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Posts Tagged ‘Working class’

The Third Rail Of American Discourse

In behavior, books, business, journalism, news, women, work on June 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm

My new book about working for 27 months as a retail sales associate has been out for two months, and the 40+ amazon reviews are insane — love it, hate it, love it, loathe it.

I’ve been called a princess, racist, slummer, bitter, pretentious, “lazy, lazy, lazy”, elitist and accused, falsely, of despising the very people — my retail co-workers — I say clearly how much I admired.

It’s been an exhausting rollercoaster, with a pendulum of opinion swinging so widely, and wildly, it’s hard to believe.

It took a fellow writer to calm me down, pointing out that “Nickeled and Dimed“, a best-seller from 2001 by Barbara Ehrenreich (to which my book has been compared) is equally provocative and divisive.

Both books are similar in one key respect: middle-class, educated white women — with economic freedom to leave the jobs we described — worked for minimum wage in thankless, difficult, demanding low-status jobs.

Our crime in so doing? Poverty tourism. Slumming it for a book deal, as one WNYC listener commented. We weren’t destitute.

Why did we need to be?

Would this have altered our observations or the accuracy of what we saw and heard?

We’re writers and our goals were the same: find and tell powerful stories that had not been told. The people living these lives, working these jobs, do not have the time, skill or freedom from the shackles of their jobs to tell it as it really is.

I’ve also received extraordinarily personal and heartfelt emails almost every single day since” Malled” appeared:

“Have you been sitting on my shoulder for 23 years?”

“I feel bolstered by your book!”

“I got a raise last year….of 10 cents an hour.”

The filthy secret of American life is economic disparity, the great myth that we are all equal and racing one another along a smooth and level playing field to the equally-accessible goodies of income/home/education/raises/promotions/career success.

Go to college! Work hard! Suck up to your boss! That’ll do it.

Nope.

The reality is that there is no level playing field. It looks more like a greasy pole, the rich at the top, the poor at the bottom and many of us now, four years into a recession filled with record corporate profits and sluggish hiring, scrambling desperately in between.

Here’s a sobering piece in Mother Jones on how much dough corporations are raking in, and how workers aren’t getting the benefit of their labor.

I think speaking truth to power, despite its putative appeal, makes Americans deeply queasy. What if I somehow wrecked your chances, or your kids’, by being rude to the Guys With The Money?

Bowing and scraping to anyone with a payroll is the new black.

I worked for The North Face, owned by the VF Corporation; in January 2009, our hours were cut because the company could not afford them…then sitting on $382 million in cash. (They just spent it to buy Timberland.)

Look at the WalMart class action lawsuit, thrown out this week, screwing thousands of hardworking women employees out of the hope of justice. Of working a full-time job and not needing food stamps to supplement their wages.

Which is worse — ignoring these behaviors and letting business reporters keep fawning over eight-figure-earning CEOs?

Or have people like me or Ehrenreich try our best to open the door to the creepy, greedy, nasty behaviors that drive so much of this economy?

Either way, millions of workers are being screwed.


The C-Word We Avoid — Class

In behavior, business, culture, entertainment, Money, movies on December 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm
Working Class Hero

Image by christian.greller via Flickr

Finally!

Even if it’s only in the entertainment pages, we’re talking out loud in the U.S. — land of the mythical meritocracy — about social class and who’s rising, who’s (much more likely now) falling, and who’s most terrified of sliding from “middle” (defined as…?) to lower or working class, words used more easily in nations whose central identity doesn’t rely as heavily on the idea of equality and assured social mobility.

In a recent New York Times piece by film critic A.O. Scott:

The idea of the universal middle class is a pervasive expression of American egalitarianism — and perhaps the only one left. In politics the middle has all but swallowed up the ends. Tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and social programs that largely benefit the poor must always be presented as, above all, good for the middle class, a group that thus seems to include nearly everyone. It is also a group that is, at least judging from the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, perennially in trouble: shrinking, forgotten, frustrated, afraid of falling down and scrambling to keep up.

In the movies, which exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life, the same basic picture takes on a more benign coloration. Middle-classness is a norm, an ideal and a default setting. For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

Last year I viciously mocked “It’s Complicated” in this blog for the absurd affluence of a divorced woman character, played by Meryl Streep, who lives in a $5 m home, runs her own bakery business and wears impossibly lush clothing and jewelry. Most women divorcees fall far and fast from their married affluence, if they had any, drained from the start by legal fees.

It’s a mug’s game to try and pinpoint “middle class” in New York, where I live in a a suburban town, when a 1,000 square foot shoebox of a 60-year-old house on a postage stamp lot runs $400,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes — barely affordable on an income of $100,000 to 150,000 a year.

In New York, you can make six figures and not have someone snort in derision for calling yourself “middle class.”

Fact is, anyone paying $30-50 per trip by (subsidized) commuter train into the city to work or look for a job, struggles hard here on an income of less than $50,000 for one, let alone $40,000 or less trying to raise a family.

Only now are we seeing films address how we really feel about money and what we really feel about who has it, who doesn’t and what we’re willing to do to get and keep some.

In the New York Post, critic Kyle Smith writes:

Without ever saying so, “Blue Valentine” is centrally about class, and class, in America, anyway, is centrally about much more than income — it’s about tastes and values, as we see when Dean’s idea of a healing getaway means a cheesy lovers’ motel. It seems obvious that if Dean had arranged such a trip with cool irony instead of urgent eagerness, Cindy would have accepted it in a larky spirit. And if Dean painted canvases instead of houses, his lack of accomplishment wouldn’t be an issue.

American filmmakers largely avoid class, which is fine because virtually all of them were well-born and tend to portray their inferiors as piteous, comical or (especially when they’re minorities) as sprites whose magical simplicity can be used to cure the angst of therapy-needing professionals.

As someone whose own income plummeted by 75 percent after losing my last full-time job in 2006, this is no idle fantasy. When I went to work as a sales associate for $11 an hour, no commission, at a mall, I began to understand the extraordinary income inequality that is increasingly defining life in the United States.
Our mall attracted the hedge fund guys and their size 0 wives tending their 10,000 square foot Greenwich mansions.
Such attitude! Such entitlement! People who think nothing of snapping their fingers in the faces of the growing servant class.
You and me, babe!
From the Huffington Post:

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes. On his blog, Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the numbers “truly amazing.”

Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America. Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.

As of 2007, the top decile of American earners, Saez writes, pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that’s “higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the ‘roaring” 1920s.'”

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The New Middle Class: Drowning, Not Waving

In behavior, business, education, Money, news, work on November 15, 2010 at 1:35 pm
Ten-dollar bill obverse/reverse

Image by LividFiction via Flickr

Here’s another grim report on what’s happening to the middle class in the U.S. — sliding beneath the waves.

From the New York Post:

She’s $16,000 in debt to credit card companies. One of her local grocers, who once let her buy food on a running tab, now has a bill collector after her. She has her résumé up online, but when headhunters call and ask her age, “suddenly they never call me back,” she says. “I’m depressed. None of my friends are able to find jobs. I am living day-to-day.”

Anne’s biggest fear is that her daughter finds out how dire the situation is.

“She’ll say to me, ‘Are we poor?’ And I keep lying,” Anne says. “I think it’s a very traumatic thing for a child. I don’t want her to feel like she’s the only one, or a victim.”

When the recession does ease up, Anne fears that she will emerge as a permanent member of the lower class.

“The world kind of betrayed us,” she says. “The salary I was making — I don’t think I’ll ever make it again.”

There are several women like Anne in my book,”Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio/Penguin), now gone to press, which looks at the single largest source of new jobs in the United States — retail. Most of those jobs pay $7-12 an hour, poverty level wages. No commission, no bonuses, no raises. A dead-end job for a whole new set of workers, people who once believed they had vocational choices.
The American Dream of upward mobility is dead, if not dying, for millions of educated, hard-working people, many of them workers over the age of 40, most certainly those over 50. People who have kids or grandkids who need their financial help to complete their college educations.
Who’s got an extra$20,000 to $30,000+ to head back to school full-time to get a shiny new career and start all over again at…55? 60? 47?
That’s not how it’s supposed to work. By your 40s or 50s, life, as it once was for many of us, was supposed to be a little calmer — your home bought and maybe paid off; your kids launched into financial independence, retirement a mere decade or so away.
No longer. Millions of us have lost good jobs,  can’t even get an interview for the next one, can no longer imagine when or how things might ever get better, when we might feel safe or calm or happy about our economic situation.
Are you feeling financially secure these days?
If not, what would it take to get you there?

A Handgun Or A Doughnut?

In behavior, business, Crime, Money, news on August 5, 2010 at 4:09 pm
Doughnut covered with coconut flakes
Image via Wikipedia

The other night Omar Thornton led the national news, shooting eight co-workers and then himself at a Connecticut beer distributorship. He was about to be fired. I blogged about it here at theopencase.com, but think there is more to it than that.

The second big news item, pun intended, was how rates of obesity are rising. Still.

Yes, Thornton was being fired for cause, stealing beer. But his feelings of rage, despair and desperation are in no way unique to the man who shoots and kills in a murderous rampage. Millions of us feel them, over work, family, illness, grief, job loss, unemployment. A new sub-category of misery are the “99ers”, people who have used up every bit of their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and have not yet found a job.

From The New York Times:

In June, with long-term unemployment at record levels, about 1.4 million people were out of work for 99 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not all of them received unemployment benefits, but for many of those who did, the modest payments were a lifeline that enabled them to maintain at least a veneer of normalcy, keeping a roof over their heads, putting gas in their cars, paying electric and phone bills.

Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent.

Ms. Jarrin said she wept as she drove away from her old life last month, wondering if she would ever be able to reclaim it.

“At one point, I thought, you know, what if I turned the wheel in my car and wrecked my car?” she said.

Nevertheless, the political appetite to help people like Ms. Jarrin appears limited.

That piece elicited 697 comments and no more are being accepted.

We are dying by inches — adding them to our bellies and asses and thighs by consuming the wrong food and drink in enormous quantities. Every time we stuff too much of something greasy, fatty, sugary and/or salty into our mouths, we are often really desperately reaching for comfort, for ease, for a quick, cheap way to feel better. If we were truly joyful and at ease in our lives, would we behave thus? I think not.

We are dying by inches — of homes and dreams and degrees and graduate degrees and years of experience, training and skill worth nothing to an indifferent job market. I see a very clear correlation between these two forms of despair.

Every time someone goes on a rampage in their workplace and kills co-workers, there is such surprise, such shock. What exactly, people demand, pushed him over the edge? As if you can parse lethality so tidily. You can’t. The sub-text? If it was X, then we’ll make sure X isn’t part our our lives or workplace. It is never that simple.

We forget how many people, millions of us now, already live on the edge. We are terrified of losing our partners, kids, homes, jobs, status, cars, bank accounts, retirement savings, our physical and mental health.

It can take a mere zephyr of a breeze to send someone hurtling over the edge if that has been their neighborhood for weeks, months or years.

Whether you reach for a handgun or a doughnut, the choices are ultimately self-destructive, devastating, lethal. One is faster, bloodier, criminal and public.

But surprised?

No, we should not be at all surprised.

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Pull Up Your Pants, Bro! British Man (Barely) Avoids Prosecution For Saggy Trousers

In Crime, Fashion, men on May 10, 2010 at 8:15 am

Moments like this, you think, good thing I live in “the land of the free” — a British man narrowly avoided getting an ASBO (anti-social behavior order) for wearing his pants so low you could see his ass. Pretty standard stuff (sorry to say) where I live; I saw a guy looking like this last week on the train.

From the Guardian’s comment page:

Ellis Drummond was last week spared an Asbo for “wearing trousers so low that the public are able to see his underwear” after a judge suggested it was contrary to his human rights. Here some of the Observer’s finest minds debate the implications for Britain’s sartorial standards.

Euan Ferguson

…an Asbo for stupidity.

Kevin McKenna

The wise ones also say that a man’s kingdom is his trousers. Where I grew up, some of us were so poor that wearing trousers that fitted one properly was a luxury. Therefore, I feel that to wear trousers in this way celebrates the poor working classes who often had no choice in the matter. I remember there was a lorry that came round each week full of discarded clothing from the Romanian middle classes. You were lucky if anything fitted. In Cameron’s New Britain, wearing your trousers halfway down your arse may be the only means of protest against the Bullingdon club influence on our life. Their use of braces to control the natural movement of trousers is redolent of Oxbridge privilege, a paradigm of social control. We must retain control of our trousers…

Euan

Remarkably restrained. I wondered how long before the money/class argument would be wrangled in. But that doesn’t hold, not unless you’re seeking to persuade us that the subtext of any gritty working-class mantra was, actually: “We were poor but we were stupid.” Euan Kev, I know you’re haunted by class: I remember you quoting some definition of a gentleman as “anyone who gets out of the bath to take a pee”. Brain-wise, think of this. The low-slung look derives from people in evil penitentiaries in America’s deep south who had their belts removed. They wanted nothing more than to, in random order, a) have a belt to keep their trousers up; b) live in a kinder place with a job, or benefits, and always chances; and c) not be in the electric chair the next morning. For someone with all of the good things above, to actually want, when there are so many good looks available – tweed, I say, always have; tweed and knitted ties – instead to dress as if he seriously wants to be a hot crying man in a dirtyard on the last day of his life? Actionably stupid. Criminally so. Asbo.

The whole idea of an Asbo is so fundamentally un-American — where you get to let it all hang out, whatever it is, most of the time. It’s always a little weird to those of us who grew up in more restrained, less individualism-obsessed societies.

The laws came in in 1998 and have been controversial since: they can be used against anyone over the age of 10 whose behavior is deemed offensive or damaging to larger society. (I blogged last year about a British couple whose sexual activity was so loud it won them an Asbo from their weary neighbors.)

I hate the baggy pants thing, but maybe that’s just my narrow, priggish point of view.

Seems we’ve got a million potential Asbos on this side of the pond: walking while staring into a phone or PDA, driving while texting, reallyloud cellphone conversations in enclosed (or not) spaces, people who leave gym equipment all gross and sweaty…

Does this “style” offend you as well?

Would you vote an Asbo for the uninvited sight of some guy’s ass?

Immigrants Smarter Than Ever, Census Shows — Time To Revise Old Prejudices

In immigration on April 21, 2010 at 3:23 pm
Statue of Liberty (more formally, Liberty Enli...

Image via Wikipedia

As someone who’s technically, after 21 years in the U.S., an immigrant, I’ve long known that thousands of people living here and born elsewhere are smart as hell: lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, entrepreneurs, professors and then people like me who only have a bachelor’s degree but are still doing fine, making our mark professionally, contributing skills to our communities.

We’re not all bedraggled day laborers with six kids!

Yet if you listen to (God help you) conservative talk shows and focus only on what the mass media show us are “typical” immigrants, we’re an undifferentiated mass of low-wage workers forced by useless foreign degrees or poor language skills, whether legally or not, into doing the nastiest of jobs, whether slitting cow’s throats in midwestern abbatoirs or delivering Chinese food in Manhattan for $2/hour.

From that depressing inaccurate snapshot, it’s a quick, simple, racist progression to conflate immigrant with poor/struggling/uneducated/send ‘em back!

Now the Census is revealing a sharp spike in immigrants with doctorates, reports The New York Times:

For the first time, fully 1 in 10 adults had an education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Among adults in their late 20s, 35 percent of women and 27 percent of men had a bachelor’s degree, an eight percentage point gender gap, compared with three percentage points in 1999.

Many immigrants don’t fit the tidy — and politically useful — working-class stereotype, such as the professional Haitians, like doctors and nurses living in the U.S., who rushed back to help their countrymen, profiled here by the Times.

This is a sensitive topic for me for two reasons — it’s ignorant and it’s rude. I’d say simply racist, but there are plenty of pale-skinned immigrants underestimated along with those whose skin contains  more melanin.

The U.S. was built by, and continues to thrive thanks to, the skills, ideas, drive and creativity of millions of educated, ambitious workers who choose to come and stay here, not merely those whose lowest hourly wage in the U.S. equals a day’s — or week’s — wage in their homeland. I interviewed such a man yesterday for my book, the funny, forthright, passionate CEO of Reflexis, an IT company working with retail giants like Staples; he and most of his management team are from India.

My partner, who is of Hispanic origin but an American citizen, born and raised here, has been the object of such casual racism it has shocked me to my roots. One sunny fall afternoon, wearing clean, quality casual clothing, he was looking up at the fall foliage on our building’s property, admiring the colors and said “What a view!”

A resident of our co-op, assuming he must, of course, be a day laborer who worked on the building’s brick re-pointing, responded: “You guys did a great job!”

My sweetie, which is his blessedly gentle nature, said nothing to correct this insulting assumption. The man has a Pulitzer.

People with dark skin, an accent and/or a foreign passport aren’t always struggling to climb the social and professional ladder, no matter how comforting that belief.

Some are seriously kicking ass.

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