Monday, June 18, 2012

The Perpetual Underclass

Harold Pollack is reading Chris Hayes' Twilight of the Elites and is struck by his own status as an elite.
Members of our nation’s various elites are genuinely saddened by the accompanying human costs. Yeah, white papers are written. Hearings are held. Yet our society’s lack of urgency is abetted by the great social and economic distance between the families losing their lifesavings and the key public and private actors who will decide their fates. Too many of our national leaders behave rather as I’ve done, passing several empty houses on my street. I feel terrible for the affected families. I still scurry home, hit the web, and take solace in the ballooning value of my 401(k) supported by my tenured professorship. Pretty soon, I’m pondering other things.
 I've been increasingly concerned with the way inequality is structured into our labor force so as to perpetuate economic and socio-cultural segregation.  There are vast areas of the economy that is dependent on a labor force that requires little skill or education, is underpaid, has little opportunity for advancement, often lacks adequate healthcare or retirement benefits.  This paper has some interesting statistics. 

Garment workers listen to funeral service for MLK on portable radio April 8 1968

These are low-status occupations, employing people who higher-status, educated, higher-skilled workers will have only fleeting contact with.  They live in largely segregated "poor" neighborhoods rife with crime and dysfunction.  Their children's schools are thus concentrated with a student population that is difficult to teach, having in general much lower levels of human capital, and in constant, close proximity to social breakdown - incarceration, addiction, health problems, marginal employment, etc.

When I was in education school, the mantra was that "every child should go to college".  This is absurd on its face, and reflects the incoherent neo-liberal embrace of right-wing notions of meritocracy and social-Darwinist notion of organic sorting by talent and ambition; while the right believes implicitly in blaming the poor, the neo-left sees the problem only as one of technocratic scaffolding, and that proper social policy will lift everyone into the professional, learned, middle class.

Yet as currently designed - whether explicitly or by default - our economy demands a large low status, undereducated, underpaid labor force.  The right sees this as a sort of convenient sorting mechanism that allows the "cream to rise to the top" (ignoring of course the entire discourse of privilege and rent).  The neo-left, likely afraid of the radical implications of acknowledging this reality (as a challenge both to their sense of political pragmatism as well as personal morality - they are now implicated as an elite class), chooses to believe in a fantasy that all workers will join their children at university one day in a sort of bucolic, post-class progressive era. 

Obviously this isn't an easy issue to overcome in capitalism.  But neither can we pretend that there isn't a level of socio-economic exploitation imbedded in our economy that requires a disempowered underclass, and which perpetuates a maintenance of low levels of human and societal capital.  While many of the specific causal factors that drive this process are known, many are less clearly patterned.  Most epistemologically problematic is the role of culture and norms in poorer communities that place downward pressures on human capital acquisition.  For instance, the stunted development of social capital, in terms of trust, self and community efficacy, identity, the interplay of ethnicity and race, etc. are difficult to pin down.  In other words, to what extent does poverty itself - the experience of, the geography of - inhibit the development of behavioral capital?  To what extent, thus, does the *presence* of high-status elites and status inequality create an internalization of lowered aspiration?  Here, there is not even a direct exploitation of the underclass, but rather an indirect sort of signaling that solidifies attitudes. 

Ironically, one is reminded of the old conservative claim about progressivism contributing to a "culture of victimhood".  A progressive response is that victimhood has not been created, merely brought to larger social awareness.  Yet, to what extent might an unintended consequence be that - especially in light of larger failures of society to solve the underclass problem - this consciousness indeed contributes to a sense of powerlessness, hopelessness, and (pragmatically?) downward aspirations?

**edit** In case anyone might be wondering whether I would endorse the view that we ought to somehow cynically not raise class-consciousness in order to avoid any possible negative effects on the psyche of low-SES citizens, I'm merely wondering if there are indeed costs to class consciousness. 

As an atheist, I’m reminded of the studies finding happiness correlating with religion. It isn’t a case for believing in something just to feel better, but it makes one wonder about the role of psychology in all this. I do struggle, however, right now with what seem like such overwhelmingly intransigent economic dynamics of exploitation. At least with slavery, you could point to a simple biological fact and say, “this is wrong, let’s not do it”.  But wage slavery, generational poverty, systemic lack of access to human and societal capital are such a large part of our economic and social system. Bah… it’s summer and, like Harold Pollack, maybe I’m hit with the reality that my low-SES students have it so hard while I bask in the relative glow of my “eliteness” and I’m venting.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, you remind me a little of me, at least the me of 2012. Sort of Prof. DeLong + the late Erving Goffman.

    Hopefully Anonymous