Posts Tagged ‘Black’

optimism

worry

pain

American workers, as I have argued many times (e.g., here and here), find themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.

But of course, different segments of the American working-class experience that desperation in different ways, according to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

A new study by the Brookings Institution [ht: db] reveals that the degree of optimism, worry, and pain experienced by poor whites, blacks, and Hispanics varies according to where they live.

Some of the results are not all surprising, given what else we know about the condition of the working-class in different places within the United States. Thus, for example, the best places in terms of optimism for poor minorities are Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee (the Southern cluster of states), while the most desperate states for poor non-Hispanic whites are the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Wisconsin, Missouri, West Virginia, and Kentucky (which correspond, roughly, to the opioid and suicide belts in the heartland). A similar pattern follows for both worry and pain.

But there are some unexpected findings, at least for me, in the study. For example, the worst places for poor minorities (in terms of optimism, worry, and/or pain) include blue states like Washington, California, New York, and Massachusetts. And, as it turns out, for poor whites, the situation is desperate in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin.

The authors of the study admit that,

We cannot answer many questions at this point. What is it about the state of Washington, for example, that is so bad for minorities across the board? Why is Florida so much better for poor whites than it is for poor minorities? Why is Nevada “good” for poor white optimism but terrible for worry for the same group?

Politically, it is important to pay attention to and analyze the causes of these different placed-based levels of desperation for the various groups that make up the American working-class.

But it is also the case that overall, as I argued last November, the deteriorating condition of the U.S. working-class includes but goes beyond the obscene (and still-growing) inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth.

As both a condition and consequence of those inequalities, working-class Americans have suffered from mass unemployment (reaching 1 in 10 workers, according to the official rate, in October 2009, and much higher if we include discouraged workers and those who have underemployed), real wages that have been flat or falling for decades (now below what they were in the mid-1970s) along with declining benefits, a precipitous decline in unions (from one quarter in the 1970s to about ten percent today), an increase in the number of hours worked (both the length of the workweek and the average number of weeks worked per year), a significant rise in the incidence of “alternative work arrangements” (such as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers), and most people think good jobs are difficult to find where they live (by a factor of 2 to 1)—not to mention increasing mortality (for the first time since the 1950s), an increase in differences in life expectancy between those at the top and everyone else, high levels of infant mortality, a spectacular growth in the rate of incarceration, and increasing indebtedness (especially for student and auto loans).

Creating new economic institutions that actually lead to improvements in those circumstances will benefit all members of the American working-class—white, black, and Hispanic.

Then and only then will American workers feel more optimistic, have fewer worries, and experience less pain, regardless of where they live.

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Mainstream economists and politicians have answers for everything.

Lose your job? Well, that’s just globalization and technology at work. Not much that can be done about that.

And if you still want a job? Then just move to where the jobs are—and make sure your children go to college in order to prepare themselves for the jobs that will be available in the future.

The fact is, they’re not particularly good answers. And people know it. That’s why working-class voters are questioning business as usual and registering their protest by supporting—in the case of Brexit, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the 2017 snap election in Britain, and so on—alternative positions and politicians.

On the first point, it’s not simply globalization and technology. Large corporations, which employ most people, are the ones that decide—in the context of a global economy and by developing and adopting new technologies—when and where some jobs will be destroyed and new ones created. They use the surplus they appropriate from their existing workers and utilize it to determine the pattern of job destruction and creation, in order to get even more surplus.

Thus, in April 2017 (according to the data in the chart at the top of the post), employers eliminated 1.6 million jobs in the United States. In January 2009, things were even worse: corporations destroyed 2.6 million jobs across the U.S. economy. Of course, they also create new jobs—often in different companies, industries, regions, and countries. That leaves individual workers with the sole decision of whether or not to chase those jobs, since as a group they have absolutely no say in when or where old jobs are destroyed and new ones created.

What about their children and the advice to go to college? We already know the idea that higher education successfully levels the playing field across students with different backgrounds is a myth (and sending more kids to college doesn’t do much, if anything, to lower inequality).

Now we’re learning that, when states suffer a widespread loss of jobs, the damage extends to the next generation, where college attendance drops among the poorest students.

That’s the conclusion of new research Elizabeth O. Ananat and her coauthors, just published in Science (unfortunately behind a paywall). What they found is that

local job losses can both worsen adolescent mental health and lower academic performance and, thus, can increase income inequality in college attendance, particularly among African-American students and those from the poorest families.

Their argument is that macro-level job losses are best understood as “community-level traumas” that negatively affect the learning ability and the mental health not only of young people who experience job loss within their own families, but also of the other children in states where the destruction of jobs is widespread.

So, the problem can’t be solved by forcing individual workers to have the freedom to chase after jobs and send their children to college. Nor is the predicament confined to the white working-class. In fact, the effects of job losses are similar, but even worse, among African-American youth.

That’s why Ananat argues that

white working class people and African-American working class people are in the same boat due to job destruction. Imagine the policies we could have if folks found common ground over that.

And, I would add, those policies need to go beyond the “active labor market policies”—such as “rigorous job training and active matching of worker skills to employer needs”—the authors, along with mainstream economists and politicians, put forward.*

We also need to reconsider the fact that, within existing economic institutions, employers are the only ones who get to decide when and where jobs are destroyed and created. Giving workers the ability to participate as a group in the decisions about jobs—within existing enterprises and by assisting them to form their own enterprises, would improve their own mental health and that of the members of the wider community.

Such a change would also transform young people’s decisions about whether or not to go to college. It’s not just about jobs in the new economy. It would allow them to demand, as women in Lawrence, Massachusetts did over a century ago, both “bread and roses.”

 

*Policies to help “disadvantaged workers, especially African Americans, Hispanics and rural residents,” also need to go beyond encouraging the Fed to keep interest-rates low. That still leaves job decisions in the hands of employers.

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No one ever accused American conservatives of being particularly original. They started with a story about the failure of government programs and they stick with it, against all evidence.

Originally, conservatives targeted African Americans, who (so the story goes, e.g., in the Moynihan Report) were mired in a culture of poverty and increasingly dependent on government hand-outs. In order for blacks to regain America’s founding virtues (so the story continues)—especially marriage and industriousness—well-meaning but ultimately destructive government programs should be abolished so that they would once again be able to enjoy the security of marriage and dignity of work.

That exact same story has now been transferred to the white working-class. Anyone who’s read Charles Murray and J. D. Vance will recognize the “the pejorative Moynihan report on the black family in white face.”

The latest version of that story was penned by the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks, who cites Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty as the original sin, which “deprived generations of Americans of their fundamental sense of dignity.” According to Brooks, “rural and exurban whites” have been left behind “every bit as much as the urban poor” because they’ve come to “depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others.” Real dignity, argues Brooks (echoing a long line of conservative thinkers), stems from people being “authentically, objectively necessary.” And that means working—or at least looking for work.

That’s why Brooks cites the declining labor-force participation rate in the United States beginning with the War on Poverty.

The first problem is, the participation rate has been declining since the mid-1950s, long before Johnson’s program was enacted. As readers can see in the chart at the top of the post, the labor-force participation rate for white men (the red line), which stood at 87.4 percent in 1955, had fallen to 84.2 percent by 1964 and then dropped to 76.6 percent in 2007 (on the eve of the latest crash). If we calculate the change by decades, it dropped by 3.2 percent points in the first decade and then by less then 2 percent points in each succeeding decade.

It makes as much sense to blame the declining labor-force participation rate on Chuck Berry as the War on Poverty.

But notice also that, from the mid-1950s onward, the labor-force participation rate of white women soared—beginning at 33.4 percent (in 1955), rising to 37.3 percent (in 1964), and peaking at 60.2 percent (in 2007). In the terms set forth by Brooks, that increase in dignity more than makes up for the falling rate for men. And much of the increase for women comes after the War on Poverty is enacted.

Instead of mourning the fall in men’s participation, why isn’t the increase for women deemed a great success by Brooks and other conservatives?

The only possible answer is American conservatives hold a nostalgia—an extremely selective nostalgia—for a particular moment in U.S. history. They envision a white working-class made up of men most of whom are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work outside the home, with wives who for the most part stay at home, care for their husbands, and raise future workers. At the same time, conservatives forget about the unions that made it possible for workers to earn a family wage—not to mention the Jim Crow laws and bracero programs that created barriers for black and Hispanic workers to compete for the jobs white working-class men were able to find.

So, no, there never was a Garden of Eden—and, thus, no original sin.

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Before the new Republican administration has a chance to implement its campaign promises and dismantle the social safety net, it’s useful to remember who in fact is assisted by the existing programs.

According to a new study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, people of all races and ethnic groups who lack a bachelor’s degree receive significant help from the safety net. But white working-class adults stand out.

Among working-age adults without a college degree, 6.2 million whites are lifted above the poverty line by the safety net — more than any other racial or ethnic group. In addition, the percentage of people who would otherwise be poor that safety net programs lift out of poverty is greater for white working-age adults without a college degree than for other adults without a college degree.

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But we also need to remember how brutal U.S. capitalism is, before government programs are taken into account.

In particular, as can been seen in the table above, the poverty rate before taking income from government programs into account is more than three times higher among working-age adults without a college degree (30.4 percent) than among other adults (8.7 percent). And while poverty rates are lower for white adults without a college degree (24.3 percent) than for other adults without a degree (43.1 percent for Blacks and 36.2 percent for Hispanics), 1 in 4 white adults who lack a degree is poor before accounting for government benefits and tax credits.

The fact is, government anti-poverty programs are so important—for white, Black, and Hispanic Americans—precisely because capitalism in the United States generates so much poverty among its workers, especially those without a college degree.

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Special mention

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We all know that the recovery since the Great Recession has been highly skewed. But has it hurt whites more than blacks and Hispanics, thereby explaining Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election?

That’s the story being told by Eduardo Porter (here and here), relying on data from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (pdf). Their basic argument is that, of the millions of net new jobs created since the pre-recession highwater mark of November 2007, most of them went to black and Hispanic (and Asian) workers, not to white workers (who make up the majority of the workforce).

The numbers are correct—but their analysis is seriously incomplete.

According to the numbers that serve as the basis of ECRI analysis (and which are represented in the chart above), about 5.5 million more workers are employed now compared to nine years ago (the purple line)—including 4.9 million more Hispanic (green line) and 2.3 million more African American (blue line) workers but 722 thousand fewer white (red line) workers.*

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It comes as no surprise that those different job trajectories are reflected in the different trajectories of the employment-population ratio. Whereas the overall ratio and the ratio for whites have barely changed (at 59 and 60 percent, respectively) since the recession ended, the other ratios have in fact changed—rising for both Hispanics (from 59.3 to 62.2) and blacks (from 52.9 to 56.6).

So, there are differences in job growth, a large part of which can be accounted for by different regional growth patterns (large cities vs. small towns and rural areas), sectoral shifts (services vs. industrial production), and demographic profiles (both the proportion of the working-age population and retirement rates).

However, in every other way, the different groups within the American working-class have moved in tandem.

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For example, the labor-force-participation rate has declined over the past nine years—in general and for each subgroup, white, black, and Hispanic—and remains now just above record lows.

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Unemployment rates have also moved in the same direction—first rising dramatically after the crash and then falling during the recovery (but still remaining above what they were before the crash).

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Meanwhile, workers’ wages have barely budged—overall and for whites, blacks, and Hispanics—between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2016.

The folks at the Center for Economic and Policy Research get it:

Porter is right in seeing support for Trump as being to a substantial extent a response to bad economic prospects. But the economic prospects of working class whites in the last decade were not notably worse than the prospects of working class blacks.

And, I would add, all the other groups that make up the American working-class.

The fact is, all members of the working-class—white, black, and Hispanic—have been victimized during the Second Great Depression. As I have shown elsewhere (e.g., here and here), as a class, they’ve fallen further and further behind the tiny group of employers and wealthy individuals at the top. That’s the real skewed nature of the economic recovery.

As I see it, the difference in their political allegiances and voting patterns cannot then be explained by white workers losing out to black and Hispanic workers. It’s due, instead, to the fact that one group that has been left behind (working-class whites) threw in their lot with one candidate (right-wing,  white-nationalist Trump)—while other members of the working-class (blacks and Hispanics), who have been equally left behind, simply could not.

And, soon, all of them will discover Trump’s promises were no more than dog-whistle politics and his economic program will leave them even further behind.

 

*The numbers don’t sum correctly (even without including Asian workers) because white Hispanics may be double-counted as both white and Hispanic, and black Hispanics may be double-counted as both black and Hispanic.

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The paradox of the 2016 presidential race is that both major party candidates claim (or at least are identified by those in the media with) support of portions of the U.S. working-class and yet neither campaign offers anything in the way of concrete policies or strategies that actually respond to the real issues and problems faced by the members of the working-class.

Donald Trump’s supporters, for example, are more likely to be white workers in blue-collar fields who have less education—and yet the candidate himself, even though he criticizes the loss of manufacturing jobs and the anti-labor bias of free-trade agreements, has argued that American workers’ wages are too high and economic policy should focus on lowering tax rates for corporations and wealthy individuals. Meanwhile, the Podesta emails show that Hillary Clinton has no plans to reward the labor movement’s unwavering loyalty or record contributions to her campaign, especially those organizing hourly workers at Walmart and fast-food chains.

So, regardless of who wins the election on 8 November, the condition of the working-class in the United States will likely be ignored.

The biggest obstacle to considering the actual situation the American working-class finds itself in is the presumption that the working-class is white and everyone else is an “identity” group, as if most members of other ethnic and racial groups—especially Blacks and Hispanics—aren’t themselves members of the working-class. The fact is, most Americans are forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to someone else and, while there are differences in both position and ideas (as there always are within a group as large as the working-class), they constitute the majority who as they work produce a surplus that is appropriated by a small group of employers (some of which, in turn, is distributed to a somewhat larger group of executives and supervisors).

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In terms of numbers I’ve illustrated before, we’re talking grosso modo about the top 1 percent and the rest of the top 10 percent versus the bottom 90 percent—whose shares of national income have been moving in opposite directions for the better part of the past three and a half decades.

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And the key reason the shares of national income going to the top 1 percent and the rest of the top 10 percent have been growing and the share going to the bottom 90 percent has been falling is the fact that, as I’ve shown before, the profit and wage shares have also been moving in opposing directions in recent decades.

wealth

Not surprisingly, as depicted in the chart above, the ownership of wealth is even more unevenly distributed between the working-class and those at the top. (The only major difference between changes in the distribution of income and wealth since 1979 is the fact that the share of wealth owned by the members of the top 10 percent exclusive of the top 1 percent has actually declined, from 43.1 percent to 35.4 percent.)

But, of course, the deteriorating condition of the U.S. working-class goes beyond the obscene (and still-growing) inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth. As both a condition and consequence of those inequalities, working-class Americans have suffered from mass unemployment (reaching 1 in 10 workers, according to the official rate, in October 2009, and much higher if we include discouraged workers and those who have underemployed), real wages that have been flat or falling for decades (now below what they were in the mid-1970s) along with declining benefits, a precipitous decline in unions (from one quarter in the 1970s to about ten percent today), an increase in the number of hours worked (both the length of the workweek and the average number of weeks worked per year), a significant rise in the incidence of “alternative work arrangements” (such as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers), and most people think good jobs are difficult to find where they live (by a factor of 2 to 1)—not to mention increasing mortality (for the first time since the 1950s), an increase in differences in life expectancy between those at the top and everyone else, high levels of infant mortality, a spectacular growth in the rate of incarceration, and increasing indebtedness (especially for student and auto loans).

Overall, the working-class in the United States has not shared in the increased prosperity of the nation in recent decades, and has carried more than its share of the costs of the Great Recession in recent years. American workers have been producing a larger and larger surplus. But it’s not going to them. It is appropriated by their employers, who keep some within their enterprises (for investment and, increasingly, for other purposes, such as mergers and acquisitions) and distribute the rest to those who manage the operations of those enterprises (who, in turn, engage in conspicuous consumption and purchase financial assets). That’s why there’s a growing gap—by every conceivable measure—between those at the top and the U.S. working-class.

It’s no wonder, then, that over the course of the past year and a half American workers have rejected establishment politics—as offered by both Democrats and Republicans—and voted in large numbers for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They’re simply fed up with an economic system that has been rigged to benefit only a small group at the top and frustrated by a set of political candidates (not to mention economists and economic pundits) who pronounce fundamental change to be undesirable and unrealistic. Better to stay the course, so the elites preach, and eventually trickledown economics will work.

But, as George Packer explains,

the élites on each side of the partisan divide have more in common with one another than they do with voters down below. A network-systems administrator, an oil-and-gas-company vice-president, a journalist, and a dermatologist hire nannies from the same countries, dine at the same Thai restaurants, travel abroad on the same frequent-flier miles, and invest in the same emerging-markets index funds. They might have different political views, but they share a common interest in the existing global order. . .

Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway. Those voters, especially men, have become the Republican base, and the Republican Party has experienced the 2016 election as an agonizing schism, a hostile takeover by its own rank and file. Conservative leaders had taken the base for granted for so long that, when Trump burst into the race, in the summer of 2015, they were confounded. Some scoffed at him, others patronized him, but for months they didn’t take him seriously. He didn’t sound like a conservative at all. . .

The great truth was that large numbers of Republican voters, especially less educated ones, weren’t constitutional originalists, libertarian free traders, members of the Federalist Society, or devout readers of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. They actually wanted government to do more things that benefitted them (as opposed to benefitting people they saw as undeserving).

Right now, the working-class finds itself divided—without a party of its own and forced to choose between two presidential candidates with the highest unfavorable ratings in modern history. In recent elections, the Democratic candidate has lost among one portion—whites, without a college degree—of the working-class.* But Democrats have gained among other portions—Hispanics, Blacks, young people, and those with a college degree—and, in 2016, they’re counting on that same coalition.

The actual result is going to depend on turnout among different parts of the working-class. Clinton, who is clinging to a deteriorating lead over Trump, is faced with a slump in early Black voter turnout.** Trump, for his part, would need a turnout among non-college-educated white voters that equals that of college-educated whites in order to win.

The problem, of course, is neither major-party candidate offers a convincing response to the real issues faced by the U.S. working-class—as a whole much less to its diverse resentments and desires, its multiple identities and aspirations.

And what happens to the working-class once the election is over? My suspicion is, if Clinton manages to hang on to her lead, the injuries and insults visited upon the working-class in recent years and decades will quickly be forgotten. Ironically, only if Trump finds a way to win will the working-class be afforded any ongoing attention—but then only one portion and only in terms of their decision to vote based on “fear and resentment occasioned by a loss of identity and standing.”

But, in either case, the condition of the working-class in the United States will continue to deteriorate and to be ignored by those at the top.

 

*As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin explain, “the worst performance came in 2012 when Obama lost this group—once the bulwark of the Democratic coalition—by a staggering 26 points (62-36).”

**But, according to the New York Times, “Working in Mrs. Clinton’s favor even if her share of the black vote declines is the fact that she has built a political coalition different from Mr. Obama’s. She is counting on an electorate that is more Hispanic and includes more white voters — especially college-educated women — who would have considered voting Republican but are repelled by Mr. Trump.”