Sick White Middle Class Children Are Our Most Precious Commodity

As one sees on occasion in the news, there was a local story of a child with a disease that was being treated. The purpose is to elicit sympathy and/or inspiration, which is unsurprising and worthy. But it gets one thinking when considering the details and narrative frame. The reporting is often about how the community came together to raise money or otherwise help the child and the family. It’s a feel-good story that follows a particular kind of script. As important is picking the right child for the lead role in the drama.

In this case, the child was a cute, white, middle class girl. She was photogenic according to what our society deems good looking, even with her hair loss from chemotherapy. That is the basic profile of nearly every human interest story of this sort. It’s not just any kid that becomes the focus of a human interest story. There has to be hundreds of sick kids in the area that are some combination of less attractive, impoverished, and non-white. But rarely does a major news media outlet tell their stories of suffering and struggle, of overcoming the odds.

That is assuming they overcome the odds. No one reports on the poor kid who died because the parents couldn’t afford healthcare, who was slowly poisoned from lead toxicity because they lived in a poor industrial area, or some other sad demise. No one reports on the black kid who when sick the community didn’t come together because the community was majority white and the family had been excluded and isolated. What we don’t see in the news tells us as much as what we do see.

It reminds one of the studies done on news reporting of criminals. Black criminals are more likely to have their photographs shown than white criminals. This creates the perception that almost all crime is commited by non-whites. The news media teaches and trains us in thinking who deserves sympathy and who does not. The world is divided up as innocent well-off whites who must be saved and criminal poor blacks who must be condemned. News reporting is a morality tale about maintaining the social order.

The Large and Growing Caste of Permanent Underclass

The United States economy is in bad condition for much of the population, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that by watching the news or listening to the president, especially if you live in the comforable economic segregation of a college town, a tech hub, a suburb, or a gentrified neighborhood. As the middle class shrinks, many fall into the working class and many others into poverty. The majority of Americans are some combination of unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid (Alt-Facts of Unemployment) — with almost half the population being low wage workers and 40 million below the poverty line. No one knows the full unemployment rate, as the permanently unemployed are excluded from the data along with teens (Teen Unemployment). As for the numbers of homeless, there is no reliable data at all, but we do know that 6,300 Americans are evicted every day.

Most of these people barely can afford to pay their bills or else end up on welfare or in debt or, worse still, entirely fall through the cracks. For the worst off, those who don’t end up homeless often find themselves in prison or caught up in the legal system. This is because the desperately poor often turn to illegal means to gain money: prostitution, selling drugs, petty theft, etc; or even minor criminal acts (remember that Eric Garner was killed by police for illegally selling cigarettes on a sidewalk); whatever it takes to get by in the hope of avoiding the harshest fate. Even for the homeless to sleep in public or beg or rummage through the trash is a crime in many cities and, if not a crime, it could lead to constant harassment by police, as if life isn’t already hard enough for them.

Unsurprisingly, economic data is also not kept about the prison and jail population, as they are removed from society and made invisible (Invisible Problems of Invisible People). In some communities, the majority of men and many of the women are locked up or were at one time. When in prison, as with the permanently unemployed, they can be eliminated from the economic accounting of these communities and the nation. Imprison enough people and the official unemployment rate will go down, especially as it then creates employment in the need to hire prison guards and the various companies that serve prisons. But for those out on parole who can’t find work or housing, knowing that at least they are being recorded in the data is little comfort. Still others, sometimes entirely innocent, get tangled up in the legal system through police officers targeting minorities and the poor.  Forcing people to give false confessions out of threat is a further problem and, unlike in the movies, the poor rarely get legal representation.

Once the poor and homeless are in the legal system, it can be hard to escape for there are all kinds of fees, fines, and penalties that they can’t afford. In various ways, the criminal system, in punishing the victims of our oppressive society, harms not only individuals but breaks apart families and cripples entire communities. The war on drugs, in particular, has been a war on minorities and the poor. Rich white people have high rates of drug use, but no where near an equivalent rate of being stopped and frisked, arrested and convicted for drug crimes. A punitive society is about maintaining class hierarchy and privilege while keeping the poor in their place. As Mother Jones put it, a child who picked up loose coal on the side of railroad tracks or a hobo who stole shoes would be arrested, but steal a whole railroad and you’ll become a United States Senator or be “heralded as a Napoleon of finance” (Size Matters).

A large part of the American population lives paycheck to paycheck, many of them in debt they will never be able to pay off, often from healthcare crises since stress and poverty — especially a poverty diet — worsens health even further. But those who are lucky enough to avoid debt are constantly threatened by one misstep or accident. Imagine getting sick or injured when your employment gives you no sick days and you have a family to house and feed. Keep in mind that most people on welfare are also working and only on it temporarily (On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc). Meanwhile, the biggest employers of the impoverished (Walmart, Amazon, etc) are the biggest beneficiaries of the welfare that is spent at their stores.

So, poverty is good for business, in maintaining both cheap labor subsidized by the government and consumerism likewise subsidized by the government. To the capitalist class, none of this is a problem but an opportunity for profit. That is, profit on top of the trillions of dollars given each year to individual industries, from oil industry to military-industrial complex, that comes from direct and indirect subsidies and much of it hidden — that is to say, corporate welfare and socialism for the rich (Trillions Upon Trillions of Dollars, Investing in Violence and Death). These are vast sums of public wealth and public resources that, in a just society and functioning social democracy, would support the public good. That is not only money stolen from the general public, including stolen from the poor, but opportunities lost for social improvement and economic reform.

Worse still, it isn’t only theft from living generations for the greater costs are externalized onto the future that will be inherited by the children growing up now and those not yet born. The United Nations is not an anti-capitalist organization in the slightest, but a recent UN report came to a strong conclusion: “The report found that when you took the externalized costs into effect, essentially NONE of the industries was actually making a profit. The huge profit margins being made by the world’s most profitable industries (oil, meat, tobacco, mining, electronics) is being paid for against the future: we are trading long term sustainability for the benefit of shareholders. Sometimes the environmental costs vastly outweighed revenue, meaning that these industries would be constantly losing money had they actually been paying for the ecological damage and strain they were causing.” Large sectors of the global economy are a net loss to society. Their private profits and social benefit are a mirage. It is theft hidden behind false pretenses of a supposedly free market that in reality is not free, in any sense of the word.

As a brief side note, let’s make clear the immensity of this theft that extends to global proportions. Big biz and big gov are so closely aligned as to essentially be the same entity, and which controls which is not always clear, be it fascism or inverted totalitarianism. When the Western governments destroyed Iraq and Libya, it was done to steal their wealth and resources, oil in the case of one and gold for the other, and it cost the lives of millions of innocent people. When Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State intervened in Haiti to suppress wages to maintain cheap labor for American corporations, that was not only theft but authoritarian oppression in a country that once started a revolution to overthrow the colonial oppressors that had enslaved them.

These are but a few examples of endless acts of theft, not always violent but often so. All combined, we are talking about possibly thousands of trillions of dollars stolen from the world-wide population every year. And it is not a new phenomenon, as it goes back to the 1800s with the violent theft of land from Native Americans and Mexicans. General Smedley Butler wrote scathingly about these imperial wars and “Dollar Diplomacy” on behalf of “Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the Bankers” (Danny Sjursen, Where Have You Gone, Smedley Butler?). Poverty doesn’t happen naturally. It is created and enforced, and the ruling elite responsible are homicidal psychopaths. Such acts are a crime against humanity; more than that, they are pure evil.

Work is supposedly the definition of worth in our society and yet the richer one is the less one works. Meanwhile, the poor are working as much as they are able when they can find work, often working themselves to the point of exhaustion and sickness and early death. Even among the homeless, many of them are working or were recently employed, a surprising number of them low-paid professionals such as public school teachers, Uber drivers, and gig workers who can’t afford housing in high-priced urban areas where the jobs are to be found. Somehow merely not being unemployed is supposed to be a great boon, but working in a state of utter fear of getting by day to day is not exactly a happy situation. Unlike in generations past, a job isn’t a guarantee of a good life, much less the so-called American Dream. Gone are days the days when a single income from an entry level factory job could support a family with several kids, a nice house, a new car, regular vacations, cheap healthcare, and a comfortable nest egg.

As this shows, it’s far from limited to the poorest. These days most college students, the fortunate few to have higher education (less than a quarter of Americans), are struggling to find work at all (Jordan Weissman, 53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed—How?). Yet those without a college degree are facing far greater hardship. And it’s easy to forget that the United States citizenry remains largely uneducated because few can afford college with tuition going up. Even most college students come out with massive debt and they are the lucky ones. What once was a privilege has become a burden for many. A college education doesn’t guarantee a good job as it did in the past, but chances for employment are even worse without a degree — so, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

It’s not only that wages have stagnated for most and, relative to inflation, dropped for many others. Costs of livings (housing, food, etc) have simultaneously gone up, not to mention the disappearance of job security and good benefits. Disparities in general have become vaster — disparities in wealth, healthcare, education, opportunities, resources, and political representation. The growing masses at the bottom of society are part of the permanent underclass, which is to say they are the American caste of untouchables or rather unspeakables (Barbara Ehrenreich: Poverty, Homelesness). The mainstream mention them only when they seem a threat, such as fears about them dragging down the economy or in scapegoating them for the election of Donald Trump as president or whatever other distraction of the moment. Simple human concern for the least among us, however, rarely comes up as a priority.

Anyway, why are we still idealizing a fully employed workforce (Bullshit Jobs) and so demonizing the unemployed (Worthless Non-Workers) at a time when many forms of work are becoming increasingly meaningless and unnecessary, coming close to obsolete? Such demonization doesn’t bode well for the future (Our Bleak Future: Robots and Mass Incarceration). It never really was about work but about social control. If the people are kept busy, tired and stressed, they won’t have the time and energy for community organizing and labor organizing, democratic participation and political campaigning, protesting and rioting or even maybe revolution.  But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we ever harnessed a fraction of the human potential that is wasted and thrown away, if we used public wealth and public resources to invest in the citizenry and promote the public good, we could transform society over night. What are we waiting for? Why do we tolerate and allow this moral wrongdoing to continue?

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A commenter below shared a documentary (How poor people survive in the USA) from the DW, a German public brodcaster. It is strange to watch foreign news reporting on the United States as if it were about a developing country that was in the middle of a crisis. Maybe that is because the United States is a developing country in the middle of a crisis. Many parts of this country have poverty, disease, and mortality rates that are as high or higher than what s seen in many countries that were once called third world. And inequality, once considered absolute proof of a banana republic, is now higher here than it ever was in the original banana republics. In fact, inequality — that is to say concentrated wealth and power — has never been this radically extreme in any society in all of history.

It’s not about a few poor people in various places but about the moral failure and democratic failure of an entire dysfunctional and corrupt system. And it’s not limited to the obvious forms of poverty and inequality for the consequences to the victims are harsh, from parasite load to toxic exposure that causes physical sickness and mental illness, stunts neurocognitive development and lowers IQ, increases premature puberty and behavioral problems, and generally destroys lives. We’ve known about this information for decades. It even occasionally, if only briefly and superficially, shows up in corporate media reporting. We can’t honestly claim ignorance as a defense of our apathy and indifference, of our collective failure.

Poverty isn’t a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash
by Rutger Bregman

On Conflict and Stupidity
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Parasites Among the Poor and the Plutocrats
Stress and Shittiness
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Urban Weirdness
Lead Toxicity is a Hyperobject
Connecting the Dots of Violence
Trauma, Enbodied and Extended
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
Public Health, Public Good

Childhood adversity linked to early puberty, premature brain development and mental illness
from Science Daily

Poor kids hit puberty sooner and risk a lifetime of health problems
by Ying Sun

* * *

Low-Wage Jobs are the New American Normal
by Dawn Allen

It’s clear that the existence of the middle class was a historic anomaly. In 2017, MIT economist Peter Temin argued that we’re splitting into a two-class system. There’s a small upper class, about 20% of Americans, predominantly white, degree holders, working largely in the technology and finance sectors, that holds the lion’s share of wealth and political power in the country. Then, there’s a much larger precariat below them, “minority-heavy” but still mostly white, with little power and low-wage, if any, jobs. Escaping lower-class poverty depends upon navigating two flawless, problem-free decades, starting in early childhood, ending with a valuable college degree. The chances of this happening for many are slim, while implementing it stresses kids out and even makes them meaner. Fail, and you risk “shit-life syndrome” and a homeless retirement.

Underemployment Is the New Unemployment
Western countries are celebrating low joblessness, but much of the new work is precarious and part-time.
by Leonid Bershidsky

Some major Western economies are close to full employment, but only in comparison to their official unemployment rate. Relying on that benchmark alone is a mistake: Since the global financial crisis, underemployment has become the new unemployment.

In a recent paper, David Bell and David Blanchflower singled out underemployment as a reason why wages in the U.S. and Europe are growing slower than they did before the global financial crisis, despite unemployment levels that are close to historic lows. In some economies with lax labor market regulation — the U.K. and the Netherlands, for example — more people are on precarious part-time contracts than out of work. That could allow politicians to use just the headline unemployment number without going into details about the quality of the jobs people manage to hold down.

Measuring underemployment is difficult everywhere. To obtain more or less accurate data, those working part-time should probably be asked how many hours they’d like to put in, and those reporting a large number of hours they wish they could add should be recorded as underemployed. But most statistical agencies make do with the number of part-timers who say they’d like a full-time job. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t provide an official underemployment number, and existing semi-official measures, according to Bell and Blanchflower, could seriously underestimate the real situation.

The need for governments to show improvement on jobs since the global crisis has led to an absurd situation. Generous standards for measuring unemployment produce numbers that don’t agree with most people’s personal experience and the anecdotal evidence from friends and family. A lot of people are barely working, and wages are going up too slowly to fit a full employment picture. At the same time, underemployment, which, according to Bell and Blanchflower, has “replaced unemployment as the main indicator of labor market slack,” is rarely discussed and unreliably measured.

Governments should provide a clearer picture of how many people are not working as much as they’d like to — and of how many hours they’d like to add. Labor market flexibility is a nice tool in a crisis, but during an economic expansion, the focus should be on improving employment quality, not just reducing the number of people who draw an unemployment check. An increasing number of better jobs, and as a consequence wage growth, becomes the most important measure of policy success.

The War on Work — and How to End It
by Edward L. Glaeser

In 1967, 95 percent of “prime-age” men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. During the Great Recession, though, the share of jobless prime-age males rose above 20 percent. Even today, long after the recession officially ended, more than 15 percent of such men aren’t working. And in some locations, like Kentucky, the numbers are even higher: Fewer than 70 percent of men lacking any college education go to work every day in that state. […]

From 1945 to 1968, only 5 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 — prime-age males — were out of work. But during the 1970s, something changed. The mild recession of 1969–70 produced a drop in the employment rate of this group, from 95 percent to 92.5 percent, and there was no rebound. The 1973–74 downturn dragged the employment rate below 90 percent, and, after the 1979–82 slump, it would stay there throughout most of the 1980s. The recessions at the beginning and end of the 1990s caused further deterioration in the rate. Economic recovery failed to restore the earlier employment ratio in both instances.

The greatest fall, though, occurred in the Great Recession. In 2011, more than one in five prime-age men were out of work, a figure comparable to the Great Depression. But while employment came back after the Depression, it hasn’t today. The unemployment rate may be low, but many people have quit the labor force entirely and don’t show up in that number. As of December 2016, 15.2 percent of prime-age men were jobless — a figure worse than at any point between World War II and the Great Recession, except during the depths of the early 1980s recession.

The trend in the female employment ratio is more complicated because of the postwar rise in the number of women in the formal labor market. In 1955, 37 percent of prime-age women worked. By 2000, that number had increased to 75 percent — a historical high. Since then, the number has come down: It stood at 71.7 percent at the end of 2016. Interpreting these figures is tricky, since more women than men voluntarily leave the labor force, often finding meaningful work in the home. The American Time Survey found that non-employed women spend more than six hours a day doing housework and caring for others. Non-employed men spend less than three hours doing such tasks.

Joblessness is disproportionately a condition of the poorly educated. While 72 percent of college graduates over age 25 have jobs, only 41 percent of high-school dropouts are working. The employment-rate gap between the most and least educated groups has widened from about 6 percent in 1977 to almost 15 percent today. The regional variation is also enormous. Kentucky’s 23 percent male jobless rate leads the nation; in Iowa, the rate is under 10 percent. […]

The rise of joblessness among the young has been a particularly pernicious effect of the Great Recession. Job loss was extensive among 25–34-year-old men and 35–44-year-old men between 2007 and 2009. The 25–34-year-olds have substantially gone back to work, but the number of employed 35–44-year-olds, which dropped by 2 million at the start of the Great Recession, hasn’t recovered. The dislocated workers in this group seem to have left the labor force permanently.

Lost in Recession, Toll on Underemployed and Underpaid
by Michael Cooper

These are anxious days for American workers. Many, like Ms. Woods, are underemployed. Others find pay that is simply not keeping up with their expenses: adjusted for inflation, the median hourly wage was lower in 2011 than it was a decade earlier, according to data from a forthcoming book by the Economic Policy Institute, “The State of Working America, 12th Edition.” Good benefits are harder to come by, and people are staying longer in jobs that they want to leave, afraid that they will not be able to find something better. Only 2.1 million people quit their jobs in March, down from the 2.9 million people who quit in December 2007, the first month of the recession.

“Unfortunately, the wage problems brought on by the recession pile on top of a three-decade stagnation of wages for low- and middle-wage workers,” said Lawrence Mishel, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, a research group in Washington that studies the labor market. “In the aftermath of the financial crisis, there has been persistent high unemployment as households reduced debt and scaled back purchases. The consequence for wages has been substantially slower growth across the board, including white-collar and college-educated workers.”

Now, with the economy shaping up as the central issue of the presidential election, both President Obama and Mitt Romney have been relentlessly trying to make the case that their policies would bring prosperity back. The unease of voters is striking: in a New York Times/CBS News poll in April, half of the respondents said they thought the next generation of Americans would be worse off, while only about a quarter said it would have a better future.

And household wealth is dropping. The Federal Reserve reported last week that the economic crisis left the median American family in 2010 with no more wealth than in the early 1990s, wiping away two decades of gains. With stocks too risky for many small investors and savings accounts paying little interest, building up a nest egg is a challenge even for those who can afford to sock away some of their money.

Expenses like putting a child through college — where tuition has been rising faster than inflation or wages — can be a daunting task. […]

Things are much worse for people without college degrees, though. The real entry-level hourly wage for men who recently graduated from high school fell to $11.68 last year, from $15.64 in 1979, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. And the percentage of those jobs that offer health insurance has plummeted to 22.8 percent, from 63.3 percent in 1979.

Though inflation has stayed relatively low in recent years, it has remained high for some of the most important things: college, health care and even, recently, food. The price of food in the home rose by 4.8 percent last year, one of the biggest jumps in the last two decades.

Meet the low-wage workforce
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman

Low-wage workers comprise a substantial share of the workforce. More than 53 million people, or 44% of all workers ages 18 to 64 in the United States, earn low hourly wages. More than half (56%) are in their prime working years of 25-50, and this age group is also the most likely to be raising children (43%). They are concentrated in a relatively small number of occupations, and many face economic hardship and difficult roads to higher-paying jobs. Slightly more than half are the sole earners in their families or make major contributions to family income. Nearly one-third live below 150% of the federal poverty line (about $36,000 for a family of four), and almost half have a high school diploma or less.

Women and Black workers, two groups for whom there is ample evidence of labor market discrimination, are overrepresented among low-wage workers.

To lift the American economy, we need to understand the workers at the bottom of it
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman

These low-wage workers are a racially diverse group, and disproportionately female. Fifty-two percent are white, 25% are Latino or Hispanic, 15% are Black, and 5% are Asian American. Females account for 54% of low-wage workers, higher than their total share of the entire workforce (48%).

Fifty-seven percent of low-wage workers work full time year-round, considerably lower than mid/high-wage workers (81%). Among those working less than full time year-round, the data don’t specify if this is voluntary or involuntary, and it is probably a mix.

Two-thirds of low-wage workers are in their prime working years of 25-54, and nearly half of this group (40%) are raising children. Given the links between education and earnings, it is not surprising that low-wage workers have lower levels of education than mid/high-wage workers. Fourteen percent of low-wage workers have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 44% among mid/high-wage workers, and nearly half (49%) have a high school diploma or less, compared to 24% among mid/high-wage workers. […]

The largest cluster consists of prime-age adults with a high school diploma or less

The largest cluster, accounting for 15 million people (28% of low-wage workers) consists of workers ages 25 to 50 with no more than a high school diploma. It is one of two clusters that are majority male (54%) and it is the most racially and ethnically diverse of all groups, with the lowest share of white workers (40%) and highest share of Latino or Hispanic workers (39%). Many in this cluster also experience economic hardship, with high shares living below 150% of the federal poverty line (39%), receiving safety net assistance (35%), and relying solely on their wages to support their families (31%). This cluster is also the most likely to have children (44%).

Low-wage work is more pervasive than you think, and there aren’t enough “good jobs” to go around
by Martha Ross and Nicole Bateman

Even as the U.S. economy hums along at a favorable pace, there is a vast segment of workers today earning wages low enough to leave their livelihood and families extremely vulnerable. That’s one of the main takeaways from our new analysis, in which we found that 53 million Americans between the ages of 18 to 64—accounting for 44% of all workers—qualify as “low-wage.” Their median hourly wages are $10.22, and median annual earnings are about $18,000. (See the methods section of our paper to learn about how we identify low-wage workers.)

The existence of low-wage work is hardly a surprise, but most people—except, perhaps, low-wage workers themselves—underestimate how prevalent it is. Many also misunderstand who these workers are. They are not only students, people at the beginning of their careers, or people who need extra spending money. A majority are adults in their prime working years, and low-wage work is the primary way they support themselves and their families.

Low-wage work is a source of economic vulnerability

There are two central questions when considering the prospects of low-wage workers:

  1. Is the job a springboard or a dead end?
  2. Does the job provide supplemental, “nice to have” income, or is it critical to covering basic living expenses?

We didn’t analyze the first question directly, but other research is not encouraging, finding that while some workers move on from low-wage work to higher-paying jobs, many do not. Women, people of color, and those with low levels of education are the most likely to stay in low-wage jobs. In our analysis, over half of low-wage workers have levels of education suggesting they will stay low-wage workers. This includes 20 million workers ages 25-64 with a high school diploma or less, and another seven million young adults 18-24 who are not in school and do not have a college degree.

As to the second question, a few data points show that for millions of workers, low-wage work is a primary source of financial support—which leaves these families economically vulnerable.

  • Measured by poverty status: 30% of low-wage workers (16 million people) live in families earning below 150% of the poverty line. These workers get by on very low incomes: about $30,000 for a family of three and $36,000 for a family of four.
  • Measured by the presence or absence of other earners: 26% of low-wage workers (14 million people) are the only earners in their families, getting by on median annual earnings of about $20,000. Another 25% (13 million people) live in families in which all workers earn low wages, with median family earnings of about $42,000. These 27 million low-wage workers rely on their earnings to provide for themselves and their families, as they are either the family’s primary earner or a substantial contributor to total earnings. Their earnings are unlikely to represent “nice to have” supplemental income.

The low-wage workforce is part of every regional economy

We analyzed data for nearly 400 metropolitan areas, and the share of workers in a particular place earning low wages ranges from a low of 30% to a high of 62%. The relative size of the low-wage population in a given place relates to broader labor market conditions such as the strength of the regional labor market and industry composition.

Low-wage workers make up the highest share of the workforce in smaller places in the southern and western parts of the United States, including Las Cruces, N.M. and Jacksonville, N.C. (both 62%); Visalia, Calif. (58%); Yuma, Ariz. (57%); and McAllen, Texas (56%). These and other metro areas where low-wage workers account for high shares of the workforce are places with lower employment rates that concentrate in agriculture, real estate, and hospitality.

Post-Work: The Radical Idea of a World Without Jobs
by Andy Beckett

As a source of subsistence, let alone prosperity, work is now insufficient for whole social classes. In the UK, almost two-thirds of those in poverty – around 8 million people – are in working households. In the US, the average wage has stagnated for half a century.

As a source of social mobility and self-worth, work increasingly fails even the most educated people – supposedly the system’s winners. In 2017, half of recent UK graduates were officially classified as “working in a non-graduate role”. In the US, “belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s”, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. “They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement.” (You can sense this every time a graduate with a faraway look makes you a latte.)

Work is increasingly precarious: more zero-hours or short-term contracts; more self-employed people with erratic incomes; more corporate “restructurings” for those still with actual jobs. As a source of sustainable consumer booms and mass home-ownership – for much of the 20th century, the main successes of mainstream western economic policy – work is discredited daily by our ongoing debt and housing crises. For many people, not just the very wealthy, work has become less important financially than inheriting money or owning a home.

Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.

The argument seemed subjective and crude, but economic data increasingly supports it. The growth of productivity, or the value of what is produced per hour worked, is slowing across the rich world – despite the constant measurement of employee performance and intensification of work routines that makes more and more jobs barely tolerable.

Unsurprisingly, work is increasingly regarded as bad for your health: “Stress … an overwhelming ‘to-do’ list … [and] long hours sitting at a desk,” the Cass Business School professor Peter Fleming notes in his book, The Death of Homo Economicus, are beginning to be seen by medical authorities as akin to smoking.

Work is badly distributed. People have too much, or too little, or both in the same month. And away from our unpredictable, all-consuming workplaces, vital human activities are increasingly neglected. Workers lack the time or energy to raise children attentively, or to look after elderly relations. “The crisis of work is also a crisis of home,” declared the social theorists Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek in a 2017 paper. This neglect will only get worse as the population grows and ages.

And finally, beyond all these dysfunctions, loom the most-discussed, most existential threats to work as we know it: automation, and the state of the environment. Some recent estimates suggest that between a third and a half of all jobs could be taken over by artificial intelligence in the next two decades. Other forecasters doubt whether work can be sustained in its current, toxic form on a warming planet. […]

And yet, as Frayne points out, “in some ways, we’re already in a post-work society. But it’s a dystopic one.” Office employees constantly interrupting their long days with online distractions; gig-economy workers whose labour plays no part in their sense of identity; and all the people in depressed, post-industrial places who have quietly given up trying to earn – the spectre of post-work runs through the hard, shiny culture of modern work like hidden rust.

Last October, research by Sheffield Hallam University revealed that UK unemployment is three times higher than the official count of those claiming the dole, thanks to people who come under the broader definition of unemployment used by the Labour Force Survey, or are receiving incapacity benefits. When Frayne is not talking and writing about post-work, or doing his latest temporary academic job, he sometimes makes a living collecting social data for the Welsh government in former mining towns. “There is lots of worklessness,” he says, “but with no social policies to dignify it.”

Creating a more benign post-work world will be more difficult now than it would have been in the 70s. In today’s lower-wage economy, suggesting people do less work for less pay is a hard sell. As with free-market capitalism in general, the worse work gets, the harder it is to imagine actually escaping it, so enormous are the steps required.

We should all be working a four-day week. Here’s whyWe should all be working a four-day week. Here’s why
by Owen Jones

Many Britons work too much. It’s not just the 37.5 hours a week clocked up on average by full-time workers; it’s the unpaid overtime too. According to the TUC, workers put in 2.1bn unpaid hours last year – that’s an astonishing £33.6bn of free labour.

That overwork causes significant damage. Last year, 12.5m work days were lost because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety. The biggest single cause by a long way – in some 44% of cases – was workload. Stress can heighten the risk of all manner of health problems, from high blood pressure to strokes. Research even suggests that working long hours increases the risk of excessive drinking. And then there’s the economic cost: over £5bn a year, according to the Health and Safety Executive. No wonder the public health expert John Ashton is among those suggesting a four-day week could improve the nation’s health. […]

This is no economy-wrecking suggestion either. German and Dutch employees work less than we do but their economies are stronger than ours. It could boost productivity: the evidence suggests if you work fewer hours, you are more productive, hour for hour – and less stress means less time off work. Indeed, a recent experiment with a six-hour working day at a Swedish nursing home produced promising results: higher productivity and fewer sick days. If those productivity gains are passed on to staff, working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily entail a pay cut.

Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you
by Peter Fleming

The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center recently used activity trackers to monitor 8,000 workers over the age of 45. The findings were striking. The average period of inactivity during each waking day was 12.3 hours. Employees who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours. The authors concluded that sitting in an office for long periods has a similar effect to smoking and ought to come with a health warning.

When researchers at University College London looked at 85,000 workers, mainly middle-aged men and women, they found a correlation between overwork and cardiovascular problems, especially an irregular heart beat or atrial fibrillation, which increases the chances of a stroke five-fold.

Labour unions are increasingly raising concerns about excessive work, too, especially its impact on relationships and physical and mental health. Take the case of the IG Metall union in Germany. Last week, 15,000 workers (who manufacture car parts for firms such as Porsche) called a strike, demanding a 28-hour work week with unchanged pay and conditions. It’s not about indolence, they say, but self-protection: they don’t want to die before their time. Science is on their side: research from the Australian National University recently found that working anything over 39 hours a week is a risk to wellbeing.

Is there a healthy and acceptable level of work? According to US researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, most modern employees are productive for about four hours a day: the rest is padding and huge amounts of worry. Pang argues that the workday could easily be scaled back without undermining standards of living or prosperity. […]

Other studies back up this observation. The Swedish government, for example, funded an experiment where retirement home nurses worked six-hour days and still received an eight-hour salary. The result? Less sick leave, less stress, and a jump in productivity.

All this is encouraging as far as it goes. But almost all of these studies focus on the problem from a numerical point of view – the amount of time spent working each day, year-in and year-out. We need to go further and begin to look at the conditions of paid employment. If a job is wretched and overly stressful, even a few hours of it can be an existential nightmare. Someone who relishes working on their car at the weekend, for example, might find the same thing intolerable in a large factory, even for a short period. All the freedom, creativity and craft are sucked out of the activity. It becomes an externally imposed chore rather than a moment of release.

Why is this important?

Because there is a danger that merely reducing working hours will not change much, when it comes to health, if jobs are intrinsically disenfranchising. In order to make jobs more conducive to our mental and physiological welfare, much less work is definitely essential. So too are jobs of a better kind, where hierarchies are less authoritarian and tasks are more varied and meaningful.

Capitalism doesn’t have a great track record for creating jobs such as these, unfortunately. More than a third of British workers think their jobs are meaningless, according to a survey by YouGov. And if morale is that low, it doesn’t matter how many gym vouchers, mindfulness programmes and baskets of organic fruit employers throw at them. Even the most committed employee will feel that something is fundamentally missing. A life.

Fractures of a Society Coming Apart

My workplace offers a nice vantage point on humanity, to observe the comings and goings of people in the world. My job is that of a parking ramp cashier employed by the local city government. I sit in a booth and my purpose is rather simple, that of customer service. I serve the public and I take seriously this social role, as it is what I’m paid for. It’s true that, in my introversion, I’m not emotionally effusive, extraverted, and gregarious with customers. I can be perfunctorial in being a bureaucratic functionary, but still I go through the motions and play the script to the best of my ability, certainly to a greater degree than some of my coworkers. Here is my standard protocol, rarely with any deviation: I greet people, treat them politely, work quickly, try to count my money accurately, generally do my job well, and then send my customers on their way by telling them to have a good day, a lovely evening, a nice weekend, or whatever is appropriate. Then I nod my head or even slightly doff my hat, in a somewhat formal acknowledgement of the person before me and as a signal that our interaction has come to a conclusion, and sometimes this elicits an amused smile from the customer. Formality is my default, in that I tend to sublimate my personality into my professional role.

I’ve been a cashier off and on since the 1990s and I’ve been in my present position coming on a quarter of a century. I rarely have issues with anyone, as I’m conflict-avoidant in wanting to keep things simple and smooth. I don’t like unnecessary stress and so I try to keep it low key. The job has become a routine at this point and, having had much practice, I usually know how to deal with various situations. I don’t tend to react to much that happens at work, no matter how a customer acts. If someone is particularly friendly to me, I’ll muster a smile and try to respond in kind. Or if they tell a joke, I might pretend to be amused. And if a customer is upset or unhappy, I’ll become extremely formal and even less emotive. But most often, one customer is the same as the next, a stream of humanity that passes by my window. In a single year, I may have had hundreds of thousands of customers go through my line. I try to treat each person as an individual human being, although after a while, particularly late in a shift, it can become repetitively mindless.

That mindlessness is where I was at last night. The shift was longer than normal, since I was filling in for my co-worker and so working alone. It wasn’t stressful, though, as the students are out of town and most university employees are on vacation. So there I was after a long day ready to go home and relax, but not in a bad mood or anything, just winding down my shift. Someone pulls up in my lane and nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the individual. In typical fashion, I greeted him as I would greet anyone else with a simple ‘Hello’, but as is common he wasn’t paying attention as he scrounged around in his car. I wasn’t offended as I’m used to people being distracted. Most likely, he was looking for his ticket or wallet, not that it was any of my concern what he was specifically doing. It generally isn’t important, assuming there is no long line of cars. Besides, it’s my job to serve people and, as I have no where to go, I’m not particularly in a hurry. I get paid the same, no matter how long a customer waits in my lane.

So, fully in automatic service mode, I patiently and calmly waited until he turned around. Then he gave me an odd look and said something that I heard as, “Aren’t you going to say something?” I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly, but I didn’t take it as having any grand significance. So, my response was to ask him for his ticket in order to proceed with the transaction. Apparently, that was not the response he desired. He asked me, “Aren’t you going to greet me?” At that point, I felt flustered and uncertain what to say. I explained to him that I had greeted him, but he would have none of it. He started rudely lecturing me about being polite and told me that I should learn manners. This pissed me off and I suggested that maybe he should learn manners and I added that I bet I wasn’t the first one to tell him this either.* This wasn’t the most optimal response on my part and, in reflection, it makes me sad thinking about it, but in the moment his aggressive attitude caught me off guard and immediately put me on the defense. The situation unsurprisingly didn’t improve after that, in his then threatening that, “I’m going to watch you” — well, if he had watched me the first time, he’d have known that I had given him a greeting and, as with the rest of my customer transactions that shift, it would have remained pleasant. Oh well… he finally went away, the best of all possible outcomes at that point.

There were many things that I found irritating. He was being hypocritical in demanding respect when he offered none, in being rude while complaining about how he perceived me as being rude. To be honest, there was a more basic aspect to my annoyance. He was demanding something of me, demanding a specific response, demanding that I should submissively comply and show deference. I’m just some working class schmuck trying to get through my day and this guy thinks I owe him something, as if he is more worthy than me, as if I’m obligated to accept my supposed inferiority in being scolded and berated for no reason other than his being higher up the class ladder.** And if I wasn’t unionized, I would have had to demean myself and be conciliatory out of fear for my continued employment. The implied threat in such exchanges is very much real, as such implied threats are what enforce and maintain a class-based society.*** In this case, the threat was far from veiled, in that his overtly stated warning that he was going to watch me seemed to suggest there would be some kind of consequence if I did not do as I was told, if I did not shape up and bow down appropriately the next time. It makes me wonder. If in watching me he decides that I have failed to correctly subordinate myself and comply with his demands, is he going to seek to punish me for my transgressions against his moral code of proper cashier behavior in how people like him deserve to be treated? And if so, what punishment do I deserve to teach me to know my place?

That is the worst part, the greater social import behind it, what it means in the context of the society we find ourselves in. There is a reason for the dynamic that happened, as he was part of the most common demographic of customer that causes problems. He was an upper middle class white guy, the stereotypical patriarch in our society (for context, I have never had a poor minority customer lecture me or throw a tantrum; it just does not happen). He had a nice new SUV that was recently washed, his attire was high-quality and clean-cut, and everything about him was well-groomed. He put off the signals of someone who is economically well off in society, someone who knows it and wants others to know it. And going by his behavior, he was clearly used to being in a position of authority such that he could demand others to do what he wanted and expect compliance and deference. He commanded respect, so he thought. What he didn’t know is that I don’t play that game. I treat all my customers the same in egalitarian fashion (no toast for you, whether you’re rich or poor). Whatever privileges he normally receives in his professional role and socioeconomic position do not apply to paying for his parking ticket. He is no one special, as far as I’m concerned.

It was the threat, implied or not so implied, behind his behavior that got my hackles up. Being someone likely with influence and connections, he could try to get me fired. Maybe he is part of the powerful downtown business association with personal friends in positions of political power, such as on the city council. Or maybe he is just generally used to throwing his weight around and getting his way. I wouldn’t be surprised if he calls to talk to one of my bosses or sends a formal letter of complaint to the city manager. And if I wasn’t unionized, he very well could get me fired. I’m sure that he is oblivious to the privilege he wields in being able to arrogantly act in that way and get away with it, to lecture and demand and threaten others without repercussion. Unawareness of one’s privilege is the greatest of privileges. On the other hand, I know his personal issues had nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is regularly rude and arrogant, bossy and snippy with a wide variety of people. Maybe this has become as mindless to him as my own behavior can sometimes be when I’m at work. That was the clash between us, two different people playing out two different scripts and finding themselves pulled into a scenario where typical responses did not apply.

In a high inequality society such as ours, there are yet other scripts that shape behavior and maybe we were being drawn into one of these scripts that we all learn from a lifetime of enculturation and media narratization: managerial class vs working class, capitalist plutocrat vs average Joe, liberal elite vs real American, or some other variation. With Donald Trump as president, class antagonism is at an all time high, and this grows worse as what was once an inequality gap grows into an inequality gulf. Back in 1981, Bernie Sanders in a television interview quaintly complained that, “the fact that in our society, theoretically a Democratic Society, you have a handful of people who control our economy. You have maybe two percent of the population that owns one third of the entire wealth of America, eighty percent of the stocks, 90 percent of the bonds, and these people have incredible power. They sit on huge corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank, the multinational corporations, and they determine the destiny of our entire country as you know. Perhaps 50% of our population has so given up on the democratic process they don’t even vote and those are primarily poor people” (interview with Phil Donahue, segment titled “Socialism in New England,” The Today Show). That is a sad commentary on our present society. How far we have fallen since then!

Now to be considered part of the economic elite you have to be in the .1% which is a great distance from the bottom of the top 2%, much less mere upper middle class. In its own way, to be upper middle class is distressing and requires one to constantly flaunt one’s position and privilege to demonstrate that one matters at all, as the reality is that the descent from middle to lower class is not that far these days, sometimes requiring only one wrong misstep or a minor accident of fate. To be filthy rich would mean not having to deal with the peons at all or else to have no concern for them. The richest of the rich would never bother to even condescend so far as to lecture someone like me, even in the rare circumstance that they would be forced to acknowledge my existence in the slightest.**** The worst insult to the upper middle class white guy I butted heads with is that he didn’t have quite enough privilege that he could avoid or ignore someone like me and, instead, someone like me had the audacity to treat him as an equal. I shamed him and, despite his aggressive way of acting superior, I dismissed his presumption of authority. “No respect, I tell ya. No respect.”

I could simply leave it at that, but there is something about the altercation that fascinates me in looking back on it with psychological distance. I know the world this guy comes from, whether or not he has any sense of my own view of things. I grew up in the upper middle class and so my father too was a white guy of that variety, in fact a businessman who worked in factory management and later as a business management professor, both positions of great respect and authority. He never flaunted his privilege in an oppressive or arrogant way, but the privilege was present and it was obvious to others. And I can see the privileges I too had growing up. There was nothing that stopped me from aspiring to also become an upper middle class white guy, as I had everything going for me. It just wasn’t in my personality to follow that path to worldly success, power, and respect. Apparently, I internalized too much of my mother’s lingering working class mentality from her own childhood.

Still, I understand the attraction and the difficulties in social roles of that sort. Being an upper middle class white person can be difficult with immense expectations and pressure. To embrace that social identity, whether born into it or gaining it, is to take on a heavy load of social and historical baggage. It’s also plain time-consuming. On top of full-time careers, both of my parents worked the equivalent of a second job in maintaining, repairing, and cleaning the house and yard so that it was always perfectly presentable as is the standard of upper middle class. They also spent a lot of time on finances and investments, along with much time on all the social organizations they belonged to that define and preoccupy the upper middle class existence. It’s tiresome and endless. My mother practically has a week-long anxiety attack every time someone plans to come over to the house for a visit. To be upper middle class means to be judged by one’s possessions and appearance, constantly judged in every area of one’s life. It is to live as if on a stage always in the middle of a performance, maybe even performing when at home alone with one’s family. It’s a demanding social role and identity that, in many cases, might never allow for the facade to be lowered.

The guy I was dealing with was clearly a professional of some sort, maybe a business owner or a bank manager or doctor. To achieve and maintain such a socioeconomic position requires immense work, effort, and sacrifice. I didn’t go that direction in life because I don’t have it in me to adhere to such demanding rules and norms, but obviously this guy had some talent for playing the game, for conforming to the status quo, for being a good cog in the machine. He expected deference and submission from his perceived inferiors probably because he had spent his whole life giving deference and submission to his perceived superiors. Now that he had reached middle age it was his turn to be rewarded, as he thought had been promised according to the supposedly meritocratic social order. As far as I know, he might hate his job, hate his wife and kids, and hate everything about his life. Maybe he wanted to be a park ranger or artist (or dinosaur) when he was younger, but he gave up on his dreams to do what his parents and peers expected of him, in going down the path of least resistance. Maybe he never even consciously was aware of these expectations at all in so absolutely conforming to them that he came to identify with them, having lost his own sense of independent self in the process. Or maybe he once loved his job and his life but the world slowly wore him down until he became burned out and resentful.

The pressure of this social Darwinian capitalist system is immense. To climb that ladder, you have to follow your tightly-scripted role perfectly or else be punished and find yourself falling into failure or mediocrity, passed over and disrespected. To be an upper middle class white guy means a very specific identity to be maintained, always with your game face on, always pretending you are confident and know what you’re doing, that you are an authority figure standing above the dirty masses. Few people in our society, even among the economically well off, are happy and satisfied. The conflicts that erupt have little to do with the individuals involved, even as the anxiety and animosity flares up in conflicts between people. Wealthier white people aren’t immune to the psychological strain. Nor is the working class who has to take the brunt of it. It’s difficult for all sides to not get caught up in these forces so far beyond the individual. Everything and everyone is under pressure, and the results are rarely happy.

These are the fractures of a society coming apart. What we usually notice are the dramatic events like school shootings, church bombings, and mass terrorist attacks. Or we worry about the rise of violence, the mental illness among the growing homeless population, and a sense of social breakdown in our communities. And then there are the protests and riots that demonstrate a sense of ill at ease in the populace. This is what the corporate media, national and local, obsesses over. But the everyday reality of a system under stress is how it gets felt in the small interactions, the social chafing that causes emotional rawness and irritation. We have less patience with one another in our being quicker to react, to judge, and to verbally accost one another. This is what slowly and imperceptibly frays the social fabric.

* * *

* There is an amusing thought I had. I was reading about violence and aggression rates, as compared between the American North and South. This has to do with which states are or are not honor cultures. There are a bunch of fascinating studies that demonstrate this contrast, but a particular study showed the difference in certain telling details. The study in question had a staged situation where the test subject was in a room with an actor who played a role given by the researchers. This actor was to do a total of 11 specific irritating behaviors, from calling the test subject a nickname such as ‘Slick’ to throwing pieces of paper at him.

The response by Southern males was quite different than by Northern males. The Southerner tended to not respond at all, at least initially. They remained quiet and just took the irritating behavior, that is until they reached the fifth transgression. Then the Southerner went ballistic and, at this point, the researchers had to stop the experiment for fear that someone was going to get physically hurt. There was no warning other than the silence itself, which no doubt another Southern would take as a warning. If you’re around Southerners, a silent non-response might be a very bad thing and so tread carefully.

Now the Northerner guys went about it in another way. The moment the irritating behavior began they were voicing complaints. They tried to reason with their assailant, maybe with the assumption that he simply didn’t realize he was being irritating. When the actor in the study continued their rude behavior, the test subjects simply stopped responding and ignored any further insults to their person. They didn’t blow up, as did the Southerners. I wonder if that is because the Northerners in a sense had already expressed themselves, rather than suppressing their anger and allowing it to build up. It was a way of managing their own emotional experience in order to manage the social situation.

The latter Northern style applies to the scenario I was in  . This is a very Northern state, Iowa, that is part of the Upper Midwest. There is not much Southern culture to be found here, as emigration from the South to Iowa has been extremely low. Despite our class differences, my customer and I were both Northerners. We dealt with irritation in a direct fashion by both immediately complaining to the other. That may have defused the situation, as we both gave voice to our feelings and on a basic level had our respective experiences acknowledged. We mutually agreed that we were unhappy and there was nothing hidden, nothing repressed. We just let it out — the tension was vented and quickly dissipated. It didn’t escalate beyond a minute or so of expressing ourselves.

As a Northerner, this seems like a healthy way of dealing with things. Waiting for a situation to worsen such that it turns into a physical fight where someone gets injured or killed doesn’t seem like a great outcome. When some guy does a heinous violent crime, so often the neighbors, when interviewed, say that he was a quiet guy. Maybe silence is a bad thing, as a general rule. Complain openly and often. It’s good for you and for society. Verbal conflict is better than physically violent outbursts.

* * *

** As a side note, I should point out that conflicts like this rarely happen. The last event similar to this occurred about a year and a half ago (Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied). That last time did not even include an argument and, as arguing with customers is so extremely rare, I can’t even remember the last time this happened. As a practice, I just don’t argue at work. I sometimes go several years without any major event of any kind. Even most upper class white people are normally well-behaved. Heck, this guy has been through my lane before and somehow has managed to never before respond in this way.

I’m sure there were other factors involved. Maybe his father died or his wife made him sleep on the couch the night before or maybe he just woke up feeling grumpy for no reason. Considering the high stress and health problems of so many Americans, there doesn’t need to be a particular external cause of being in a foul mood. General crappiness has become the social norm of our society, exacerbated by high inequality (see Keith Payne, Richard Wilkinson, and Kate Picket). Maybe I should be shocked this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often.

None of that explains, though, the behavior and the dynamic in this individual case. Such a situation is rare and, when it does happen, it is almost entirely limited to upper middle class white people and usually middle aged at that, the kind of person who is probably at the peak of their career and socioeconomic position within society. As a demographic, such people come no where close to representing the majority of my customers. So, why are they so consistently among the majority in causing problems?

If stress and ill health was the primary cause, the poor (both minorities and whites) should be going berserk on a daily basis and yet they aren’t. As one goes down the economic ladder, there is no trend toward worsening antisocial and impolite behavior — if anything, the opposite. Why is that?

* * *

*** Such implied threats bother me to an extreme. It may be an unconscious wielding of power and privilege, but it’s nonetheless real and potentially harmful to those who don’t deserve it. It is all the more real, in class being integral to capitalist realism, that someone like this guy has the additional privilege of remaining oblivious and so not having to face the moral consequences of his own behavior. He can swagger around in making the lives of others miserable and most people in service jobs will bow down to him simply out of an instinct for self-preservation. He no doubt has grown accustomed to such treatment and now expects it as default.

It’s one of the most depressing aspects of living in in this kind of rigid class hierarchy. And it has real world consequences we see every day. It’s the reason that rich white people can regularly commit crimes in our society without any penalty or else much less penalty. When they cause problems and on the rare occasions the police do show up, they don’t have to worry about getting arrested, much less beat up or shot. They know they will always be given the benefit of the doubt. And often they’ll be given second, third, etc chances, as they can hire the best lawyers who will find legal loopholes while so often judges treat them with kids gloves. We know this from the data, in how people are treated differently for the exact same crimes by police and in courts depending on their demographics and appearance.

It’s frustrating. To be lower class is to be constantly aware of this anti-democratic injustice. As workers serving the interests of those who hold the power, we can’t afford to be willfully ignorant in the way can the privileged. It doesn’t even require any malice for the wealthier to benefit from privilege, as all they need to do is act according to that privilege by taking it for granted. The privileged individual, in their unconscious belligerence, can always claim innocence as the system of power is something they didn’t create in that they were born into it and inherited it without any stated consent. It just happens as the way the world is. Still, they benefit from it as long as they don’t openly resist it and fight against it, and so they remain complicit and morally culpable.

This came up the other day with my father. As I said, he isn’t someone to flaunt privilege, but neither is he one to be all that aware of it either. We went out to breakfast and the regular worker was serving us in taking our order. It was at the nearby Hy-Vee grocery store, not exactly a high-class place. Our server is a college student, probably tired and overworked and underpaid. My dad had previously complained that, although courteous and a hard worker, this server wasn’t particularly personable in being overly focused on his work, such as intently looking down as he enters our order into the cash register. It’s not that he is unfriendly for he always greets us. It’s just that he isn’t into small talk and doesn’t flash a big smile at customers.

Anyway, my father decided to chide him for not being more friendly in an extraverted fashion, since that is what my dad prefers as an extravert. And with an implied if unintentional threat that any customer wields to some extent in complaining, he was able to get some small talk out of him. Like the upper middle class white guy I dealt with at work, my father also presents himself with all the outward forms of class position. He was demanding something of this young guy and so similarly there is all that goes with that, with the potential threat being even greater as that is not a unionized workplace. All my father has to do is make a single complaint to the manager to make this server’s life miserable and maybe cause him to lose his job. None of that means my father has ill intent. But what it does mean is that my father has grown used to being able to demand things of others and get what he demands without any thought to why he is able to gain such easy compliance.

An implied threat is still a real threat and it is all the more powerful for never having to be stated. It is irrelevant that my father would not intentionally to do anything to harm another person. He doesn’t have to, as this Hy-Vee worker doesn’t know my father’s intentions any more than I knew the intentions of the guy at my own workplace. Such implied threats operate by being built into how the entire system functions. Unionized labor is the only thing that throws a wrench into the class hierarchy. But unionized labor has lost power as laws were passed to restrict what unions could do and as union-busting has chipped away at membership. Few workers have any respect, any way to stand up for themselves, to defend themselves with a sense of pride and real force… as long as they don’t have a democratic union behind them. That is equally true of democracy in general, which is the greater problem. As inequality rises, democracy declines. And it isn’t as if we had much functioning democracy in the first place.

This is all the more reason that all of us should become more aware. This is particularly true for those who, by choice or chance, find themselves in the position of wielding class or racial privileges. To hold power over someone, even if done with no bad intention, is to affect them and, one might add, is to affect the individual with the power as well. Their perception and behavior is shaped accordingly. We need to be kind, compassionate, and careful in how we treat others. This is true of everyone, of course, but it is a thousand times more true for those in a society where their greater position potentially asserts threat to those below them. If it helps, think of this as noblesse oblige: Don’t merely “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” but more importantly ask what you owe society, what you owe the disadvantaged and underprivileged, the least among us.

There is a moral responsibility we should accept in how we affect others, positively and negatively. We aren’t only individuals but part of social orders that inevitably are moral orders, and the order that exists must be maintained and enforced, whether directly by what we do or done on our behalf. A free society of free people doesn’t just happen. It has to be chosen, again and again and again. And we have to demand it and fight for it. That begins in the smallest of ways as expressed in how we treat others. The very least any of us can do is to not act like petty tyrants, to instead simply be kind. On a basic human level, we really are equals and should look upon others in that light.

* * *

**** Wealthier people, at least in high inequality societies, act more contentedly relaxed and pleased with themselves, disengaged and aloof toward others. It is as if they have no worries in the world, much less concern for and interest in other people, specifically when most other people are of a lower class than they and so have no power over them to affect their lives (see Science Daily’s Rich Man, Poor Man: Body Language Can Indicate Socioeconomic Status, Study Shows & Cody Delistraty’s Rich or poor? Your face might give it away). For most of us in this society, this plutocratic indifference may seem so shockingly obvious as to go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said and then repeated ad infinitum. It’s interesting that people do perceive the rich as being ‘cold’ and it’s hard to argue against this being accurate (Carolyn Gregoire, How Money Changes the Way You Think and Feel) — indeed, the rich are more likely to be morally compromised and break rules, less likely to cooperate and be generous, and on and on.

Furthermore, it’s not limited to outward behavior and expression for social relations shape psychology and neurocognitive development. To be in a higher socioeconomic status manifests as lower ability to empathize with others and accurately read the emotional experience of others, whereas the poor tend to be comparative geniuses in this area (see Cathy O’Neil’s Make Rich People Read Chekhov). So, maybe it was somewhat predictable that, even as I was paying attention to this upper middle class white guy while he scrounged in his car, he paid so little attention to me that he didn’t even realize I had greeted him. As he presumably saw me as his inferior, I wasn’t judged worthy of being given his full attention. Those further up the social ladder aren’t in the habit of going to the effort of understanding those below them and so they literally have less ability to do so, but this also means less awareness about how unaware they are. It’s a self-enclosed lack of empathy based on a crippled theory of mind. They are psychologically and emotionally blind.

This doesn’t make rich people evil. It’s simply an artifact of inequality and the greater the inequality the more extreme would be these attitudes of disengagement and disinterest, disconnection and dissociation. As such, one would expect to find little, if any, of this kind of thing among egalitarian tribes like the Piraha where there is no economic inequality and no social hierarchy at all in lacking any social roles or positions of authority with no chiefs, no council of elders, no shamans, and no warrior class. There is nothing natural and normal about a high inequality society, but if it is all we’ve known it is hard for us to be aware of it. Consciously thinking about our position within a rigid hierarchy is not something we are taught in a society such as ours that we like to pretend is an egalitarian democracy, even though in our heart of hearts we all know that is total bullshit, however comforting is the lie.

The upper middle class white guy described in this post is not abnormal for our society, even if he is abnormal by the standard of most of human existence. Prior to modern civilization, inequality and hierarchy was rather limited in distance and scope (e.g., an early feudal lord lived among and attended social events with the nearby peasants). In fact, the high inequality seen now in the United States has never before existed in any society at any historical or prehistorical period. This is an unprecedented situation. Now consider that no high inequality society has ever lasted long before having events, one way or another, forcing the social order back toward greater equality: international war, civil war, revolution, famine, plague, ecological disaster, civilizational collapse, etc (Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler). We are approaching a new period of leveling. And it is likely to be far worse this time around.

* * *

On Conflict and Stupidity
American Class Bigotry
Class Divide and Communication Failure
Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

What Causes the Poor Health of the Poor?

What is the cause of unhealthy eating? Richard Florida attempts to answer that, based on new research. He makes some good points, but maybe he is missing some of the context.

Let me begin with one thing that seems correct in the analysis. He points out that food deserts are found in poor areas. Dietary health is an issue of socioeconomic class. Yet even when better food is made available, either by grocery stores opening or people moving, the habits of foods bought don’t tend to change. That isn’t surprising and not particularly insightful. If changes were to happen, they would happen across generations as they always do. It took generations to create food deserts and the habits that accompany them. So, it would take generations to reverse the conditions that created the problem in the first place.

Florida sort of agrees with this, even though he doesn’t seek to explain the original cause and hence the fundamental problem. Instead, he points to the need for better knowledge by way of educating the public. What this overlooks is that in generations past there was much better eating habits that were altered by a combined effort of government dietary recommendations and corporate advertising, that is to say an alliance of big government and big business, an alliance that did great harm to public health (from the largely unhelpful food pyramid to the continuing subsidization of corn and corn syrup). The bad eating habits poor Americans have now come from what was taught and promoted over the past century, diet info and advice that in many cases has turned out to be harmfully wrong.

Florida sees this as being more about culture, as related to knowledge. It’s those dumbfucks in rural middle America who need to be taught the wisdom of the coastal elites. It’s a liberal’s way of speaking about ‘poor culture’, a way of blaming the poor while throwing in some paternalistic technocracy. The healthy middle-to-upper classes have to teach the poor how to have healthy middle-to-upper class habits. Then all of society will be well. (Not that the conservative elite are offering anything better with their preference of maintaining oppressive conditions, just let the poor suffer and die because they deserve it.)

Florida’s solution ignores a number of factors, such as costs. When I lived under the poverty level, I bought the cheapest food available which included some frozen vegetables but lots of cheap carbs (e.g., Ramen noodles) and cheap proteins (e.g., eggs) along with cheap junk food (e.g., Saltine crackers) and cheap fast food (e.g., 2 egg and sausage biscuits for $2). Crappy food is extremely inexpensive, a motivating factor for anyone living hand-to-mouth or paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s about getting the most calories for the buck. The healthiest food tends to be the most expensive and least filling (e.g., kale). I couldn’t afford many fresh fruits and vegetables back when I was barely making ends meet, a time when I was so lacking in excess money that I was forced to skip meals on a regular basis. Even when there isn’t a drastic difference in costs, saving a few bucks when shopping adds up for the poor.

Someone like Florida is unlikely to understand this. Maybe the middle-to-upper class could use some education themselves so as to comprehend the lived reality of the poor. But no doubt more and better knowledge should be made available to everyone, no matter their class status. We have way too much ignorance in this society, sadly with much of it to be found among those making public policies and working in corporate media. So, yes, we have room for improvement on this level for all involved. I’m just not sure that is the fundamental issue, as the state of knowledge at present is a result of the state of society, which is to say it is more of a systemic than individual problem.

Anyway, some of the data in the research cited seems a bit off or misleading. Florida’s article includes a map of “Average Health Index of Store Purchases by County.” It doesn’t entirely match various other mapped data for health such as infant mortality. The Upper Midwest, for example, looks rather mixed in terms of the store purchases by county while looking great according to other health indicators. Also, the Upper Midwest has low rates of food deserts, which is supposedly what Florida was talking about. Even though there are poor rural areas in the Upper Midwest, there are also higher rates of gardening and farmers’ markets.

Also, it must be kept in mind that most people in rural states don’t actually live in rural areas, as would have been the case earlier last century. Mapping data by county is misleading because a minority of the population visually dominates the map. The indicators of health would be lower for that minority of rural county residents, even as the indicators of health are high for the entire state population mostly concentrated in specific counties. In that case, it is socioeconomic conditions combined with geographic isolation (i.e., rural poverty) that is the challenge, along with entire communities slowly dying and entire populations aging as the youth and young families escape. That is no doubt problematic, although limited to a small and rapidly shrinking demographic. The majority of Upper Midwestern lower classes are doing fairly well in their living in or around urban centers. But of course, this varies by region. No matter the data, the Deep South almost always looks bad. That is a whole other can of worms.

That set of issues is entirely ignored by Florida’s article, which is severely limiting for his analysis. Those particular Middle Americans don’t need the condescension from the coastal elites. What is missing is that poverty and inequality is also lower in places like the Upper Midwest, while being higher elsewhere such as the Deep South. Socioeconomic conditions correlates strongly with all aspects of health, physical health and mental health, just as they correlate to with all aspects of societal health (e.g., rates of violent crime).

I applaud any attempt at new understanding, but not all attempts are equal. Part of my complaint is directed toward the conservative-mindedness of much of the liberal class. There is too often a lack of concern for and lack of willingness to admit to the worst systemic problems. Let me give a quick example. Florida wrote another article, also for City Lab, in which he discusses the great crime decline and the comeback of cities. Somehow, he manages to entirely avoid the topic of lead toxicity, the single most well researched and greatest proven factor of crime decline. This kind of omission is sadly common from this kind of public intellectual. In constantly skirting around the deeper issues, it’s a failure of intellect and morality going hand in hand with a failure of insight and imagination.

To return to the original topic, I suspect that there are even deeper issues at play. Inequality is definitely important. Then again, so is segregation, distrust, and stress. Along with all of this, loss of community and social capital is immensely important. To understand why inequality matters, an analysis has to dig deeper into what inequality means. It isn’t merely an economic issue. Inequality of income and wealth is inequality of education and time, as the author notes, while it is also inequality of political power, public resources, and individual opportunities. A high inequality society causes dysfunction, especially for the poor, in a thousand different ways. Inequality is less of a cause than the outward sign of deeper problems. Superficial attempts at solutions won’t be helpful.

In response to why the poor eat less well, one commenter suggested that, “It’s literally because they have less time” and offered supporting evidence. The article linked was about data showing the poor don’t eat more fast food than do the wealthier, despite more fast food restaurants being located near the poor, which implies the wealthier are more willing or more likely to be travelling further distances in their eating fast food at the same rate. What the article also shows is that it is busy people, no matter socioeconomic class, who eat the most fast food.

That is a key point to keep in mind. In that context, another commenter responded with a disagreement and pointed to other data. The counter-claim was that the lower classes have more leisure time. I dug into that data and other data and had a different take on it. I’ll end with my response from the comments section:

A superficial perusal of cherry-picked data isn’t particularly helpful. Show me where you included commute time, childcare, eldercare, housework, house maintenance, yard work, etc. The linked data doesn’t even have a category for commute time and it doesn’t disaggregate specific categories of non-employment work according to income, occupation, or education.

Also, what is called leisure is highly subjective, such as the wealthier having greater freedom to take relaxing breaks while at work or eating a healthy meal out at a restaurant for lunch, none of which would get listed as leisure. Wealthier people have lives that are more leisurely in general, even when it doesn’t involve anything they would explicitly perceive and self-report as leisure. They are more likely to be able to choose their own work schedule, such as sleeping in later if they want (e.g., because of sickness) or leaving work early when needed (e.g., in order to bring their child to an event). They might be puttering around the house which they consider work, as the nanny takes care of the kids and the maid cleans the house. What a wealthier person considers work a poor person might consider leisure.

None of that is accounted for in the data you linked to. And it doesn’t offer strong, clear support for your conclusions. Obviously, something is getting lost in the self-reported data in how people calculate their own leisure. It shows that the poorer someone is the more they are likely to go to work at a place of employment on an average day (and apparently for some bizarre reason that includes “single jobholders only” in terms of income): 93.9% of those making $0 – $580, 90.6% of those making $581 – $920, 85.4% of those making $921 – $1,440, and 78% of those making $1,441 and higher. Imagine if they included all the lower class people working multiple jobs (the data doesn’t list any categories that combine income bracket and number of jobs).

About those formally working on an average day, to put it in context of occupation, this is: 75.5% of management, business, and financial operations, 76.9% of professional and related, 90.1% of construction and extraction, 93.2% of installation, maintenance, and repair, 91.2% of production, and 88.7% of transportation and material moving. Or break it down by education, which strongly correlates to income brackets: 85.5% of those with less than a high school diploma, 89.8% of those with high school graduates, no college, 85.4% of those with some college or associate degree, 77.2% of those with bachelor’s degree only, and 70.7% of those with advanced degree. It is even more stark separated in two other categories: 85.6% of wage and salary workers and 49.9% of self-employed workers.

No matter how you slice and dice the data, non-professionals with less education and income are precisely those who are most likely to do employment-related work on an average day. That is to say they are more likely to not be at home, the typical location of most leisure activities. It’s true the wealthier and more well educated like to describe themselves as working a lot even when at home, but it’s not clear what that might or might not mean in terms of actual activities. Self-report data is notoriously unreliable, as it is based on self-perception and self-assessment.

Besides, anyone who knows anything about social science research knows that there are a lot of stresses involved in a life of poverty, far beyond less time, although that is significant. There is of course less wealth and resources, which is a major factor. Plus, there are such things as physical stress, from lack of healthcare to high rates of lead toxicity. Living in a food desert and being busy are among the lesser worries for the working poor.

To return to the work angle, I would also add that the poor are more likely to work multiple shifts in a row, to work irregular or unpredictable schedules (being on call, split or rotating shifts, etc), to work on the black market (doing yard work for cash, bartering one’s time and services in the non-cash economy, etc), along with probably having a higher number of family members such as teens working in some capacity (paid and/or helping at home, formal and/or informal work). There is also the number of hours spent looking for work, a major factor considering the growing gig economy. Also, what about the stress and uncertainty for the increasing number of people working minimum wage (many employees at Walmart and Amazon) who make so little that they have to be on welfare just to make ends meet.

None of this is found in the data you linked. In general, it’s hard to find high quality and detailed data on this kind of thing. But there is plenty of data that indicates the complicating and confounding factors.

Survey: More Than One-Third Of Working Millennials Have A Side Job
by Renee Morad

“majority of workers taking on side gigs (68%) are making less than $50K a year.”

Millennials Significantly Outpacing Other Age Groups for Taking on Side Gigs
by Michael Erwin

“Workers of all income levels are taking on side work. Nearly 1 in 5 workers making more than $75k (18 percent) and 12 percent of those making more than $100k currently have a gig outside of their full time job. This is compared to a third of workers making below $50k (34 percent) and 34 percent earning below $35k.”

Who Counts as Employed? Informal Work, Employment Status, and Labor Market Slack
by Anat Bracha and Mary A. Burke

“Among informal participants who experienced a job loss or other economic loss during or after the Great Recession, 40 percent report engaging in informal work out of economic necessity, and 8.5 percent of all informal workers report that they would like to have a formal job. However, about 70 percent of informal work hours offer wages that are similar to or higher than the same individual’s formal wage.

“[…] informal work participation complicates the official U.S. measurement of employment status. In particular, a significant share of those who report that they are currently engaged in informal work also report separately that they performed no work for pay or profit in the previous week. In light of such potential underreporting of informal work, the BLS’s official labor force participation rate might be too low by an economically meaningful (if modest) margin, and the share of employed workers with full-time hours is also likely to be higher than is indicated by the official employment statistics.”

What Is the Informal Labor Market?
by Paulina Restrepo-Echavarria

“Survey of Informal Work Participation within the Survey of Consumer Expectations revealed that about 20 percent of non-retired adults at least 21 years old in the U.S. generated income informally in 2015.2 The share jumped to 37 percent when including those who were exclusively involved in informal renting and selling activities.

“When breaking down the results by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment categories, about 16 percent of workers employed full time participated in informal work. Not surprisingly, the highest incidence of informal work was among those who are employed part time for economic reasons, with at least 30 percent participating in informal work. Also, at least 15 percent of those who are considered not in the labor force by the BLS also participated in informal work.

“[…] Enterprising and Informal Work Activities (EIWA) survey, which revealed that 36 percent of adults in the U.S. (18 and older) worked informally in the second half of 2015.3 Of these informal workers, 56 percent self-identified as also being formally employed, and 20 percent said they worked multiple jobs (including full-time and part-time positions).

“[…] There were slightly more women than men among informal workers, though the share of women was much larger in lower income categories.

“The majority of informal workers were white, non-Hispanic (64 percent), while the share of Hispanic workers tended to be slightly higher than that of African-Americans (16 and 12 percent, respectively). The racial breakdowns were consistent across most income categories, with a higher incidence of informal work among minorities in the lowest income categories.”

Irregular Work Scheduling and Its Consequences
by Lonnie Golden

– “By income level, the lowest income workers face the most irregular work schedules.”
– “Irregular shift work is associated with working longer weekly hours.”
– “Employees who work irregular shift times, in contrast with those with more standard, regular shift times, experience greater work-family conflict, and sometimes experience greater work stress.”
– “The association between work-family conflict and irregular shift work is particularly strong for salaried workers, even when controlling for their relatively longer work hours.”
– “With work hours controlled for, having a greater ability to set one’s work schedule (start and end times and take time off from work) is significantly associated with reduced work-family conflict.”

Right-Wing Politics of the Middle Class

I was looking back at data related to the past presidential election. The demographic of Trump voters is multifaceted. First, I’d point out the demographics of Republicans in general, specifically as compared to Democrats. In recent history, Republicans have done best with the middle class. They get disproportionate votes from those with average income, average education, average IQ, etc. It’s Democrats that typically draw more from the extremes and less from the middle, for whatever reason.

I’m not sure how much this dynamic changed this election. There were some typical Democratic voters who switched parties to vote for Trump. And some other voting patterns shifted at the edges. But I don’t get the sense that any of this was a major issue, at least in determining the election results. The deciding factor in the swing states often had more to do with who didn’t vote than who did. For example, in Wisconsin, Trump lost fewer votes compared to past Republican candidates than Clinton lost compared to past Democratic candidates. So, Trump won by losing less. But it was different in another key state, Florida, where Trump won strong support among certain minority groups that helped push him over the edge; specifically, Cuban-Americans and Haitian-Americans. So, there were many complications. But it’s not clear to me that this election demographically veered that far away from a typical election for Republicans.

Trump voters seemed to include many average Americans, although Trump voters were slightly above the national average on wealth. With incomes below $50,000, 52% for Clinton and 41% for Trump. With incomes more than $50,000, 49% for Trump and 47% for Clinton. A large part of Trump’s votes came from the income range of +50 to -100 thousand range, i.e., the middle class. The only income level bracket that Trump lost to Clinton was those who make $49,999 and under. Trump’s victory came from the combined force of the middle-to-upper classes. Trump did get strong support from those without a college degree (i.e., some college or less), but then again the vast majority of Americans lack a college degree. It’s easy to forget that even many in the middle class lack college degrees. Factory jobs and construction jobs often pay more than certain professional careers such as teachers and tax accountants. I’m sure a fair number low level managers and office workers lack college degrees.

Among white voters alone, though, Trump won more college-educated than did Clinton. The white middle class went to Trump, including white women with college degrees. Only 1 in 6 Trump voters were non-college-educated whites earning less than $50,000. Ignoring the racial breakdown, Trump overall won 52% of those with some college/associate degree, 45% of college graduates, and 37% with postgraduate study. That is a fairly broad swath. A basic point I’d make is that the majority of Trump voters without a college education work in white collar or middle skill jobs, representing the anxious and precarious lower middle class, but it has been argued that the sense of financial insecurity is more perceived than real. The working class, especially the poor, were far from being Trump’s strongest and most important support, despite their greater financial insecurity. Rather, the Trump voters who played the biggest role were those who fear downward economic mobility, whether or not one deems this fear rational (I tend to see it as being rational, considering a single accident or health condition could easily send into debt many in the lower middle class).

Also, keep in mind that Trump did surprisingly well among minorities, considering the rhetoric of his campaign: 29% of Asians voted for him, 29% of Hispanics, and 8% of blacks. Those aren’t small numbers, enough to have helped him win… or if you prefer, enough to cause Clinton to lose, as the percentages might have to do more with the decreased voting rate this election among particular minority populations. Trump did better among older minorities and rural minorities, at least that was true with Hispanics as I recall, which seems to indicate a similar economic pattern of those who are feeling less hopeful about the future, although I’d point out that most of Trump voters were urban and suburban. Trump specifically beat Clinton in the suburbs and also got more than a third of the votes in cities. But because of how our system is designed votes in low population rural states are worth more than votes in high population urban/suburban states, the reason Wisconsin turned out to be so important.

I would make some additional points. Poor people in general, white and non-white, vote at lower rates. The poorest are rarely ever a deciding factor in any national election. As for the working class more broadly, Trump had some of his strongest support from places like the Rust Belt in the urban Midwest, although it is fair to point out that Clinton lost some progressive strongholds in what once was the New Deal territory of the Upper South that had been loyal Democrats for a long time (in one county in Kentucky, having been won by Trump, the majority voted for a Republican for the first time since the Civil War). Even in the Rust Belt, it wasn’t that Trump gained white working class votes but that Clinton lost them. There was simply fewer people voting in places like that, preferring to vote for neither candidate, some combination of not voting at all and voting third party.

All in all, it’s hard to tell what the demographics indicate, as there is so much left out of the data such as there being more to economic class than mere household income. For example, income inequality isn’t the same as wealth inequality, as the latter has to do with savings and inheritance, most wealth in the US being inherited and not earned. The lower middle class has lower rates of savings and inherited wealth. As for the changes from past elections, it probably has more to do with the drop in the number of voters in key places, but that surely is caused by more than just economics and related factors. Anyway, I’d argue that it really was more about Clinton losing than Trump winning. That is my sense, but I could be wrong. I’m hoping that a detailed book-length analysis of demographics comes out in terms of recent politics and the population in general.

This was my rethinking over what happened. I’ve already written about this many other times, but I thought it might be useful to emphasize the role of the middle class in this election. It’s interesting that the middle class has received a lot less attention this past year, even though for a couple decades the middle class had become an obsession of media and politicians. I’ve often thought that much of what gets called the middle class is actually working class, something pointed out by Joe Bageant. One could make that argument for the lower middle class, in particular. In the past, middle class was more of a social attitude based on economic aspiration, during a time when upward mobility was common and the middle class growing.

My grandfather who was a factory worker probably never identified as middle class, but along with my grandmother working as a secretary they had a fairly high household income which allowed them to live a middle class lifestyle in many ways: owning a house, buying new cars, regular vacations, saving for retirement, sending his children to college, etc. Downward mobility, along with worsening mortality rates for whites, has changed demographic and voting patterns, along with how people identify themselves and how they are perceived by others. The upwardly mobile working class a half century ago was more hopeful and progressive than the present downwardly mobile lower middle class. I might add that my grandfather voted Democrat his whole life, but if he were around today he almost certainly would have voted for Trump and it wouldn’t have been for economic reasons — more that Trump is perceived as a straight talker and that he uses old school progressive rhetoric. His children, my mother and uncles, are all over the place in terms of life experience, economic class, social and political ideology, and voting tendencies.

Demographics shift greatly from one generation to the next, often even within families. That is magnified by the larger shifts in entire populations, as the politics of individuals is strongly shaped by what is going on in the world immediately around them. And obviously more is changing in the world than is remaining the same. The United States is a far different place than it was when my grandparents were born a hundred years ago.

By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.

Don’t blame the poor for everything, whether poor minorities or poor whites. In a country like the United States, the lower classes have very little political power, economic influence, and activist engagement.

* * *

Here is some of what I was looking at while writing this post. The following presents various data, analyses, and conclusions.

Election 2016: Exit Polls
Produced by Jon Huang, Samuel Jacoby, Michael Strickland, & K.K. Rebecca Lai
The New York Times

The myth of Donald Trump’s upper-class support
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
The Week

Stop Blaming Low-Income Voters for Donald Trump’s Victory
by Jeremy Slevin
TalkPoverty.org

The Myth of the Trump Supporter: They Are Not Predominantly White Working Class but Rather Anxiety-Ridden Middle Class
by Theo Anderson
Alternet

Trump and the Revolt of the White Middle Class
by Stephen Rose
Washington Monthly

Angry White, Rich, Educated Men? Trump Voters Are Smarter And Richer Than The Average American
by Tyler Durden
ZeroHedge

Trump supporters are not who the media told you they were
by Ben Cohen
American Thinker

High Homeownership Counties Were Twice as Likely to Vote for Trump
by Derek Miller
SmartAsset

Financial Insecurity and the Election of Donald Trump
by Diana Elliott & Emma Kalish
Urban Institute

The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt
by Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr
Slate

Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelical Christians Vote for Trump?
by Myriam Renaud
The University of Chicago

About the Stereotype Busting High Median Incomes of Trump Voters
by Scot Nakagawa
Race Files

Class Divide and Communication Failure

There is a class divide that makes communication almost impossible.

If you are part of the population that is upwardly mobile and/or economically stable (mostly upper middle class and above), you aren’t feeling desperate and any political concerns are rarely immediate threats to your life, your family, or your community. Such people live in relative comfort, security, and privilege. They may not be super wealthy and still have problems like anyone else, but none of it is overwhelming most of the time.

It is far far different for the rest of the population, the downwardly mobile and economically precarious, struggling working class, the poor, and the unemployed. These people know in their personal experience that society is dysfunctional, that the economy is rigged, and that the government doesn’t represent them. They directly and personally feel what it means to mistrust and sometimes even fear one’s government, to know that they are on their own with little to save them if everything goes wrong.

These two classes live in separate worlds. The minority who are doing fairly well or, for some, doing great have absolutely no clue what is going on with majority of the population. It is a total disconnect. They don’t understand what it means to feel desperation, anger, outrage, and outright fear, verging on paranoia at times. In the middle-to-upper class defending the status quo, the lower classes unsurprisingly see them as part of the problem, even though the reality is most comfortable people are simply ignorant and only complicit to the degree that ignorance is willful, but mostly it is passive ignorance.

Most Americans no longer trust the government. Most Americans no longer think there is a functioning democracy. Yet the middle-to-upper classes are still acting as if nothing has fundamentally changed, just some reform needed, maybe an occasional signing of a petition or the joining in a march, but just keep on voting for the lesser evil. This is why Trump has been such a shock. Some of the comfortable people are suddenly feeling a bit uncomfortable, a feeling that the lower classes have been feeling for a long time.

Will we finally get to a point where the class divide breaks down? Will the comfortable finally start paying attention, instead of remaining selfish assholes seeking to maintain the status quo? Will those on the bottom of society finally realize the average middle class professional is not the ultimate enemy and instead is simply a clueless ignoramus who, in reality, is no more represented by government than the poor? Will the American public, across all divides, finally see that the problems we face are shared concerns?

American Class Bigotry

“The system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43 percent of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper–middle class and above, but the gay poor, the lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell . . . It’s not just black. It’s white. It’s brown. It’s the structure of a system . . . it’s worse [than ever].”
~ Cornel West

American society is divided by class and, ideology and parties aside, united according to class. Class identity and class conflict are the defining features.

That is because the lives of Americans are determined by class more than anything else, more than even race. Poor whites and poor blacks have more in common than either has with wealthy whites and wealthy blacks. This is seen in the most basic aspects of lives. The poor are more likely to live next to, work with, attend school with, be friends with, or even marry a poor person of another race than they are to do any of those things with a wealthy person of the same race. The class social order creates entirely different realities that Americans live within.

Racial animosity among the poor is often a result of proximity, not distance. But even then race is rarely the most important issue in the average person’s life. Most people simply worry about daily concerns of life, of getting by and making ends meet. It’s primarily the more economically privileged who have greater ability to racially segregate themselves by living in suburbs, gated communities, and gentrified neighborhoods, by attending elite colleges and sending their kids to private schools.

It is the middle-to-upper classes, a minority of the population, that hold not just most of the wealth but also most of the power and influence along with the privileges, opportunities, and resources that go with it. They don’t tend to worry about their next pay check, medical bills, paying rent, factory closings, home foreclosures, etc. In their greater luxury, these people are free to concern themselves about political galas, partisan campaigning, fundraising events, party primaries, political activism, identity politics, and culture wars. The rest of the population is mostly too busy living their lives and too disenfranchised from the system to worry about what concerns the economically well off.

It’s only the political class, not the majority of Americans, that are divided or like to pretend to be divided. But when it comes to issues of real political power and social privilege, most Republicans and Democrats of the political class are equally neocons and neoliberals. The political rhetoric that is used to create a mood of melodrama and divisiveness is rather superficial and misleading. Most Americans agree about most issues. Most Americans are for BOTH gun rights AND gun regulations, for BOTH abortion rights AND abortion limits, etc. Yet the divide and conquer strategy is quite effective, if only in terms of a sleight-of-hand diversion. It’s easy to rile people up momentarily or simply to demoralize them with the media-propagated sense of conflict.

There is a cynicism in how the political and media elite use these kinds of issues. They create an image of public opinion that doesn’t match the reality of public opinion. The ruse would be shown for what it is, if more of the population were to vote or revolt. It works so effectively because each individual realizes that the media-portrayed reality doesn’t match their own positions and experiences, which makes them feel disconnected from others and alienated from mainstream society, never realizing that people like them are the majority. It’s a highly developed form of social control, since it’s much easier for an elite to rule if the majority doesn’t realize they’re a majority.

The elite have a superior and often condescending attitude toward the rest of society. This expresses itself in many ways, from smug paternalism to righteous judgment, from fear of the dirty masses to opportunistic manipulation. You find it in how politicians of both parties act and in how the media talks. Listen to what Charles Murray says about poor whites in Fishtown, how Thomas Sowell talks about redneck culture, J.D. Vance’s admonishments of hillbillies, Bill Cosby’s criticisms of inner city blacks, etc. And that is just from the political right. The liberal class is known for this as well, specifically among the Clinton New Democrats and the mainstream media that is aligned with them. Smug liberalism was particularly bad this past campaign season and the arrogance of the liberal media was breathtaking.

Speaking of an elite can be misleading, though. The class divide can be remarkably slim at times. With economic troubles increasing and economic mobility decreasing, it’s getting easier and easier for the  upper class to slip down to the middle class and the middle class middle class to slip down to the working class while the working class itself falls further behind. But class identity maintains itself long after such changes occur, because as the entire class spectrum shifts downward almost everyone maintains their relative position within the hierarchy. It’s easy to forget how many Americans are on the bottom of society and how little it takes to gain a bit of class privilege.

The perceived or self-identified elite isn’t always extremely distant, either economically or geographically. Most Americans are working class without a college education. So, simply getting a college education leading to even the most minimal of professional jobs makes one a class above most of the population. It doesn’t matter that the public school teacher or county naturalist may make less money than someone with a good factory job. Class is ultimately an identity and having a college education can give someone a sense of superiority, no matter how slight it can sometimes be in economic terms.

What the college education can give an individual is potentially a position of authority, as even the most lowly of professional jobs can offer. A public school teacher can speak with authority to parents and the county naturalist can speak with authority to small farmers, and in both cases they have government backing their authority, even if that authority has little real force of power. It’s still a greater social position within the social hierarchy and that comes with certain privileges that are easily seen by those further down the ladder of respectability.

This is even seen in some traditionally working class jobs. Someone I know recently got a college degree and was hired on with the city department of parks and recreation. The previous head of the department liked to hire people who grew up on farms as they have practical knowledge about machinery, tools, etc. But the new head of the department prefers to hire college grads who have professional training as naturalists and so have expertise in forestry management, prairie restoration, controlled burns, etc. So, the newly hired employees are treated with more respect in the department and likely they’ll be promoted more quickly and paid more than the older workers. Working class experience and abilities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and of less economic value, hence of less social value. This person, simply by going to college, is now in a better position than most Americans. That certainly creates conflict in society and in the workplace.

It isn’t just that someone goes to college. It’s also what makes that possible. This person was raised upper middle class by college-educated parents. They made sure he took college preparation classes in high school, always encouraged him to go to college, and were willing and able to pay part for his college education. Plus, they modeled certain behaviors for him and helped him in school when asked. Most Americans never get these kinds of advantages that are the norm for middle-to-upper class families. At the most basic level, this is a very real class privilege, even when it is far from being part of the ruling elite.

I know many liberals who didn’t spend most of their lives in big cities in coastal states. They have all resided more years in rural farm states than anywhere else, but that has included living in liberal places like this Iowan college town. This creates a different mentality from someone in the same state who grew up on a farm or in an industrial town and who never went to college or lived in a college town. There are many college graduates in this liberal college town with working class jobs, but it is nothing like being working class in most places in the country working at some crap job like McDonald’s or Walmart.

I see how this different mentality effects people. Many of the people I know are good liberals. None of them are wealthy, often only a generation from working class, and yet they tend to have a strong sense of class identity, not unusually looking down on the poor. One liberal I know has made fun of coworkers for missing teeth. And another refuses to let his daughter play with the poor white children in the neighborhood. They dismiss poor whites as methheads and talk about tweakers for Trump. This also includes some fear and judgment of poor minorities, perceived as moving in from Chicago. It’s a strong sense of those other people being somehow inferior and unworthy, sometimes simply condescension but not unusually mockery. It’s not that they would openly be cruel toward the poor, but the attitude of superiority has to leak out even if unconsciously and I’m sure others pick up on it.

Some of that class consciousness was probably inherited from the larger society, learned from the behavior of older generations and absorbed from the media. That still wouldn’t explain how it came to be expressed so strongly in those who one might think, as liberals, shouldn’t be prone to class bigotry. Maybe it’s because many people I know, as with many of our generation, haven’t done as economically well as the previous generation. This creates class anxiety which is clear in many people having economic worries. The one thing they’ve got going for them is a college education. It’s what they have to prove their worth in the world and they hold the class attitude of seeing the lower classes as ignorant. Many of these people are of the liberal class of professionals, even if only barely.

This isn’t limited to liberals, of course. It’s just that I’ve become more aware of it among liberals. And it somehow seems worse when I observe it in liberals, as it contradicts how liberals see themselves. Many conservatives see no shame in class bigotry, as it is part of the conservative worldview of meritocracy and Social Darwinism. But in liberals, it feels particularly hypocritical.

For liberals, this also mixes up with identity politics. I’ve heard Democrats try to dismiss Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters by invoking what, to the liberal mind, are supposed to be protected groups. It was assumed that minorities, women, and LGBTQ people all supported Hillary Clinton. This was total bullshit, but it’s how a certain kind of liberal sees the world. In reality, Sanders won the majority of young and the poor, including among minorities and women and probably the LGBTQ as well. Then some of these people apparently went over to vote for Trump, as impossible as that seems to the liberal class.

This is an example of class disconnection. Economics doesn’t seem all that important when one has no serious and immediate economic problems. If you are of the liberal class, even on the lower end, most of the minorities and gay people you know are going to also be of the liberal class. This creates a distorted view of demographic identities. If you are a poor minority woman, Clinton’s middle class white feminism means little to you. If you are a working class gay man who lost his job when the factory closed, your most pressing concern at the moment isn’t same sex marriage. Worrying about such things as transgender bathrooms is a class privilege.

For most lower class people, gender and sexuality issues are far down the list of priorities. Even among working class straight white males, they don’t particularly care about culture war issues. Democrats have been pushing social liberalism for decades and yet the majority of the white working class kept voting for them. It was economics, stupid. The white working class isn’t going to vote against their own interests. It’s just that this election they didn’t see a corporatist candidate like Clinton as being in their best interest, whether that meant they chose to vote for another candidate or not vote at all.

The response of the liberal class is a clueless class bigotry. And if they’re not careful, Democrats will become the new party of class bigots, protecting the interests of the shrinking middle class against the interests of the growing working class. That would be a sad fate for the once proud working class party. The working class would be abandoned, left to fend for themselves with no party that represents them. Then the class divide will be complete, as economic inequality becomes a vast chasm. And the further the divide grows, the worse conflict will become. We might see some real class war, of the kind not seen for generations.

Is the smug satisfaction of class bigotry worth the harm it causes? As the economy worsens, perceived class position won’t save anyone nor will a sense of superiority be much comfort. Instead of Americans turning on one another, it would be to everyone’s advantage to see their interests more in line with the lower class majority than with the wealthy ruling elite. Even the rich would be better off in a society with less wasteful divisiveness and greater benefit for all.

It’s the Working Class, Stupid

This election was mainly interesting for what it forced to the surface. Many people began paying attention. But the election itself wasn’t a fundamental change from trends and developments that have been happening for decades.

Politics after WWII was built on the growing middle class. And it was mostly a white middle class. The New Deal programs, the GI Bill, and such were designed to primarily help whites and to exclude minorities. Still, even many minorities were making economic gains at the time and increasingly joining the middle class. Not all boats were being floated, but more than ever before. And it was built with extremely high taxation on the rich. Creating a middle class doesn’t come cheap.

That subsidized and supported growing middle class made possible a new kind of politics. It took shape in the early Cold War, but only gained full force in the latter part of the 20th century. As much of the population became economically comfortable and complacent, they became ripe for the rhetoric of red-baiting, union-busting, culture wars, civil rights fights, and identity politics. Politicians had long stopped talking about the working class, about those aspiring to do better, and in its place came an emphasis on those who had already made it. The white middle class decided to pull up the ladder behind them and barricade the door.

Wages began to stagnate when I was born, back in 1976. Well, they stagnated for the average worker, which means they were dropping for the working poor. Buying power was decreasing, but people were able to maintain their lifestyles by working longer hours or multiple jobs. The economic problems were mostly felt across generations, as education costs increased and opportunities decreased, as job security disappeared and good benefits became rare. The unions made sure to protect older workers, which meant sacrificing younger workers. And the union leadership defended the political status quo in the hope of maintaining their increasingly precarious position. But the influence of unions was being felt by a decreasing number of Americans, especially among the working class and those falling out of the middle class.

Still, even going into the 21st century, there was still a large middle class. It was beginning to show signs of serious hurting, but the inertia of the economy kept the reversals from being noticed by the political and media elite. It was only at the bottom of society that it was obvious how bad it was getting, specifically among the young. That was true even in the 1980s and 1990s. GenXers were the only generation last century to experience a recession that only their generation experienced, and black GenXers were hurt the worst. That was true going back in the early life of GenXers with worsening child poverty rates. The vibrant middle class was poisoned in the cribs of GenX.

The talk of the middle class continued until this election. What had become clear this past decade or so, though, is that politicians and pundits in talking about the middle class were often actually talking about the working class. More people were falling out of the middle class, instead of entering it. In the past, simply aspiring to be middle class made you middle class, no matter if you were born working class and had a working class job. Middle class was primarily defined as an aspiration and the American Dream was about upward mobility. It was the sense that the whole country was moving up, all or most boats were being floated. But that has been changing for a long time.

This is the first election in my lifetime where the political and media elite finally had to admit that the US was defined by its working class, not its middle class. That is because in recent years this has become unavoidable. The US economic mobility had been falling behind other countries for a while, and fairly recently the US middle class lost its position as the most wealthy in the world. Trump won his nomination through inciting the fears and anxieties of a hurting middle class, as his earliest supporters weren’t the poor and working class, but he won the election because of those on the bottom of society, the working poor. Once Sanders was eliminated, Trump was the last candidate left standing who talked about economic populism and economic reform. As many have been reminding the Democratic establishment, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It turns out that the mid-20th century middle class, along with the post-war economic boom that made it possible, was a historical anomaly. We are once again a working class country. And it isn’t a working class that is feeling all that hopeful at the moment. These Americans aren’t a temporarily down-on-their-luck middle class, much less temporarily embarrassed millionaires, nor are they even aspiring to much beyond not being left behind. Unless the entire economic and political system is reformed, this working class is here to stay. And if we continue on this path, it will become a permanent underclass.

Class Breakdown of the Campaigns

Has anyone noticed the interesting breakdown of whites for each candidate?

Clinton is winning the relatively wealthier, well educated whites who are content with the status quo and who are centrists fearing any challenges from the left or right. They just don’t want to rock the boat and so they passively float along hoping that somehow they’ll float to safety or at least not sink, as they poke their finger in the hole in the bottom of the boat. There are drowning people in the water all around them and they keep pushing them away. It’s better to save some people than to end up all drowning, they say to each other hoping to comfort themselves.

Trump has more upper working class to lower middle class whites. They are mostly middle aged, about average in wealth and education. They aren’t the worse off Americans. Rather, they are those who might be one or two bad breaks from losing their homes, falling into poverty, etc. These are the people clinging to the sides of the boat and won’t let go, threatening to overturn it. They think they deserve to be in the boat, but they aren’t about to try to save the lives of those struggling further away from the boat: poor whites, single mothers, the homeless, minorities, immigrants, etc.

On the other hand, Sanders has won the support of low income Americans. This includes poor whites and rural whites, the very people who many assume are solid Republicans. It is true that many of these low income people are more socially conservative than average, even more religious. This relates to the youth vote, as the young have been hit the hardest by the economy and the young religious are mostly on the political left. These are those aforementioned people who know they have no chance of getting close to the boat, much less getting aboard it. So, they are trying to cobble debris together to make a large raft for everyone treading water.

It maybe should be unsurprising that Clinton and Trump are liked and trusted by so few. Just as maybe it should be unsurprising that Sanders is liked and trusted by so many.

By the way, I’d love to see an economic class breakdown, either by income or wealth, for other demographics, such as race. He has won the youth vote, including young men and young women. It’s not just young whites, but also the majority of young minorities, blacks and Hispanics.

As has been shown, Sanders has the support of low income Americans. This is a demographic that is disproportionately minority. As such, I suspect the support for Sanders from low income Americans isn’t just white people. I haven’t seen the economic class breakdown for the minority vote, but I bet Sanders has won poor minorities.

It relates to the youth vote. The young have been hit the hardest by economic problems with high rates of unemployment and underemployment, along with college debt in the hope that a degree would make it more likely for them to get a job. The young are among the first to do worse than their parents at the same age.

Economic problems have hit young minorities hardest of all. But poor rural whites have also been hit hard. In both cases, the War On Drugs, school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration has harmed an entire generation and ravaged entire communities.

Here is the challenge for Sanders and for American democracy in general.
 
He has the strongest support among the young and the low income. He has a majority of young men and young women, young whites and young minorities. This is probably true for the low income demographic as well, in that he probably has large numbers from the poorest minorities, especially considering there is much crossover between those who are young and those who are poor.
 
These demographics also are the least likely to vote. Young minorities, for examples, are the most likely to have lost voting rights because of being ex-cons. Young minorities are more likely to be poor than older minorities, and it’s in poor minorities where it is hardest to vote because of few polling locations and long lines. This is true for poor whites who also tend to vote at lower rates. Consider the low income rural demographic that Sanders has won at least in some states, a demographic that often doesn’t have polling stations that are close.
 
It’s because these people have been purposely disenfranchised and demoralized by the political system that they support Sanders. They are frustrated and tired with the status quo. They are feeling so outraged that they will likely vote at higher rates than ever before, no matter how few polling stations there, no matter how far away they are, and no matter how long the lines are. A candidate has finally given them hope, something many of them haven’t felt in a long time, maybe their entire lives.
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What Kentucky Results Show About Clinton-Sanders Battle
by Dante Chinni

Rural, white counties have been a fairly reliable cache of votes for Mr. Sanders. You can see the same pattern in New York (where Mr. Sanders lost) and Michigan (where he won). The problem for him is it takes a lot of small, rural counties to equal the votes from one big, urban county. Case in point: He won more than twice as many counties in Kentucky and still lost the state.

The Graduating Class of 2016 By the Numbers
by Steven R. Watros and Cordelia F. Mendez

The picture in the general public is much different, with a recent CBS News/New York Times poll showing that 41 percent of registered voters prefer Trump in a matchup against Clinton, while 47 percent support the former Secretary of State.

But among certain populations of Harvard seniors, support for Trump runs stronger. Varsity athletes and members of traditionally male final clubs, for example, were more likely to report supporting Trump. And his supporters reported prioritizing different issues in the presidential election than those who support Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

While some news outlets have reported that Harvard students overwhelmingly support Bernie Sanders—and that Hillary Clinton supporters are met with backlash—data from a survey of the senior class suggests that those claims are largely false, at least among the Class of 2016: More than twice as many seniors surveyed said they prefer Clinton, and her supporters were more steadfast in their support, reporting in larger numbers that they would consider voting for a third-party candidate should their preferred candidate not prevail.