harder. My guess is that as jobs in the legal market have disappeared jobs in the black market have increased. Whole markets such as for drugs have grown into profitable businesses because of illegalization. Even the police stations have been raking in the money through confiscations because of the illegal drug business.

The government knows about all this, either choosing to do nothing about it or lacking the political will to take action. Another example is that of illegal gun sales, which shows how the legal markets overlap with the illegal markets. In some cases, the government knows which gun dealers are selling guns illegally, but the government doesn’t at present have the regulatory power to enforce the law.

It’s not just the ghettos where the black market operates. The majority white rural communities have become major markets for the manufacture and use of meth. In poverty-stricken Appalachia, along with meth labs, marijuana crops are one of the major sources of income of the mostly white residents. Heck, it isn’t even just poor people. Lot of big businesses and big banks are involved in illegal activities that are rarely investigated or prosecuted.

The black market is massive beyond imagination and it is global. There probably is no way to separate the legal and illegal markets for how closely they are intertwined. There are many business owners who simultaneously operate legal and illegal businesses. That is how the Mafia operated.

The problem obviously isn’t a lack of people working, not in any simple sense. Yes, there are some people genuinely unemployed, either they can’t find work or they choose to not do illegal work. What if your only choice was to sell drugs, be a prostitute, work for an organized crime group, or not work at all? Sometimes refusing to work can be a stance of moral principle. As legal jobs disappear, this maybe a decision more Americans have to make.

Should we respect someone for working hard, no matter what kind of work they are doing? What is it that we want to value and promote as a society? Just hard work at any cost for any purpose?

The complaint someone like Bill Cosby has about poor blacks isn’t really that they aren’t working hard, but that they aren’t working hard in the way and for the purpose he thinks they should. But what other choice do they have? Not every poor black guy can become the next wealthy Cosby. Our entire system is built on the necessity of there being a vast impoverished underclass of surplus labor. Working harder doesn’t change that. Working harder doesn’t make racism and classism go away.

So, whose work counts? What kind of work counts? Why? And to what end?

To ask which work we are to count is related to asking which people we will count. It is related as well to those who don’t get counted, i.e., those who don’t count, those who don’t matter. Who we value is inseparable from what we value, and what we value determines how we treat others.

Whose country is this? Is it the country of all citizens or only some? It is interesting to note that the Americans that often don’t get counted also get targeted by the criminal system and, as ex-cons, they also don’t get to vote. Talk about not being counted, not even politically as a citizen. When a large part of the population is economically and politically disenfranchized, when we criminalize so much of daily life, why are we surprised that social problems arise among the people most negatively impacted by such an oppressive system?

Work harder, really?

21 thoughts on “Whose Work Counts? Who Gets Counted?

  1. A few years ago, I spoke to a guy who was a member of Greenpeace while i was riding the bus.

    He and his fellow members had protested the fracking in the US. Anyways, the members of a town who worked nearby thought were thinking “damn environmentalists”. Well, the environmentalists got kicked out. The fracking started. The townspeople at the time actually cheered apparently at the sight, because they had received a modest payment from the town.

    After the fracking started, well, the town’s water got poisoned. Apparently the townspeople are suffering various health problems now, or so the Greenpeace guy told me. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember reading up that the cancer rates in that area went up.

    Anyways, check these out:



    But in a way I find this to be a microcosm of what is happening to society. The middle class has literally voted against its own interests since the Reagan Revolution.

    It has literally voted itself in some ways out of existence. Collectively, the American middle class is like that town. It has been passive, short-term oriented, ignorant, and frankly, quite stupid.

    So whose work matters you ask? It would appear only the work of the top 0.1%. The snake oil of big corporations, political extremists on the right, and the very wealthy seem to matter; sadly supported by the very classes they are trying to crush.

    It would appear that the middle class is incapable of recognizing its own rational long term self-interest. The US seems to be heading to a nation of peons and a few very wealthy. And appallingly, it is something that it has brought on itself.

    • Most people most of the time don’t care about a problem until it personally affects them and those they personally know.

      That is human nature. Most of our evolution happened in small communities, not vast societies. We aren’t psychologically well-adapted to these modern conditions, not perfectly, but we are adaptable enough to create problems we can’t solve or feel incapable of responding to.

      On the other hand, humans have shown great capacity for reacting to problems, sometimes even effectively. Once enough people are harmed by present conditions, there will all of a sudden be immense creative energy to solving the problems. There will be a tipping point… eventually.

      • Indeed it is human nature.

        But even in Europe, and Canada, I do find that there is much less “let’s blame the poor for everything” and there is a greater sense that if something happens to one group of citizens, it can adversely affect the nation.

        It’s not perfect (especially not here in Canada), but the sense is much better overall.

        • Chris, I don’t know that I agree that our (US) middle (and lower) classes have a bad understanding. If anything, the problem seems to me to be that our lower and middle classes are aware of many things that are bad for them and becoming more and more aware, but are incapable of formulating responses, and if you buy into recent research by Martin Gilens that representative/democratic function is highly contingent on wealth, they are incapable of responding were they to formulate such a response.

          • You make a good point. I would say, as I argue about racism, that many people simultaneously know and don’t know all kinds of things. People know things in separate contexts, but it is hard to put it all together and make sense of it. Meanwhile, the average American is bombarded with endless misinformation and disinformation, competing claims of truth and expertise.

        • The US being founded on slavery and dependent on it for such a long period has given it a somewhat unique history. If the colonial period is included, US as a society has existed with slavery longer than it has existed without it.

          Classism in the US is closely linked to race and race is closely linked to the history of oppression. Slavery demanded constant expansionism and so there is also a link to Native American removal and the largest genocide in world history.

          That the poor in many cases come from populations and family lines that have been poor for centuries touches on a raw nerve. These are continuing patterns and social orders in some cases go all the way back to Britain (such as with the poor Scots-Irish).

          There is a long, ugly history that Americans really don’t like to think about. It is easier to blame the victims of centuries of oppression. To take seriously how the poor became that way is more than most Americans can handle.

  2. Your comments here ended up factoring into a discussion on the subject of HBD I had with a friend yesterday, particularly:

    “Many of the people called unemployed and those never even counted are actually working jobs, but it isn’t official taxed employment.”

    We both found this interesting for a number of reasons, probably the least of which was how few people put forward suggestions like that. The way I saw it, this notion correlates pretty well with the concept that we are, as it were, determined by our condition.

    • “We both found this interesting for a number of reasons, probably the least of which was how few people put forward suggestions like that.”

      That is why I made the suggestion. I’d like to see more discussion about it.

      Why is it that in our society that we don’t think of black market work as real work? It’s not even just about stereotypically criminal activity such as drug dealing and prostitution. Even many housekeepers work outside of any official records. There is a large number of undocumented immigrants who work illegally, but otherwise do completely normal work. Yet none of these people are counted.

      “The way I saw it, this notion correlates pretty well with the concept that we are, as it were, determined by our condition.”

      Do you mean in that we are determined by the opportunities and constraints that define our condition?

      If the work someone has available to them is mostly activity that has been criminalized by the government (including working many jobs without a license), being part of the black market will determine so much of the rest of their life. To escape those conditions is difficult and, as the data shows, rarely happens. Economic mobility has been decreasing in the US and it never was that high for minorities in the first place.

  3. I’ve long been interested by the argument that undocumented immigrant labor is economically beneficial in some ways. Intuitively, the logic of the argument when I’ve seen it presented has meshed well.

    “Do you mean in that we are determined by the opportunities and constraints that define our condition?”


    On economic mobility, there’s an excellent sourcebook, largely left-leaning, on labor history in the US: Major Problems in the History of American Workers. The first chapter consists of two essays which capture a pretty strong sense of economic disparity: to be at the bottom of the economic barrel means to hinge on every spare dollar, pushing just to survive.

    • “On economic mobility, there’s an excellent sourcebook, largely left-leaning, on labor history in the US: Major Problems in the History of American Workers.”

      Maybe I’ll check it out one of these days.

      “The first chapter consists of two essays which capture a pretty strong sense of economic disparity: to be at the bottom of the economic barrel means to hinge on every spare dollar, pushing just to survive.”

      That fits my sense of life here in the US. In my reading about race issues, I’ve gained a growing appreciation for the reality of a permanent underclass.

  4. It’s a taste of what will happen if the corporations gain control. We are going to head back to the Gilded Age – literally.

    • Considering people are willing to work themselves to death just for an internship, imagine what immoral actions they’d be willing to take. Once they move up the corporate ladder a bit, what little bit of of perspective they started with would be entirely lost. Many are wiling to sacrifice immensely for big money, which for a certain kind of person can justify almost anything. Where success is idolized over all else, there are few limits to what will be done in seeking it.

  5. That I think is a matter of how sick American society has become.

    It’s become exceedingly status obsessed and the very bad that it once criticized of other nations.

    • The US is a young and immature country. Much of its political elite and general population act accordingly. Canada maybe had the advantage of maintaining more of its links to British tradition and so is a more grounded and balanced society. The US inherited British imperialism without inheriting the British traditions that made it a more stable system.

    • There are plenty of materialistic societies out there.

      Asian cultures I find are very materialistic in this regard. People are taught their potential spouses have to be very successful and that happiness should not matter. I have wondered if this mentality is responsible for the exceedingly high suicide rate that Asian societies seem to have. It’s a very strong shame culture.

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