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On the Corner of Bitter and Broke: the American Working Class

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If the odious campaign and presidency of Donald Trump can be credited with anything it is the spotlight it has hovered over the working class. Perhaps ‘credited’ could be fairly termed as too strong a word, Trump’s blabber is nothing for not incoherent, however it is true that previous presidential campaigns never quite brought to the foreground issues like deindustrialization, ‘free’ trade, and outsourcing. Of course this attention has brought with it any number of contradictions and shortcomings. Working class has meant ‘white working class’ as if non Caucasians make up no part of it- the unspoken premise being that darker skinned people don’t work hard enough to wear the working class mantle. Yet to stroll any ‘black’ cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore with their abandoned row houses and stagnant economies is to witness the same economic forces that have decimated the Mahoning Valley and Luzerne County.

Then there is the fact that most of Trump’s voters were not working class. The American National Election Study reveals that only 35 percent of Trump voters came from households with incomes under $50,000 (the median household income for the country). While Trump did perform well among whites without a college degree, often and wrongly considered the main characteristic of being working class (two-thirds of Americans don’t have degrees), the same can be said of every GOP candidate for decades (70 percent of GOP primary voters didn’t have college degrees). And for all the rhetoric and alleged cultural identification, thus far the Trump administration hasn’t advanced the cause of the working class a millimeter and has no plans to do so.

Still it would be foolish to dismiss the 200 plus counties that pivoted to Trump after voting for Obama twice, including 31 in Iowa, 22 in Wisconsin, and 19 in Minnesota. Also foolish to overlook is that the Trump phenomenon has enabled a cottage industry of working class focus. J.D. Vance appears poised to make a career out of his book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, which for all the hype boils down to a conservative diatribe about personal responsibility. There is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land (the best of the lot), Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. Every major newspaper has produced a slew of front line reporting from so-called Trump country.

What is remarkable about all of it is that there’s hardly a word about solutions to what is assumed to be the biggest problem: the lack of good paying working class jobs. But this is hardly surprising. Cut through all the political grandstanding and there is one thing that Liberals and Conservatives agree on, namely that the working class has no economic value. Conservatives talk of U-Hauls and putting dying towns out of their misery. Kevin Williamson of National Review surely set the bar last year, writing regarding angry Trump voters:

Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America… There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down. The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political.

They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Liberals shout about education as if the answer for the working class is to simply not be working class. That comes along with the requisite empathy. Last weekend’s edition of The Financial Times featured Simon Kuper’s advice to the mainstream in an op-ed titled ‘How to Take on the Populists’.  Among other such wisdom Kuper advises mainstream politicians at war with the Trumps and Le Pens for working class voters to ‘Sound as Patriotic as they do’, ‘Show that you are listening, ‘Use images not words’, and ‘Show respect’. Meanwhile the real life working class stews in a world of low wages and opiates.

Much was made about the unexpected decline of American life expectancy shown last December by data from the National Center for Health Statistics. That came in the midst of several studies that showed the decline is due to the declining lives of the white, middle-aged working class into a world of depression, stress, and obesity. As for the opioid epidemic there is still no coherent national policy. On the local level policy mainly consists of stocking up on Naloxone and finding space to stack the bodies. Big Pharma, which made billions by greasing the skids of the crisis, now rakes it in selling yet more drugs to alleviate the symptoms. Time magazine reports the market for drugs used to treat opioid-induced constipation (OIC) was worth $1.9 billion in 2014. By 2022 it’s expected to be $2.8 billion. Prices for so-called ‘medication-assisted treatment’ drugs such as Vivitrol and Suboxone have skyrocketed.

It is telling that one policy that does seem to increasingly gain steam is a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Support for UBI ranges from the positive, a possible way to supplant the welfare state, to the reactionary, completely replacing what’s left of it. Whatever its merits a UBI misses the mark, at least as the main policy. One of the sharper points Williams in White Working Class goes like this: ‘Is the only alternative a universal basic income? This proposal, currently chic among the tech set, will only further fuel the anger of working-class whites. What they want is not a social safety net but a job.’

Contrary to ever wider perception the working class is not lazy, entitled, or complacent (labels, of course, always stuck on the Black working class). What is needed is a thorough industrial policy, one that includes long term planning, a reemphasis on vocational training, along with an enhanced welfare state including, but not limited to, universal healthcare.  Obviously even this is well beyond the Democrats. That being the case it is worth thinking bigger and positing that any real solution to radical inequality and economic stagnation would include the democratization of production through such things as worker cooperatives, public banks, and participatory budgets. If all that is far-fetched consider the alternatives of greater inequality, greater automation and job loss, and greater racial resentment. That path may well lead to a future where a fourth rate clown like Trump is a pleasant memory.

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

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