Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Right Wing Crap Rocket

Jaime works hard.  Everyday he wakes at the crack of dawn, pulls on his work boots and sets out for a long day of mowing lawns and digging ditches in the hot sun.  His wife, Maria, wakes, gets the kids off to school, then dons her uniform, packs up her cleaning supplies and takes the bus to the wealthy houses on the hill where she will spend the day scouring toilets and polishing crystal.  Together, they make less than $30K a year, yet do not have health insurance and employment can be fragile.  They live in a modest home in a poor neighborhood, always seemingly on the edge of getting by. 

By all measures, Jaime and Maria represent the lower end of inequality; their reward for their hard work is in no way equal to the rewards earned by the affluent.  Yet, there a creepy argument on the right that this sort of inequality is actually good for society. It provides an incentive for people to strive and be more productive.  The low pay and devaluing of certain jobs actually function as an inspiration to social mobility.  No one wants to earn low pay for low-status work - especially work that is back breaking and mind-numbing.  Therefore, these jobs act as behavioral reinforcers of productive economic activity, investments in one's skill-level and striving for a better life.  How can one strive for what is "better" if there is no "better"?

This narrative is deeply embedded in our national political conversation.  It is to some extent true.  Those of us who are not low-skill, low-wage, low-status workers, we are glad we are not and no doubt at some point in our life made a conscious decision to not wind up as one.  We like to tell ourselves that we are "deserving" of our higher wages and status because of our merit, the skill we have acquired that allows us to offer more than arms to dig or clean with.  In many ways, there is a strong correlation between pay and merit, in the sense that the more one has to offer, the more one is compensated for it.  As an educator and parent, forefront in my mind has been the future career prospects of my students and children.  A hallmark rallying cry of public education in the past decade has been that "every child have the opportunity to go to college".  A worthy sentiment no doubt - the idea that every citizen have as much agency and human capital as possible.

Yet the reality is that millions of Americans will spend their lives in low-wage, low-skill, low-status jobs.  They are essential to our modern economy, in that there is a large portion of the citizenry with low enough levels of human and societal (H/S) capital that they will, in a practical sense, have no other option than to work in these occupations.  Many of these jobs are not essential - gardening, house cleaning, nannying for two-parent families, washing cars, etc.  But many of them are - janitorial services, cashiers, home health workers, etc.  If these jobs are the "behavioral incentive" for the rest of us to pursue more skilled, higher status and better paying employment, they are also the actual jobs that millions of Americans must work in order to support themselves and their families.

It is a convenient story to tell ourselves - especially as we avail ourselves of their cheap labor, no thought to the implications of this relationship on their family, their health, the career prospects of their children, etc. - but it relies on the subjugation, disenfranchisement and exploitation of millions.  These are the families that live in the poorest communities, go to the poorest schools, and suffer the worst of our social problems. 

If this sort of existence is so dreadful, so as to serve as the launching pad of our economic engine, that dreadful gravity so despicable we'll go to any lengths to reach its escape velocity, to propel not only our own growth but that of society - of civilization itself, it is an existence that would therefor seem required.  For, what if these jobs were compensated more fairly, thus likely regaining some status in the process.  What if instead of $8 dollars an hour, a gardener was receiving $24, able to choose where he wanted to live, pay all his bills, open a savings account, and pay for healthcare for his family? 

What effect would this have on individual striving?  What effect on economic growth overall?  Would many of us forgo college or advanced technical training for the prospect of simple, well-compensated service work?  Non-essential services like gardening would no doubt become more rarefied as they would become a less affordable market. 

The deeper question we need to ask is what is it that drives some individuals into low-SES work, and others into higher-SES work.  It simply isn't the case that every citizen has the same odds of entering either occupation.  Demographics play an enormous role, as I have discussed the concepts of human and societal capital at length on this blog.  The societal capital one is born into is enormously determinative. 

So on the one hand you have the theory of SES incentive as a driver of life success.  Yet on the other, you have the fact that this incentive appears to operate quite differently across demographics.  How could this be?  If it were the most important determining factor, you would see little demographic effect.  So it seems clearly to be of marginal importance.  No one dreams of being a gardener or maid - certainly not the students I have taught whose parents were employed thusly.  In fact, they tended to be quite angry and rebellious, feeling, yet likely not understanding in a very comprehensive way, the very real sense that society was exploiting their family. 

One might think that this would create in them an even stronger incentive to gain more skills than their parents, so as to acquire a job with better pay and higher status.  After all, they were living the example of why these jobs are to be avoided.  Yet interestingly, their feelings were more complex.  For one, they were surrounded since birth by those with a similarly low-SES.  From their family to their neighbors, to their school peers, they were exposed to a lack of high-SES examples.  None of their parents were doctors or lawyers or teachers or successful business owners.  It therefore become more normal to expect less from life.  As much as they were exposed to examples of the reality of low-pay and low-status, they were also exposed to human resilience and transcendence.  They found ways to achieve status that were defined not by larger social norms - which were outside their immediate grasp - but that could be defined within the community. 

If they were not going to get respect from society - which, it must be said, had a racial component, namely "whiteness" - they were going to enforce and maintain it within their peer groups and community.  Juan's mom may have only been a maid for a "rich white lady", but Juan was going to have a bad-ass truck with pimped out speakers.  In this way, low-status work enforces social norms that acquire status through non-traditional, "outsider" means.  Among low income whites, these norms are going to be less radical than the "white" norms of larger society.  Yet among low income minorities, these "white" norms are going to be seen as less accessible, and furthermore resented as historical barriers to acquisition of status.

The concept of low-SES being a social good, as a promoter of incentive towards higher productivity is a convenient myth.  It sounds good, especially as a salve for our conscience as we engage in a marketplace that exploits low-SES workers.  But it is an ad-hoc construct with little evidence to back up its central claim of net benefit to human agency.  Instead, it undermines opportunity and social mobility by creating an economically and socially segregated caste of workers from which few escape.  It promotes not social mobility but generational poverty by depleting societal and human capital.

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