21 Sep

The danger, dignity, and hope of the “struggling class”

Posted By Politybooks

By Celine-Marie Pascale

In 2017 I began a journey to understand the experiences of people living and working in low-income communities. I’ve spent my entire life crossing class boundaries, threading a circuitous path out of poverty and eventually into a full professorship. As a sociologist, and as a person who has known poverty, I began this journey to understand the realities of living in struggling communities today.  

I traveled through Appalachia from southeastern Ohio to the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky and the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee; to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that spans North and South Dakota; to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming; and to the vibrant city of Oakland, California. While some people declined to characterize themselves by class, over and again I heard people refer to themselves as “the struggling class.” Two things about this term are important: First, this isn’t a label imposed on people from the outside. This is how people talked about themselves.

Second, the term “the struggling class” encompasses the danger, the dignity, and the hope that characterizes the lives of people I met. They are not getting ahead, but they have not given up. They struggle. They work multiple jobs and still are forced to weigh how long they can go without treating a bad tooth or if they can afford to pay for groceries if they buy shoes for their child. Too often, struggling families face nothing but narrow choices from bad options.

By 2018 politicians lauded a booming economy with record employment, but national polls showed between 65% and 80% of the U.S. population was living paycheck to paycheck. When, on December 22, 2018, the federal government declared a partial shutdown, 800,000 federal employees and contractors missed two paychecks. Many of these workers regularly described their bank accounts as virtually empty on the day before payday. Faced with the furlough, they were soon standing in line at foodbanks.  For most families, the truth is that economic problems are not based on unemployment, they are based on underemployment. Millions of people struggle every month because they hold low-wage jobs. Often these struggles feel personal and are invisible to the surrounding community until a crisis like the furlough. My travels took me to places where entire communities have coped with deep levels of economic struggle for decades, sometimes for centuries.

A familiar circumstance in these communities might surprise you as much as it surprised me.  A lot of money is made off the backs of struggling families. Deep pockets are lined by the hardships of the struggling class. Low wages, high rents, and high-interest loans are just the tip of the iceberg.  Some industry executives engage in practices they refer to as “monetizing poor people.” For example, dollar stores do this when they charge $1 for a 16 oz carton of milk—it puts milk on the table that day but is the equivalent of charging $8 for a gallon of milk. In urban areas, I found dollar stores along with other discount stores, liquor stores, pawn shops, and payday loan outlets. In rural communities, dollar stores dominated the landscape, sometimes as the only business for miles.

Across the country, I talked with people who were forced into debt from which they may never recover by two industries: banking and healthcare. These stories make the $8 gallon of milk look like a deal. When I started this book, I was not naïve about economic hardship. As I said, I have had my own share of economic struggles and I know a lot of hardworking people who have lived their entire lives “hand to mouth.” I’ve studied economic inequality as a sociologist. But my experiences working on this book took my breath away.  

When push comes to shove, government too often stands with the interests of corporations and against the interests of working people, the land they live on and the water they drink. For decades, corporations have made enormous profits by extracting resources and treating communities in Appalachia, Standing Rock, Wind River, and Oakland as dumping grounds for environmental pollution. Two Lance Woman at Standing Rock aptly described it as “living in a sacrifice zone.”

For millions of people, life unfurls as a never ending and extremely dangerous obstacle course. I was surprised by the daily precautions that young women across the country are taking against being trafficked and I am still stunned by the extraordinary violence low-income people face every day. Being part of the struggling class is about money—no doubt—but it isn’t just about wages. In this book, I work to untangle the politics, cultural myths, and scapegoating that mask and distort the lives of low-wage workers.

When the pandemic hit, it brought another kind of cynical exploitation. In March 2020 it seemed that the pandemic would affect everyone; but as is the case with all disasters, the pandemic didn’t affect everyone equally. To take one example, while millions of workers were laid off, those working low-wage jobs in agriculture, meat-processing plants, and service industries were declared “essential” and forced to work in unsafe conditions—often without the benefit of health insurance or sick leave. In meat-packing plants, employers threatened undocumented workers and their families with ICE raids if they did not come to work.

Low-wage workers have been consistently betrayed by the collusion between corporations and government. They know too well that the prosperity that others enjoy comes at their own expense. So, it should be no surprise that in struggling communities across the country, people of every race drew the same bottom line: as long as politicians are beholden to corporations, they and their communities will continue to be left behind. Perhaps surprisingly, on good days they still have hope that things can change. Throughout Living on the Edge, people speak about the problems that concern them most. They also offer a path forward and a reason to hope. It’s the hard-earned insight that we need now more than ever. If you want to understand the turmoil the country is facing, the voices in Living on the Edge will give you a valuable perspective that you won’t hear anywhere else.

Celine-Marie Pascale is a Professor of Sociology at American University. Her new book Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Way of Life is available now from Polity.