Labor and Poverty

What is it about the even barely noticed presence of poverty that sends so much of American politics and culture into attack mode? Harsh treatment of the poor of course has a long history in the work houses, debtors’ prisons, and chimney-sweepers, as any reader of Blake, Dickens, Hugo, and Zola can recognize. Yet in the present-day one would be hard-pressed to find a society more intolerant than the present United States. By now the facts have been so rehashed as to become strangely easier to ignore: the highest rate of poverty in the Western world, highest child poverty, highest permanent poverty, highest income inequality, highest rate of incarceration, highest health-care costs, it can go on and on. On top of it all one will probably the only society where one will find more, or at least as many, protests against improving any of this as for; where else in the world are there pro-austerity marches?

It’s not as if the wealthy, as personified by Wall Street, have been behaving well. Last year Goldman Sachs paid $550 million to settle SEC charges that it withheld information from investors on a collateralized debt obligation (CDO) it sold that soon after was worthless. A federal judge this past November refused to endorse a similarly $285 million agreement that would have allowed Citigroup to avoid admitting any wrong doing when it marketed and sold a toxic CDO while taking a short position against it at the same time realizing a tidy $160 million for the bank while costing investors more than $700 million. Leaving finance and going back a couple of years and one finds pharmaceutical behemoth Pfizer paying a record $2.3 billion and pleading guilty to a felony count for illegal marketing- all these fines a mere pittance next to these companies bottom lines.

What’s this corporate mischief next to welfare mothers and drunks on the public dole? It’s easy to see the persistence of poverty as a sort of insult to the American Dream in the mind of true believers. After all, what good is a class system in the land of opportunity? The excess riffraff that stand outside such nationalistic pride are easily detested.

Beyond such prideful chauvinism is an even darker scar that explains why the poor pay through the nose while the rich get off with pocket change. In What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank famously posited that the white middle and working classes of the heartland are diverted with ‘moral’ issues such as gay rights and abortion into supporting the right wing economics that ultimately destroys them. This could be traced to the 1970s coinciding with the rise of neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism in a time of economic stagflation.

Yet as Jefferson Cowie describes in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, the 1970s were also a time a great labor unrest, the most unrest in fact since the mid-1940s. In 1970 alone over 2.4 million workers engaged in large-scale stoppages. The United Mine Workers and United Auto Workers saw significant insurgencies against stale leadership and for greater industrial democracy. The United Farm Workers still had life. For all his petty bigotry it shouldn’t be overlooked that Archie Bunker, the enduring symbol of 70s popular culture, was a union man who worked on a loading dock. Still the 1970s were also the only decade other than the 1930s when Americans ended up poorer than they began. Robert Reich in Aftershock traces the rise of the anti-tax movement to the early 1970s, not as a movement towards social conservatism but as simply a protest about paying taxes with incomes that had stagnated.

Nonagricultural workers earnings declined by about 13% with family income only staying level with wives entering the workforce.

It was also the decade of deindustrialization, inflation, and a fierce white backlash against busing and affirmative action (Archie Bunker aptly summed up what many white men were probably feeling when he yelled at his progressive, ‘meathead’ his son-in-law Mike: ‘Look at me. I know I have a lot going against me. I’m white, I’m protestant, I’m hardworking. Can’t you find one lousy amendment to protect me?!’). Crowie quotes Cleveland Robinson, one of the founders of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, explaining “The basic ingredient to successful affirmative action is full employment.” Otherwise “you will have both blacks and whites fight for the same jobs.” Needless to say, full employment was far off the agenda by decade’s end, leaving that very dynamic in the minds of many working class whites.

Of course since its inception the American working class has been divided. Going back to the 1850s conflict between Yankee (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) and immigrant Irish (Catholic) workers undermined early organizing efforts, a pattern that would emerge in subsequent generations. An important point to bear in mind is that for all the anti-Catholic hysteria of the ‘know-nothings’ the overall trend was towards both separation and assimilation. Mike Davis brilliantly described this in Prisoners of the American Dream:

The ingenuity of American Catholicism, already becoming apparent in the 1850s, was that it functioned as an apparatus for acculturating millions of Catholic immigrants to American liberal-capitalist society while simultaneously carving out its own sphere of sub-cultural hegemony…

Thus what developed, according to Davis, was ‘two corporatist subcultures along a religious divide’, leaving the working class as a whole fractured at the time of grave national crisis unable to form an independent party, certainly unable to form some kind of alliance with oppressed black slaves- an inability that would extend right through the New Deal, which also excluded African Americans. This would continue as successive waves of European immigrants followed the same dynamic: initial discrimination, eventually achieving the status of ‘whiteness’ while keeping separate largely conservative subcultures, thereby reinforcing both American capitalism and a splintered working class.

If a divided working class is one side of the coin, the other mutually reinforcing side has been a state that for the most part has been callous in addressing the needs of working poor. This too has a long history that continues right through the present. Violence was always part of the equation. American labor history is far bloodier than any other industrial nation whether it was striking workers and their families at Ludlow, the martyrs of Haymarket, or the striking workers killed at Pullman.

For all the ire liberals direct at the likes of Hoover and Reagan, the marginalizing of labor has been a bipartisan affair. Barack Obama has typically ignored the concerns of labor, a constituency that worked hard for his election, not even muttering a phrase like ‘living wage’ or voicing a peep for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make unionizing somewhat easier.

Historically divided and penned in by an indifferent and hostile state, a nasty strain of producerism has always been part of working class culture, a producerism that doesn’t spare the rich but whose main target has always been the poor and working poor, particularly when it lazily aligns itself to conservative interests and parties; the poor always being an easier target than the rich.

Traces of this can be found all the way in the Omaha Platform, which launched the Populist Party back in 1892. While the populists railed against war and trusts there was a resolution about ‘the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage earners’. It is not hard to see the same sentiment in the more recent rants against immigrants and the welfare state (i.e. big government): social Darwinism where only the few prosper in their gated communities and pent houses while the many are left to stew in bitterness and cynicism at their neighbors.

Given the roots of this it is hard to imagine much improvement in the short term. The political landscape is barren of any serious alternatives. Corporations have an even tighter grip on national elections and Obama has long discarded the opportunity early in his presidency to serious confront Wall Street. The main duty of the American Left should be to return to working class politicians with the difficult goal of uniting the working class with a sense of solidarity that runs across its diverse spectrum, with the ultimate long term goal of doing the same for society as a whole. That may seem sanctimonious and utopian, but is there any other way to seriously reduce poverty?

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York City.


Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City. He is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York (Zer0 Books).