Posts Tagged ‘white’


Special mention

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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.


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.


We don’t need Louisiana Detective Rodie Sanchez coming out of retirement to solve the crime against the members of the working-class currently being committed in the United States.

We already know many of the details of the crime. We also know the identities of both the victims and the serial killer. The only real mystery is, what’s the country going to do about it?

The investigation itself is being painstakingly carried out by Anne Case and Agnus Deaton (pdf). They show, with abundant statistics, that mortality trends in the United States run counter to those in other rich countries, where they have been steadily declining for decades.


The headlines, of course, have been about one group—middle-age white non-Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—whose mortality rates, especially those attributed to “deaths of despair” (drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality), increased from 1998 through 2015.* The focus in on that group for a number of reasons, including the fact that increasing rates for them (as against blacks and nonwhite Hispanics) have all but erased the racial gap in mortality among non-college-educated Americans—and, of course, because of the prominence of “white working-class” voters in explanations of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

But we also need to go beyond the headlines and understand that, while rates for different ethnic and racial groups in the United States have moved in opposite directions in recent decades, the rates for working-class blacks and Hispanics are still very high—and, in recent years (as can be seen, in the case of blacks, in the chart at the top of the post), they’ve also begun to rise.

That’s the real crime story. All three groups within the American working-class—whites, blacks, and Hispanics—are being killed at abnormally high rates compared to the populations of other rich countries.

And the serial killer? Case and Deaton have a much more difficult time working in this area. That’s because they follow the headlines and emphasize the differences in the long-term trend rates and lose sight of the larger picture. So, they discount the role played by income inequality and, instead, endorse Charles Murray’s story about the decline in traditional American virtues among working-class whites (which I wrote about back in 2012).

The fact is, the labor-market factors identified by Case and Deaton—which have negatively affected whites, blacks, and Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—have become more severe as inequality has soared and the social safety net ripped apart in the United States from the early 1970s onward. The upward trend for whites and the narrowing of the racial gap, as significant as they are, shouldn’t hide from view the more general problem (as I wrote about in 2015) of a large and growing gap between the life expectancies (for both men and women) of those at the top and bottom of the distribution of income in the United States.

American TV is currently captivating viewers with stories of people accused of committing horrific acts. It’s time, however, to focus on the story of an economic system that has created its own killing fields.


*Mortality increases for whites in midlife have also been paralleled by morbidity increases, including deteriorations in self-reported physical and mental health, and rising reports of chronic pain.


Banksy, “Untitled” (2009)

On first glance, liberals and conservatives agree on very little these days, especially now that we find ourselves in the era of Donald Trump. But they do seem to find common ground on one thing: the so-called dignity of labor.

Let me explain. In the article I referred to yesterday, conservative Arthur Brooks invokes the “dignity of labor” as the reason anything and everything should be done to stem the fall in the labor-force participation rate of white men and get them back to work.

If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to “help” people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary. The question for leaders, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, must be, Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?

Some may ask whether making people necessary is an appropriate role for government. The answer is yes: indeed, it represents a catastrophic failure of government that millions of Americans depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others. However, it’s not enough to merely make people feel that they are needed; they must become more authentically, objectively necessary.

The single most important part of a “neededness agenda” is putting more people to work.

Well, as it turns out, one of Brooks’s liberal critics, Lane Kenworthy, actually agrees that working for someone else and producing more than one needs has “significant virtues”:*

It imposes regularity and discipline on people’s lives. It can be a source o mental stimulation. It helps to fulfill the widespread desire to contribute to, and be integrated in, the larger society. It shapes identity and can boost self-­esteem. With neighborhood and family ties weakening, the office or factory can be a key site of social interaction. Lack of employment tends to be associated with feelings of social exclusion, discouragement, boredom, and unhappiness. Societies also need a significant majority of people in paid work to help fund government programs.

No matter the fundamental differences in the policies they advocate, Brooks and Kenworthy are in fundamental agreement that people should believe in the dignity of work and government policy should be redesigned to make sure people—especially the members of the white working-class—get back to work.

I have already dealt numerous times (e.g, here, here, and here) with the argument that participating in wage-labor is intrinsically dignified. But the question remains, why should the government be brought in—in the eyes of by both conservatives and liberals—to make sure people are forced to have the freedom to acquire that dignity?

The answer actually lies in an unexpected source. According to Friedrich Nietzsche (in his 1871 preface to an unwritten book, “The Greek State”), the dignity of labor was invented as one of the “needy products of slavedom hiding itself from itself.” That’s because, in Nietzsche’s view (following the Greeks), labor is only a “painful means” for existence and existence (as against art) has no value in itself. Therefore, “labour is a disgrace.”

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.

And if slaves—or, today, wage-workers—no longer believe in the “dignity of labour,” it falls to the likes of both conservatives and liberals to ignore the “disgraced disgrace” of labor and create the necessary “conceptual hallucinations.” And then, on that basis, to suggest the appropriate government policies such that the “enormous majority [will], in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”

Nietzsche believed that, in the modern world, the so-called dignity of labor was one of the “transparent lies recognizable to every one of deeper insight.” Apparently, neither Brooks nor Kenworthy can count himself among those with such insight.

*This is even after Kenworthy admits “employment is not always a good thing.”

The need for a paycheck can trap people in careers that divert them from more productive or rewarding pursuits. Paid work can be physically or emotionally stressful. It can be monotonous, boring, alienating. Some jobs require a degree of indiference, meanness, or dishonesty toward customers or subordinates that eats away at one’s humanity. And work can interfere with family life.


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.


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.


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.