Living On The Edge: Americans In A Time Of “Prosperity”

These are supposed to be the good times—with our current economic expansion poised to set a record as the longest in US history. Yet, according to the Federal Reserve’s Report on the Economic Well-Being of US Households in 2017, forty percent of American adults don’t have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as an unexpected medical bill, car problem or home repair.

The problem with our economy isn’t that it sometimes hits a rough patch.  It’s that people struggle even when it is setting records.

The expansion is running out of steam

Our current economic expansion has already gone 107 months.  Only one expansion has lasted longer: the expansion from March 1991 to March 2001 which lasted 120 months.

A CNBC Market Insider report by Patti Domm quotes Goldman Sachs economists as saying: “The likelihood that the expansion will break the prior record is consistent with our long-standing view that the combination of a deep recession and an initially slow recovery has set us up for an unusually long cycle.”

The Goldman Sachs model, according to Domm:

shows an increased 31 percent chance for a U.S. recession in the next nine quarters. That number is rising. But it’s a good news, bad news story, and the good news is there is now a two-thirds chance that the recovery will be the longest on record. . . . The Goldman economists also say the medium-term risk of a recession is rising, “mainly because the economy is at full employment and still growing above trend.”

The chart below highlights the growing recession risk based on a Goldman Sachs model that looks at “lagged GDP growth, the slope of the yield curve, equity price changes, house price changes, the output gap, the private debt/GDP ratio, and economic policy uncertainty.”

Sooner or later, the so-called good times are coming to an end.  Tragically, a large percent of Americans are still struggling at a time when our “economy is at full employment and still growing above trend.” That raises the question: what’s going to happen to them and millions of others when the economy actually turns down?

Living on the edge

The Federal Reserve’s report was based on interviews with a sample of over 12,000 people that was “designed to be representative of adults ages 18 and older living in the United States.”  One part of the survey dealt with unexpected expenses.  Here is what the report found:

Approximately four in 10 adults, if faced with an unexpected expense of $400, would either not be able to cover it or would cover it by selling something or borrowing money. The following figure shows that the share of Americans facing financial insecurity has been falling, but it is still alarming that the percentage remains so high this late in a record setting expansion.

Strikingly, the Federal Reserve survey also found, as shown in the table below, that “(e)ven without an unexpected expense, 22 percent of adults expected to forgo payment on some of their bills in the month of the survey. Most frequently, this involves not paying, or making a partial payment on, a credit card bill.”

And, as illustrated in the figure below, twenty-seven percent of adult Americans skipped necessary medical care in 2017 because they were unable to afford its cost.  The table that follows shows that “dental care was the most frequently skipped treatment, followed by visiting a doctor and taking prescription medicines.”

Clearly, we need more and better jobs and a stronger social safety net.  Achieving those will require movement building.  Needed first steps include helping those struggling see that their situation is not unique, a consequence of some individual failing, but rather is the result of the workings of a highly exploitative system that suffers from ever stronger stagnation tendencies.  And this requires creating opportunities for people to share experiences and develop their will and capacity to fight for change.  In this regard, there may be much to learn from the operation of the Councils of the Unemployed during the 1930s.

It also requires creating opportunities for struggle.  Toward that end we need to help activists build connections between ongoing labor and community struggles, such as the ones that education and health care workers are making as they fight for improved conditions of employment and progressive tax measures to fund a needed expansion of public services.  This is the time, before the next downturn, to lay the groundwork for a powerful movement for social transformation.

______________

This post was updated May 31, 2018.  The original post misstated the length of the current expansion.

Advertisements

Class, Race, and US Wealth Inequality

People tend to have a distorted picture of US capitalism’s operation, believing that the great majority of Americans are doing well, benefiting from the system’s long-term growth and profit generation.  Unfortunately, this is not true.  Median wealth has been declining, leaving growing numbers of working people increasingly vulnerable to the ups and downs of economic activity and poorly positioned to enjoy a secure retirement.  Moreover, this general trend masks a profound racial wealth divide, with people of color disproportionally suffering from a loss of wealth and insecurity.

A distorted picture of wealth inequality

In a 2011 article, based on 2005 national survey data, Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely demonstrate how little Americans know about the extent of wealth inequality.  The figure below (labeled Fig. 2) shows the actual distribution of wealth in that year compared to what survey respondents thought it was, as well as their ideal wealth distribution.  As the authors explain:

respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile held about 59% of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84%. More interesting, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution, reporting a desire for the top quintile to own just 32% of the wealth. These desires for more equal distributions of wealth took the form of moving money from the top quintile to the bottom three quintiles, while leaving the second quintile unchanged, evincing a greater concern for the less fortunate than the more fortunate.

The next figure reveals that respondents tended to have remarkably similar perceptions of wealth distribution regardless of their income, political affiliation, or gender.  Moreover, all the groups embraced remarkably similar ideal distributions that were far more egalitarian than their estimated ones.

Capitalist wealth dynamics

Wealth inequality has only grown worse since 2005.  As I previously posted, in 2016, the top 10 percent of the population owned 77.1 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 10 percent owned -0.5 percent (they are net debtors).  Even these numbers understate the degree of wealth concentration: the top 1 percent actually owned 38.5 percent of the wealth, more than the bottom 90 percent combined. This was a sharp rise from the 29.9 percent share they held in 1989.

Perhaps more importantly, median household wealth is not only quite small–not nearly enough to provide financial stability and security–but is actually growing smaller over time.  In fact, median household wealth in 2016 was 8 percent below what it had been in 1998.

 

The racial wealth divide

Of course, not all families receive equal treatment or are given similar opportunities for advancement.  While US capitalism works to transfer wealth upwards to the very rich, it has disproportionately exploited families of color.  This is made clear by the results of a 2017 study titled The Road to Zero Wealth by Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, Chuck Collins, Josh Hoxie, and Emanuel Nieves.

As we saw above, median household wealth has been on the decline since 2007, despite the growth in overall economic activity and corporate profits.  The figure below shows median wealth trends for White, Black, and Latino households.

As of 2013, median White household wealth was less than it had been in 1989. However, the wealth decline has been far worse for Black and Latino families.  More specifically, as the authors write:

Since 1983, the respective wealth of Black and Latino families has plunged from $6,800 and $4,000 in 1983 to $1,700 and $2,000 in 2013. These figures exclude durable goods like automobiles and electronics, as these items depreciate quickly in value and do not hold the same liquidity, stability or appreciation of other financial assets like a savings account, a treasury bond or a home.

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, with higher levels of education translating into more income, and then wealth.  But as we see in the figure below, the combination of class policies on top of a history of discrimination and exclusion has left families of color at a significant disadvantage. For example, the median wealth of a family of color with a head of household with 4 year degree is far less than the median wealth of a White family with a head of household with only a high school diploma/GED.

The authors have created their own measure of “middle class wealth,” which they define:

using median White household wealth since it encompasses the full potential of the nation’s wealth-building policies, which have historically excluded households of color. More specifically, we use median White wealth in 1983 ($102,200 in 2013 dollars) as the basis for developing an index that would encompass “middle-class wealth” because it establishes a baseline prior to when increases in wealth were concentrated in a small number of households. Using this approach and applying Pew Research Center’s broad definition of the middle class, this study defines “middle class wealth” as ranging from $68,000 to $204,000.

As we can see in the figure above, only Black and Latino households with an advanced degree make it into that range. Moreover, trends suggest that, without major changes in policy, we can expect further declines in median wealth for households of color.  In fact,

By 2020, if current trends continue as they have been, Black and Latino households at the median are on track to see their wealth decline by 17% and 12% from where they respectively stood in 2013. By then, median White households would see their wealth rise by an additional three percent over today’s levels. In other words, at a time when it’s projected that children of color will make up most of the children in the country, median White households are on track to own 86 and 68 times more wealth, respectively, than Black and Latino households. . . .

Looking beyond 2043, the situation for households of color looks even worse. . . .If unattended, trends at the median suggest Black household wealth will hit zero by 2053. In that same period, median White household wealth is expected to climb to $137,000. The situation isn’t much brighter for Latino households, whose median wealth is expected to reach zero by 2073, just two decades after Black wealth is projected to hit zero. . . . Wealth is an intergenerational asset—its benefits passed down from one generation to the next— and the consequences of these losses will reverberate deeply in the lives of the children and grandchildren of today’s people of color.

Of course, knowledge of the fact that capitalism’s growth largely benefits capitalists, and that people of color pay some of the greatest costs to sustain its forward motion, does not automatically lead to class solidarity and popular opposition to existing accumulation dynamics.  Still, such knowledge does, at a minimum, help people understand that the forces pressing down on them are not the result of individual failure or lack of effort, but rather have systemic roots.  And that is an important step in the right direction.

The Bipartisan Militarization Of The US Federal Budget

The media likes to frame the limits of political struggle as between the Democratic and Republican parties, as if each side upholds a radically different political vision. However, in a number of key areas, leaders of both parties are happy to unite around an anti-worker agenda.  Support for the military and an aggressive foreign policy is one such area.

On September 18, US senators approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2018.  Donald Trump had proposed increasing the military budget by $54 billion.  The Senate voted 89-9 to increase it by $37 billion more than Trump sought.  In the words of the New York Times:  “In a rare act of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, the Senate passed a $700 billion defense policy bill on Monday that sets forth a muscular vision of America as a global power, with a Pentagon budget that far exceeds what President Trump has asked for.”

The NDAA calls for giving $640 billion to the Pentagon for its basic operations and another $60 billion for war operations in other countries, including Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.  The House passed its own version of the bill, which included a smaller increase over Trump’s request as well as new initiatives such as the creation of a Space Corps not supported by the Senate.  Thus, the House and Senate need to reconcile their differences before the bill goes to President Trump for his signature.

It is clear that Democratic Party opposition to Trump does not include opposition to US militarism and imperialism. As Ajamu Baraka points out:

Opposition to Trump has been framed in ways that supports the agenda of the Democratic Party—but not the anti-war agenda. Therefore, anti-Trumpism does not include a position against war and U.S. imperialism.

When the Trump administration proposed what many saw as an obscene request for an additional $54 billion in military spending, we witnessed a momentary negative response from some liberal Democrats. The thinking was that this could be highlighted as yet another one of the supposedly demonic moves by the administration and it was added to the talking points for the Democrats. That was until 117 Democrats voted with Republicans in the House—including a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus—to not only accept the administration’s proposal, but to exceed it by $18 billion. By that point, the Democrats went silent on the issue.

It is important to keep in mind that, as William D. Hartung shows, “there are hundreds of billions of dollars in ‘defense’ spending that aren’t even counted in the Pentagon budget.” Hartung goes agency by agency to show the “hidden” spending.  As he notes:

You might think that the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal — nuclear warheads — would be paid for out of the Pentagon budget.   And you would, of course, be wrong.  The cost of researching, developing, maintaining, and “modernizing” the American arsenal of 6,800 nuclear warheads falls to an obscure agency located inside the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. It also works on naval nuclear reactors, pays for the environmental cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities, and funds the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, at a total annual cost of more than $20 billion per year.

Hartung’s grand total, which includes, among other things, the costs of Homeland Security, foreign military aid, intelligence services, the Veterans Administration, and the interest on the debt generated by past spending on the military, is $1.09 Trillion.  In short, our political leaders are far from forthcoming about the true size of our military spending.

Militarization comes home

Opponents of this huge military budget are right to stress how it greatly increases the dangers of war and the harm our military interventions do to people in other countries, but the costs of militarism are also felt by those living in the United States.

For example, ever escalating military budgets fund ever new and more deadly weapons of destruction, and much of the outdated equipment is sold to police departments, contributing to the militarization of our police and the growing use of force on domestic opponents of administration policies, the poor, and communities of color.  As Lisa Wade explains:

In 1996, the federal government passed a law giving the military permission to donate excess equipment to local police departments. Starting in 1998, millions of dollars worth of equipment was transferred each year, as shown in the figure below. Then, after 9/11, there was a huge increase in transfers. In 2014, they amounted to the equivalent of 796.8  million dollars.

Those concerned about police violence worried that police officers in possession of military equipment would be more likely to use violence against civilians, and new research suggests that they’re right.

Political scientist Casey Delehanty and his colleagues compared the number of civilians killed by police with the monetary value of transferred military equipment across 455 counties in four states. Controlling for other factors (e.g., race, poverty, drug use), they found that killings rose along with increasing transfers. In the case of the county that received the largest transfer of military equipment, killings more than doubled.

Militarization squeezes nondefense social spending 

Growing military spending also squeezes spending on vital domestic social services, including housing, health, education, and employment protections, as critical programs and agencies are starved for funds in the name of fiscal responsibility.

The federal budget is made up of nondiscretionary and discretionary spending.  Nondiscretionary spending is mandated by existing legislation, for example, interest payments on the national debt.  Discretionary spending is not, and thus its allocation among programs clearly reveals Congressional priorities.  The biggest divide in the discretionary budget is between defense and nondefense discretionary spending.

The nondefense discretionary budget is, as explained by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

the main budget area that invests in the nation’s future productivity, supporting education, basic research, job training, and infrastructure.  It also supports priorities such as providing housing and child care assistance to low- and moderate-income families, protecting against infectious diseases, enforcing laws that protect workers and consumers, and caring for national parks and other public lands.  A significant share of this funding comes in the form of grants to state and local governments.

As we see below, nondefense discretionary appropriations have fallen dramatically in real terms and could potentially fall to a low of $516 billion if Congress does not waive the sequestration caps established in 2011.

The decline is even more dramatic when measured relative to GDP.  Under the caps and sequestration currently in place, nondefense spending in 2017 equaled 3.2 percent of GDP, just 0.1 percentage point above the lowest percentage on record going back to 1962.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “That percentage will continue to fall if the caps and sequestration remain unchanged, equaling the previous record low of 3.1 percent in 2018 and then continuing to fall (see the figure below).”

Looking ahead

As the next figure shows, the proposed Trump budget would intensify the attack on federal domestic social programs and agencies.

If approved, it “would take nondefense discretionary spending next year to its lowest level in at least six decades as a percentage of the economy and, by 2027, to its lowest on that basis since the Hoover Administration — possibly even earlier.”  Of course, some categories of the proposed nondefense discretionary budget are slated for growth–veterans’ affairs and homeland security–which means that the squeeze on other programs would be worse than the aggregate numbers suggest.

No doubt the Democratic Party will mount a fierce struggle to resist the worst of Trump’s proposed cuts, and they are likely to succeed.  But the important point is that the trend of militarizing our federal budget and society more generally will likely continue, a trend encouraged by past Democratic as well as Republican administrations.

If we are to advance our movement for social change, we need to do a better job of building a strong grassroots movement in opposition to militarism.  Among other things, that requires us to do a better job communicating all the ways in which militarism sets us back, in particular the ways in which militarism promotes racism and social division, globalization and economic decay, and the deterioration of our environment and quality of life, as well as death abroad and at home, all in the interest of corporate profits.  In other words, we have to find more effective ways of drawing together our various struggles for peace, jobs, and justice.

State Conservatives Block City Progressives

Recently, organizers in a number of cities helped to build strong local coalitions which successfully won passage, either though ballot or elected official vote, of measures that improved majority living and working conditions.  Examples include higher minimum wages as well as fair scheduling, paid leave, and improved prevailing wage laws.

Now, conservative forces, organized by groups such as ALEC, are using their influence in state legislatures to pass preemption laws to block this progressive city strategy and, in some cases, roll back past gains. This development is well described by Marni von Wilpert in a recent Economic Policy Institute report titled “City governments are raising standards for working people—and state legislators are lowering them back down.”

Preemption and the rise of the right

Preemption allows a higher level of government to restrict the power of a lower level of government in areas where it believes that lower level government action conflicts, or might conflict, with its own actions. In terms of state politics, state governments can use preemption to restrict the rights of city governments.

A case in point, as described by von Wilpert:

In 2015, the Birmingham City Council passed an ordinance raising the city’s minimum wage to $8.50 effective July 2016 and to $10.10 effective July 2017. At the beginning of the 2016 session, the Alabama state legislature fast-tracked a minimum wage preemption law, which Governor Robert Bentley signed 16 days after the bill was first introduced, nullifying Birmingham’s ordinance and knocking the minimum wage back down to $7.25

At one time, preemption was used by more liberal state governments to keep more conservative city governments from undercutting social standards.  However, as von Wilpert explains, “Now that the Republican Party controls 33 governorships and has majority representation in both chambers of most state legislatures, conservative state legislators have increasingly used preemption laws to strike down local government efforts to increase the quality of life for working people in their municipalities.”

Preemption and minimum wage laws

The federal minimum wage has not been increased since 2009. In 2017, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 was worth 12 percent less, in real terms, than when it was last raised, and is 27 percent below its peak value in 1968.  Working people have therefore pushed hard to get their states and/or localities to take action, and with growing success at the local level.  “Before 2012, only five localities had enacted their own local minimum wage laws, but as of 2017, forty counties and cities have done so.”

But now, as the following figure from the EPI report makes clear, conservative state lawmakers are fighting back, using preemption to restrict local action.  Twenty-five states now have preemption laws denying local governments the right to set their own minimum wages; more than half of these laws were passed beginning in 2013.

Preemption and paid leave

State level right-wing forces have also taken aim at paid leave laws, which generally include the right to paid sick and family medical leave.  There is no federal law guaranteeing workers the right to paid leave, and, as with minimum wage gains, workers have been most successful in winning paid leave at the local level.  However, as we see in the following figure, state legislatures, since 2013, have been busy denying local governments the right to implement their own higher standards.  Twenty states now have preemption laws covering paid leave.

Preemption and fair scheduling

There are currently no federal laws that ensure workers basic fairness and predictability in scheduling.  As von Wilpert describes,

While waiting for the federal government to act, four cities and two states have passed various forms of fair work schedules legislation. But in the last few years, as local governments have begun to innovate in the arena of fair scheduling, state governments have stripped local governments’ abilities to do so—[as we see in the following figure] at least nine states have passed work scheduling preemption laws since 2015.

Preemption and prevailing wage/project labor agreements

Prevailing wage and project labor agreements require private contractors to treat workers fairly, including paying all their workers the prevailing wage, when doing work under government contract.  Such agreements keep private contractors from competing for public work at the expense of their workers.

And, as in the other areas of labor rights discussed above, we see a similar explosion in action by states to restrict the right of their localities to set higher standards for public contracting. At least 12 states now have preemption laws, all but one of which was passed beginning in 2013.

What’s next?

The current right-wing strategy highlighted above greatly reduces what working people can win at the city level in many states.  Of course, there are still many states where local initiatives can bring real improvement and these should obviously continue.  At the same time, it seems clear that the political environment is changing and not for the better in terms of what local efforts can produce.

While far from easy, this means that organizers have little choice but to deepen and extend their work. Among other things, this means pursuing efforts to link local/city coalitions in order to strengthen state level influence.  It also means that more emphasis needs to be put into building organizations as well as alliances of working people around a vision of good jobs for all, a strong and accountable public sector serving human needs, and healthy cities and communities that is to be won through organizing and direct action as well as electoral work.  Above all,  this will require seeking and sharing creative ways to strengthen working class solidarity, which is key if we are to overcome the existing divisions that allow right-wing forces to set the terms of our political choices.

The Struggle For A Decent Life

The following graphic from the HowMuch webpage puts into sharp relief the difficulties most workers face trying to live a decent life. Drawing on a number of databases, the graphic illustrates, by city, the amount of money a “typical American working-class family” would have at year’s end assuming “a reasonable standard of living.”

As the site explains:

Each bubble represents a city. The color corresponds to the amount of money a typical working-class family would have left over at the end of the year after paying for their living costs, like housing, food and transportation. The darker the shade of red, the worse off you are. The darker the shade of green, the better off you are. The size of the bubble also fits on a sliding scale—large and dark red means the city is totally unaffordable. Bigger dark green bubbles likewise indicate a city where the working class can get by.

The site defines its typical American working-class family as having four members: two adults (both in their 30s) and two children (ages 4 and 8 years).  The adults, who work full-time, have salaries equal to the median city earnings of their assigned professions, home appliance repairer and manicurist.  The family lives on a Department of Agriculture low-cost food plan and rents a 1500 square foot apartment.

It turns out that in only one of the ten largest American cities would it be possible for a working-class family to enjoy a decent standard of living without taking on debt: San Antonio.  Only 12 of the top 50 largest cities would be affordable.

Here are the five worse cities (from a financial perspective) and the debt that would be required for the family to achieve the target standard of living:

  1. New York, NY (-$91,184)
  2. San Francisco, CA (-$83,272)
  3. Boston, MA (-$61,900)
  4. Washington, DC (-$50,535)
  5. Philadelphia, PA (-$37,850)

As Raul, the author of the page notes: “You read that correctly. The typical working-class family would need an additional $91K+ per year in New York City just to break even on a reasonable standard of living.”

Of course, workers can’t run up such debts.  So, they do what they have to do to survive—they abandon any hope of having a reasonable standard of living.  They move far from their workplace and travel long distances to work, seek additional employment, economize further on meals, place their children in less than ideal day care situations, and crowd into small apartments, all of which take their toll.

And with wages continuing to stagnate, the Trump administration determined to slash spending on social services and roll back workplace protections, and a recession looming, the struggle for a decent life is not going to get easier.

The Problem Of Hunger In The US

Food insecurity is a major problem in the US.   The food stamp program–renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2008–helps, but that program is now threatened by the Trump administration.  An organization of the food insecure, echoing the Councils of the Unemployed of the 1930s, may well be needed if we are to make meaningful progress in reducing hunger.

The extent of food insecurity  

The federal government measures food insecurity using a yearly set of questions that are part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS).  The questions asked, as a Hamilton Project study on food insecurity and SNAP explains, are about:

households’ resources available for food and whether adults or children in the household adjusted their food intake—cutting meal size, skipping meals, or going for a day without food—because of lack of money for food. A household is considered to be “food insecure” if, due to a lack of resources, it had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all of its members. The more-severe categorization of “very low food security” status describes those food-insecure households in which members’ food intake was reduced and their normal eating patterns disrupted at some point during the year because of a lack of resources for food. Food insecurity and very low food security are measured at the household level, though questions about adults and children are asked separately.

Officially, 12.7 percent of US households were food insecure in 2015.  Five percent were very low food secure.

The extent of food insecurity is significantly greater in households with children under 18.  As we see below, 16.6 percent of all households with children suffered from food insecurity in 2015.  In more than half of those households, the adults were able to shelter their children.  However, both children and adults were food insecure in 7.8 percent of all households with children.

Food insecurity trends

Food insecurity is a problem in the United States even during periods of economic expansion.  As the following chart shows, more than one in ten households suffered from food insecurity during the growth years of 2001 to 2007.  The percentage of households experiencing food insecurity spiked with the start of the Great Recession and was slow to decline.  Although it is now falling, it is unclear whether it will return to pre-recession levels.

And, not surprisingly, non-white households are far more likely to experience food insecurity than white households.

It is also important to recognize that annual rates of food insecurity tend to minimize the true extent of the problem.  That is because households tend to move into and then out of food insecurity over time.  In other words, it is often a temporary problem.  Thus, many more families will experience food insecurity over a period of time than suggested by the annual numbers.  Of course, even one year of food insecurity can have serious health consequences.

As the Hamilton Institute study notes:

Annual rates of food insecurity mask the extent of the food insecurity problem. Using the Current Population Survey, we can follow large numbers of households across two consecutive years, allowing us to compare food security status over time. In consecutive years during the post-recession period 2008–14, over 24 percent of households with children experienced food insecurity in one or both years: 9 percent of household experienced food insecurity in consecutive years, and an additional 15 percent of households experienced food insecurity in only one of the two years.

SNAP 

SNAP is one of the most important federal responses to food insecurity. To qualify for food stamps, a household needs to earn at or below 130% of the poverty line—or about $26,000 or less a year for a family of three. As of May 2017, 42.3 million people were receiving food stamps. Without the SNAP program, many more people would be experiencing food insecurity.

The following figures show the rise in the number and percentage of people receiving food stamps, and the average monthly food stamp benefit.  The growth in the number of food stamp recipients over the 2001 to 2007 period of economic growth reflects the explosion in inequality and weak job growth.  And the need for food assistance exploded with the Great Recession and has remained high because of the weak economic recovery that has followed.

The challenge ahead

Determined to slash all non-military discretionary programs, President Trump’s proposed budget calls for cutting almost $200 billion over the next decade from the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP program.  That is a cut of approximately 25 percent.

With weak job growth and stagnant wages likely in the years ahead, any cut to the SNAP budget will mean a new spike in hunger, especially for children.  One has to wonder when people will reach their limit and begin to organize and fight back.

Those struggling with food insecurity might well take inspiration from the work of the unemployed councils of the 1930s.  These councils provided a basis for the unemployed to resist rent increases and evictions, as well as fight for public assistance, unemployment insurance, and a public works program.  The councils also strongly supported union organizing efforts, ensuring that the unemployed respected union picket lines.  In return, many unions supported the work of the councils.

The unemployed in the 1930s eventually recognized that their situation was largely the result of the dysfunctional workings of the economic system of the time and they organized to defend their rights and change that system.  Households experiencing hunger today need to develop that same understanding about the root cause of their situation and respond accordingly.

We Need To Once Again Take “The Working Class” Seriously

The great majority of working people in the US have experienced tough times over the last few decades.  And all signs point to the fact that those in power are committed to policies that will mean a further deterioration in majority living and working conditions.

One obvious response to this situation is organizing; working people need strong organizations that are capable of building the broad alliances and advancing the new visions necessary to challenge and transform existing political-economic relationships and institutions. Building such organizations requires, as a first step, both acknowledging the existence of the working class and taking the concerns of its members seriously.

Unfortunately, as Reeve Vanneman shows in a Sociological Images blog post, writers appear to have largely abandoned use of the term “working class.”  One indicator is the trend illustrated in the chart below, which is derived from Google Books’ Ngram Viewer.  The Ngram Viewer is able to display a graph showing how often a particular word or phrase appears in a category of books over selected years.  In this case, the chart below shows how often the two-word phrase “working class” (a bigram) appears as a percentage of all two word phrases used in all books written in American English.

google

As Vanneman explains:

a Google ngram count of the phrase “working class” in American books shows a spike in the Depression Thirties and an even stronger growth from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. But after the mid-1970s, there is a steady decline, implying a lack of discussion just as their problems were growing.

A similar overall trend emerges from “a count of the frequencies of ‘working class’ in the titles or abstracts of articles in the American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review.”  As we see in the chart below, there was a rapid growth in the use of the phrase from the late 1950s through most of the 1960s, followed by a slow but steady decline until the mid-1980s, and then, after a brief resurgence, a dramatic fall off in its use.

sociology

As Vanneman comments: “These articles on the working class were not insignificant; even through the 21st century, the authors include a number of ASA presidents. But overall, working-class issues seem to have lost their salience, as if even American sociology was also telling them that they didn’t matter.”

While there is no simple relationship between working class activism and scholarship on the working class, the synergy is important.  Now is the time to take working class issues seriously.  Given current trends, we desperately need a revival of labor activism and the development of labor-community alliances around issues such as housing, health care, discrimination, and the environment.  And we also need new scholarship that shines a light on as well as engages the challenges of our time from a working class standpoint.