Sunday, July 20, 2014

Americans and Class

Americans do not like to think about class. If you raise a class issue, conservatives will accuse you of preaching class war. The left lumps all different classes together under the label all the "99%". Very important differences between different segments of the American population are thereby being obscured and ignored.
College graduations still being in recent memory, I can draw my illustrations from different college graduates. There are the young men and women whose family have a bit of disposable income. After they graduate college, they could look around for work they really want to do. They can spend a year or two trying to make a documentary, or perhaps traveling widely. They can accept unpaid internships in Washington, D. C. that may pave the way to interesting future employment but leave them, in the present, depending on money from their parents.
Compare them to other college graduates who have been studying and working part-time or even full-time jobs and have always been on the edge of being flat broke. I recall a student who explained his absence from class by saying that payday was still two days away when he ran out of gas money. He didn't have the money to drive to school. These students must get as well-paying a job as possible as soon as they graduate. Whether it is work they like to do is clearly secondary, as long as it pays a decent salary. No unpaid internships for them.
Then there are the students who failed to graduate because halfway through their college years, major illness or unexpected unemployment in the family demanded that they get a full-time job immediately and therefore end their studies.
Different again are the young people who do not only struggle with very limited finances but also confront by racial hostilities and distrust. Many of them have to struggle with family and social challenges unknown to some of the other groups. Their rate of unemployment tends to be much higher than that of more affluent white young people as is the likelihood that they spend time in prison.
These are just a few examples of the distinctions between different class groupings in our population. They grow up with very different ranges of opportunities. Their needs are different from those of the other groups, as are their problems and what they can hope for. The young men and women who aspire to a political career or to work in the public sector can move in that direction if they can afford to work for nothing as interns. Those with more limited finances or those faced by racial prejudices are more likely to advance themselves by entering the military. If they survive, their future may be more stable than that of their parents but "fulfilling work" is still very hard to come by.
Seeing the diversity of the American people clearly is extremely important in many different contexts. It serves to show up the dishonesty of our politicians who constantly talk about "what the American people want" or ho lump all of us together as the "middle class." Different parts of the American people want very different things because their lives are affected by the problems of belonging to different class segments.
Hence also projects to create more jobs, for instance, by cutting taxes on the rich, are badly thought out. These different class segments tend to have different sorts of jobs. Different kinds of jobs are created in different ways. There is no way in which we can simply "create more jobs." We need to be clear for whom jobs are to be created.
Crime rates fluctuate. When they go up, politicians will come up with crime-fighting projects. But those have very different effects on different classes. They tend to come down hardest on the people whose lives are most difficult and leave those whose life prospects are better relatively unaffected. There are no crime-fighting projects that affect all citizens equally.
Yes, there are these small number of Americans who own large chunks of the economy and then they are the rest of us. But the life chances among the rest of us are very different for different groups. The likelihood that we may have some influence on the political process is very different for different groups. The probability that the government will alter institutions in our favor is very different for different class segments. The likelihood that we will have jobs that are satisfying to us, is very different for different class sections. The likelihood that we can live pretty autonomous lives rather than be constantly supervised by parole officers, social workers, and other government employees are much better for some of us than for others.
Lumping the 99% together obscures the many different and very real ways in which different subgroups experience their fiscal and social lives. If justice is your concern, you need to pay close attention to the many divisions in our populace.