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Tomgram: Kramer and Comerford, Shutting Down Americans

7:17 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.


Shutdown Button

While this country’s creditor nations twitched, the global bankers were worried, too, and in campaign mode. In Washington for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund, a number of them were predicting that a congressional unwillingness to raise the debt ceiling could take down what global “recovery” there had been since the Great Recession. In the meantime, here we were, yet again teetering at the edge of “the cliff.” And what a strange spectacle these last weeks have been! Yes, we all know that there are deep-seated problems in this country, that infrastructure is crumbling, school systems starved for resources, the gap between rich and poor growing, poverty on the rise, and manufacturing jobs still leaving town. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that, absent the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, we would have been at the edge of any cliff at all.

The spectacle of these last weeks has been thoroughly ginned up, as fictional as the plot of any Hollywood disaster film. But here’s the thing: when, a few months from now, the debt-ceiling and government shutdown issues return like the walking dead and threaten once again to step off that cliff, what could follow would not be fiction and it would be unpredictable. Real life, unlike Hollywood, is that way. For all any of us know, it could take the global financial system down with it and someday historians would wonder just how such a catastrophe could have been created out of thin air.

But we’re not historians of the future, are we? Nor have we simply been spectators at a congressional disaster flick, even if, as TomDispatch regulars Mattea Kramer and Jo Comerford of the invaluable National Priorities Project point out today, we’ve been acting that way.  Already, as the government “shutdown” unfolded, a startling number of perfectly real Americans found their lives swept up in the House’s fiction, while the economy, too, took a hit. Let’s hope that, before it’s over in 2014 or beyond, we won’t all discover that, willy-nilly, we’ve been swept into that same film as extras in the crowd scenes, and that, peering into the fog on the horizon of our future, we won’t suddenly see the first shadowy, lurching figures staggering toward us. Tom

What Was “Essential” and What Wasn’t
The Government Shutdown in Perspective Read the rest of this entry →

Barbara Garson, How to Become a Part-Time Worker Without Really Trying

7:10 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Down the Up Escalator

Barbara Gerson’s book explains how corporations used the recession to hurt workers.

Bad news out of Bentonville. On Thursday, Walmart, the American retail behemoth, announced that it had slumped through another quarter. Sales were sluggish, and a Walmart executive said the company was downgrading expectations for the rest of 2013. The reason? “The customer doesn’t quite have the discretionary income, or they’re hesitant to spend what they do have,” said Charles Holley, Walmart’s chief financial officer.

There is a cutting irony at play here. Yes, one effect of the great recession was to put many people out of work, or to relegate them to part-time status. And yes, the expiration of the payroll tax cut earlier this year took money out of the pockets of millions of Americans. Yet wages for working Americans flatlined long before the financial crisis, and Walmart is one reason for that. Because of its size and buying power, Walmart sets the standard for much of the big-box retail industry and the retailer is infamous for paying low wages. The company says the average wage for a full-time Walmart worker in the U.S. is $12.78 an hour, but the business research firm IBISWorld pegs it at closer to $9.  In addition, it generally allots its “associates” less than 40 hours of work a week. In Washington, D.C., Walmart has threatened to cancel plans to build three new stores and possibly close three more stores due to open if the city passes an ordinance mandating that the retailer pay a “living wage” of $12.50 an hour.

In other words, the type of person who shops at Walmart today has less money to shop at Walmart — because of, among other things, Walmart.

Today, Barbara Garson, author of the book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession, writes about how the tactics Walmart has used for years to cut costs and goose profits – cutting employees’ hours and keeping wages down – are spreading as the U.S. economy limps back to health. It’s nothing for the executives in the corner offices to fret about: after all, Walmart CEO Mike Duke earned $20.7 million in 2012, a sum so large it would take a Walmart employee earning $12 an hour 785 years to match Duke’s compensation. So it goes in post-recession America. Andy Kroll

Abracadabra: You’re a Part-Timer
How Corporate America Used the Great Recession to Turn Good Jobs Into Bad Ones 
By Barbara Garson

Watch closely: I’m about to demystify the sleight-of-hand by which good jobs were transformed into bad jobs, full-time workers with benefits into freelancers with nothing, during the dark days of the Great Recession.

First, be aware of what a weird economic downturn and recovery this has been.  From the end of an “average” American recession, it ordinarily takes slightly less than a year to reach or surpass the previous employment peak.  But in June 2013 — four full years after the official end of the Great Recession — we had recovered only 6.6 million jobs, or just three-quarters of the 8.7 million jobs we lost.

Here’s the truly mysterious aspect of this “recovery”: 21% of the jobs lost during the Great Recession were low wage, meaning they paid $13.83 an hour or less.  But 58% of the jobs regained fall into that category. A common explanation for that startling statistic is that the bad jobs are coming back first and the good jobs will follow.

But let me suggest another explanation: the good jobs are here among us right now — it’s just their wages, their benefits, and the long-term security that have vanished.

Consider the experiences of two workers I initially interviewed for my book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession and you’ll see just how some companies used the recession to accomplish this magician’s disappearing trick.

Freelance Nation

Ina Bromberg genuinely likes to outfit people.  Trim and well dressed herself, Ina sells petites at the Madison Avenue flagship store of a designer brand boutique with several hundred outlets.  Even I had heard of the label.  I had to ask what its exact place in the fashion hierarchy was, though.  “We fall into a niche below Barney’s-Bergdorf-Chanel,” she explained.

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Noam Chomsky: A Rebellious World or a New Dark Age?

6:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If you had followed May Day protests in New York City in the mainstream media, you might hardly have noticed that they happened at all. The stories were generally tucked away, minimalist, focused on a few arrests, and spoke of “hundreds” of protesters in the streets, or maybe, if a reporter was feeling especially generous, a vague “thousands.” I did my own rough count on the largest of the Occupy protests that day. It left Union Square in the evening heading for the Wall Street area. I walked through the march front to back, figuring a couple of thousand loosely packed protesters to a block, and came up with a conservative estimate of 15,000 people. Maybe it wasn’t the biggest protest of all time, but sizeable enough given that Occupy, an organization without strong structures but once strongly located, had been (quite literally) pushed or even beaten out of its camps in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere across the country and toward oblivion.

Mayday Rally in Maldives. Photo by Dying Regime.

It’s true that if you were checking out the Nation or Mother Jones, you would have gotten a more accurate sense of what was going on. Still, didn’t the great protest movement of our American moment (on a planet still in upheaval) deserve better that day? And no matter what you read in the mainstream, here’s what you would have known nothing about: this country is increasingly an armed camp and those marchers, remarkably relaxed and peaceable, were heading out into a concentration of police that was staggering and should have been startling.

Cops on motor scooters patroled the edges of the march, which was hemmed in by the usual moveable metal barricades. Police helicopters buzzed us at rooftop level. The police managed to alter the actual path of the marchers partway along and the police turnout — I estimated up to 75 cops, three deep on some street corners doing nothing but collecting overtime — was little short of incomprehensible.

Though Occupy marchers used to chant, “Whose streets, our streets!” it was never so. The streets belong to the police. If this is the democracy and freedom to dissent that American officials constantly proclaim to the world as one of our core values, then pinch me. If most of it is even legal, I’d be surprised. But when it comes to legality, we’re past all that. So any march on a sunny day is instantly imprisoned, and the protesters turned into a captive audience. When young people break out of the barricades and the serried ranks of cops and head in unexpected directions, it has the unmistakable feel of a jailbreak.

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Fraser and Freeman: Creating a Prison-Corporate Complex

6:46 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Photo by Bob Jagendorf.

As cash-starved state governments scrape their way through this so-called recovery, they might as well hang signs with this message on their capitals: “Everything must go.” States are hemorrhaging workers and selling off assets at a startling rate as they grapple with anemic tax revenues and dwindling federal dollars. So dire are the states’ economic woes that, in recent years, they’ve begun offloading a more unusual type of property: prisons.

That’s right — states are so broke they’ve resorted to selling off their correctional facilities (with the prisoners inside) as a way to cut costs and make ends meet. In 2011, for instance, Ohio sold one of its prisons for $73 million to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the country. And make no mistake: CCA and its ilk are eager buyers. As the Huffington Post reported in February, CCA sent a letter to 48 governors offering to buy — not just manage, but acquire entirely — prisons in their states. The company said it had earmarked $250 million for buying and running state-owned prisons as part of a “corrections investment initiative.”

But CCA, to borrow a trope from journalism, buried the “lede” in the governors’ letter. The real head-snapping revelation appeared in the third-to-last paragraph: in exchange for buying a state’s prison, CCA required that the state prison agency ensure that the prison remained at least 90% full. Translation: We’ll buy your prisons and keep ‘em orderly and clean, so as long you keep the prisoners coming in.

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Barbara & John Ehrenreich: The Making of the American 99%

7:20 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

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You might almost think the news was good.  The Europeans, so headlines tell us, have at least a “partial solution” to the Euro-zone crisis (until, of course, the next round of panic is upon us); the stock market has sort of rebounded (until the next precipitous plunge); the unemployment rate “dropped sharply” to 8.6% in November, the lowest it’s been in more than two years (thanks in part to the strangest category around — the 315,000 people who grew too discouraged last month to look for work and so were no longer considered unemployed but out of the labor force); and talk of a double-dip recession seems on holiday.  So why pay attention to the modest-sized Associated Press story you were likely to find, if at all, deep inside your newspaper (as on page 21 of last Friday’s Washington Post)? It was headlined “Household wealth down in 3rd quarter,” with the telling subhead, “Corporate cash continues to grow, Fed report says.”

Still, if you wanted to sum up the growing gap between the 1% and the 99%, you couldn’t ask for better.  In fact, household wealth wasn’t just “down” 4%, it was the “biggest loss of wealth” for Americans “in more than two years,” and those corporate cash stockpiles didn’t simply continue to grow, they reached “record levels” at $2.1 trillion.  Since American wealth is deeply linked to homeownership, the fact that “most economists expect home prices to keep falling” wasn’t exactly good news, nor when it came to pensions and retirement was the July-to-September 12% drop in “the average balance in 401(k) plans managed by Fidelity Investments, the largest workplace savings plan provider.”  In sum, the average American household managed to lose $21,000 dollars in those three months, a total loss in household wealth of $2.4 trillion.

You might think that would make front pages nationwide, but we’re evidently too busy dealing with complex subjects like whether the $10,000 bet offered by Mitt Romney, the $202 million man, during Saturday’s Republican debate meant he was “out of touch” with normal Americans.  In the meantime, TomDispatch regular Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich unerringly home in on a fast-changing American reality first brought to national attention by Occupy Wall Street: that, as the middle class goes down the chute, we’re left in a world in which 99% “R” Us.  This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and will appear in print in the latest issue of that magazine. Tom

The Making of the American 99%
And the Collapse of the Middle Class

By Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich

Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

– E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

The “other men” (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1% of the wealth distribution — the bankers, hedge-fund managers, and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they only began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “super-rich,” in recent years.

Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000 square-foot mansions, $25,000 chocolate desserts embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007-2008, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1% to whom we had entrusted our pensions, our economy, and our political system stood revealed as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.

Still, until a few months ago, the 99% was hardly a group capable of (as Thompson says) articulating “the identity of their interests.” It contained, and still contains, most “ordinary” rich people, along with middle-class professionals, factory workers, truck drivers, and miners, as well as the much poorer people who clean the houses, manicure the fingernails, and maintain the lawns of the affluent.

It was divided not only by these class differences, but most visibly by race and ethnicity — a division that has actually deepened since 2008. African-Americans and Latinos of all income levels disproportionately lost their homes to foreclosure in 2007 and 2008, and then disproportionately lost their jobs in the wave of layoffs that followed.  On the eve of the Occupy movement, the black middle class had been devastated. In fact, the only political movements to have come out of the 99% before Occupy emerged were the Tea Party movement and, on the other side of the political spectrum, the resistance to restrictions on collective bargaining in Wisconsin.

But Occupy could not have happened if large swaths of the 99% had not begun to discover some common interests, or at least to put aside some of the divisions among themselves. For decades, the most stridently promoted division within the 99% was the one between what the right calls the “liberal elite” — composed of academics, journalists, media figures, etc. — and pretty much everyone else.

As Harper’s Magazine columnist Tom Frank has brilliantly explained, the right earned its spurious claim to populism by targeting that “liberal elite,” which supposedly favors reckless government spending that requires oppressive levels of taxes, supports “redistributive” social policies and programs that reduce opportunity for the white middle class, creates ever more regulations (to, for instance, protect the environment) that reduce jobs for the working class, and promotes kinky countercultural innovations like gay marriage. The liberal elite, insisted conservative intellectuals, looked down on “ordinary” middle- and working-class Americans, finding them tasteless and politically incorrect. The “elite” was the enemy, while the super-rich were just like everyone else, only more “focused” and perhaps a bit better connected.

Of course, the “liberal elite” never made any sociological sense. Not all academics or media figures are liberal (Newt Gingrich, George Will, Rupert Murdoch). Many well-educated middle managers and highly trained engineers may favor latte over Red Bull, but they were never targets of the right. And how could trial lawyers be members of the nefarious elite, while their spouses in corporate law firms were not?

A Greased Chute, Not a Safety Net

“Liberal elite” was always a political category masquerading as a sociological one. What gave the idea of a liberal elite some traction, though, at least for a while, was that the great majority of us have never knowingly encountered a member of the actual elite, the 1% who are, for the most part, sealed off in their own bubble of private planes, gated communities, and walled estates.

The authority figures most people are likely to encounter in their daily lives are teachers, doctors, social workers, and professors. These groups (along with middle managers and other white-collar corporate employees) occupy a much lower position in the class hierarchy.  They made up what we described in a 1976 essay as the “professional managerial class.” As we wrote at the time, on the basis of our experience of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, there have been real, longstanding resentments between the working-class and middle-class professionals. These resentments, which the populist right cleverly deflected toward “liberals,” contributed significantly to that previous era of rebellion’s failure to build a lasting progressive movement.

As it happened, the idea of the “liberal elite” could not survive the depredations of the 1% in the late 2000s. For one thing, it was summarily eclipsed by the discovery of the actual Wall Street-based elite and their crimes. Compared to them, professionals and managers, no matter how annoying, were pikers. The doctor or school principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker might be condescending, but only the 1% took your house away.

There was, as well, another inescapable problem embedded in the right-wing populist strategy: even by 2000, and certainly by 2010, the class of people who might qualify as part of the “liberal elite” was in increasingly bad repair. Public-sector budget cuts and corporate-inspired reorganizations were decimating the ranks of decently paid academics, who were being replaced by adjunct professors working on bare subsistence incomes. Media firms were shrinking their newsrooms and editorial budgets. Law firms had started outsourcing their more routine tasks to India. Hospitals beamed X-rays to cheap foreign radiologists. Funding had dried up for nonprofit ventures in the arts and public service. Hence the iconic figure of the Occupy movement: the college graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts and a job paying about $10 a hour, or no job at all.

These trends were in place even before the financial crash hit, but it took the crash and its grim economic aftermath to awaken the 99% to a widespread awareness of shared danger. In 2008, “Joe the Plumber’s” intention to earn a quarter-million dollars a year still had some faint sense of plausibility. A couple of years into the recession, however, sudden downward mobility had become the mainstream American experience, and even some of the most reliably neoliberal media pundits were beginning to announce that something had gone awry with the American dream.

Once-affluent people lost their nest eggs as housing prices dropped off cliffs. Laid-off middle-aged managers and professionals were staggered to find that their age made them repulsive to potential employers. Medical debts plunged middle-class households into bankruptcy. The old conservative dictum — that it was unwise to criticize (or tax) the rich because you might yourself be one of them someday — gave way to a new realization that the class you were most likely to migrate into wasn’t the rich, but the poor.

And here was another thing many in the middle class were discovering: the downward plunge into poverty could occur with dizzying speed. One reason the concept of an economic 99% first took root in America rather than, say, Ireland or Spain is that Americans are particularly vulnerable to economic dislocation. We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free-fall. Unemployment benefits do not last more than six months or a year, though in a recession they are sometimes extended by Congress. At present, even with such an extension, they reach only about half the jobless. Welfare was all but abolished 15 years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment.

In fact, once an American starts to slip downward, a variety of forces kick in to help accelerate the slide. An estimated 60% of American firms now check applicants’ credit ratings, and discrimination against the unemployed is widespread enough to have begun to warrant Congressional concern. Even bankruptcy is a prohibitively expensive, often crushingly difficult status to achieve. Failure to pay government-imposed fines or fees can even lead, through a concatenation of unlucky breaks, to an arrest warrant or a criminal record. Where other once-wealthy nations have a safety net, America offers a greased chute, leading down to destitution with alarming speed.

Making Sense of the 99%

The Occupation encampments that enlivened approximately 1,400 cities this fall provided a vivid template for the 99%’s growing sense of unity. Here were thousands of people — we may never know the exact numbers — from all walks of life, living outdoors in the streets and parks, very much as the poorest of the poor have always lived: without electricity, heat, water, or toilets. In the process, they managed to create self-governing communities.

General assembly meetings brought together an unprecedented mix of recent college graduates, young professionals, elderly people, laid-off blue-collar workers, and plenty of the chronically homeless for what were, for the most part, constructive and civil exchanges. What started as a diffuse protest against economic injustice became a vast experiment in class building. The 99%, which might have seemed to be a purely aspirational category just a few months ago, began to will itself into existence.

Can the unity cultivated in the encampments survive as the Occupy movement evolves into a more decentralized phase?  All sorts of class, racial, and cultural divisions persist within that 99%, including distrust between members of the former “liberal elite” and those less privileged. It would be surprising if they didn’t. The life experience of a young lawyer or a social worker is very different from that of a blue-collar worker whose work may rarely allow for biological necessities like meal or bathroom breaks. Drum circles, consensus decision-making, and masks remain exotic to at least the 90%. “Middle class” prejudice against the homeless, fanned by decades of right-wing demonization of the poor, retains much of its grip.

Sometimes these differences led to conflict in Occupy encampments — for example, over the role of the chronically homeless in Portland or the use of marijuana in Los Angeles — but amazingly, despite all the official warnings about health and safety threats, there was no “Altamont moment”: no major fires and hardly any violence.  In fact, the encampments engendered almost unthinkable convergences: people from comfortable backgrounds learning about street survival from the homeless, a distinguished professor of political science discussing horizontal versus vertical decision-making with a postal worker, military men in dress uniforms showing up to defend the occupiers from the police.

Class happens, as Thompson said, but it happens most decisively when people are prepared to nourish and build it. If the “99%” is to become more than a stylish meme, if it’s to become a force to change the world, eventually we will undoubtedly have to confront some of the class and racial divisions that lie within it. But we need to do so patiently, respectfully, and always with an eye to the next big action — the next march, or building occupation, or foreclosure fight, as the situation demands.

Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch regular, is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (now in a 10th anniversary edition with a new afterword).

John Ehrenreich is professor of psychology at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He wrote The Humanitarian Companion: A Guide for International Aid, Development, and Human Rights Workers.

This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print at the Nation magazine.

Copyright 2011 Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich

Andy Kroll: Flat-Lining the Middle Class

6:35 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

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Food pantries picked over. Incomes drying up. Shelters bursting with the homeless. Job seekers spilling out the doors of employment centers. College grads moving back in with their parents. The angry and disillusioned filling the streets.

Pan your camera from one coast to the other, from city to suburb to farm and back again, and you’ll witness scenes like these. They are the legacy of the Great Recession, the Lesser Depression, or whatever you choose to call it.

In recent months, a blizzard of new data, the hardest of hard numbers, has laid bare the dilapidated condition of the American economy, and particularly of the once-mighty American middle class. Each report sparks a flurry of news stories and pundit chatter, but never much reflection on what it all means now that we have just enough distance to look back on the first decade of the twenty-first century and see how Americans fared in that turbulent period.

And yet the verdict couldn’t be more clear-cut. For the American middle class, long the pride of this country and the envy of the world, the past 10 years were a bust. A washout. A decade from hell.


Paychecks shrank. Household wealth melted away like so many sandcastles swept off by the incoming tide. Poverty spiked, swallowing an ever-greater share of the population, young and old. “This is truly a lost decade,” Harvard University economist Lawrence Katz said of these last years. “We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”

Poverty Swallows America 

Not even a full year has passed and yet the signs of wreckage couldn’t be clearer. It’s as if Hurricane Irene had swept through the American economy. Consider this statistic: between 1999 and 2009, the net jobs gain in the American workforce was zero. In the six previous decades, the number of jobs added rose by at least 20% per decade.

Then there’s income. In 2010, the average middle-class family took home $49,445, a drop of $3,719 or 7%, in yearly earnings from 10 years earlier. In other words, that family now earns the same amount as in 1996. After peaking in 1999, middle-class income dwindled through the early years of the George W. Bush presidency, climbing briefly during the housing boom, then nosediving in its aftermath.

In this lost decade, according to economist Jared Bernstein, poor families watched their income shrivel by 12%, falling from $13,538 to $11,904. Even families in the 90th percentile of earners suffered a 1% percent hit, dropping on average from $141,032 to $138,923. Only among the staggeringly wealthy was this not a lost decade: the top 1% of earners enjoyed 65% of all income growth in America for much of the decade, one hell of a run, only briefly interrupted by the financial meltdown of 2008 and now, by the look of things, back on track.

The swelling ranks of the American poor tell an even more dismal story. In September, the Census Bureau rolled out its latest snapshot of poverty in the United States, counting more than 46 million men, women, and children among this country’s poor. In other words, 15.1% of all Americans are now living in officially defined poverty, the most since 1993. (Last year, the poverty line for a family of four was set at $22,113; for a single working-age person, $11,334.) Unlike in the lost decade, the poverty rate decreased for much of the 1990s, and in 2000 was at about 11%.

Even before the housing market imploded, during the post-dot-com-bust years of “recovery” from 2001 to 2007, poverty figures were the worst for any recovery on record, according to Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Brookings Institution, meanwhile, predicts that the ranks of the poor will continue to grow steadily during the years of the Great Recession, which officially began in December 2007, and are expected to reach 50 million by 2015, almost 10 million more than in 2007.

Hitting similar record highs are the numbers of “deep” poor, Americans living way below the poverty line. In 2010, 20.5 million people, or 6.7% of all Americans, scraped by with less than $11,157 for a family of four — that is, less than half of the poverty line.

The ranks of the poor are no longer concentrated in inner cities or ghettos in the country’s major urban areas as in decades past. Poverty has now exploded in the suburbs. Last year, more than 15 million suburbanites — or one-third of all poor Americans — fell below the poverty line, an increase of 11.5% from the previous year.

This is a development of the last decade. Those suburbs, once the symbol of by-the-bootstraps mobility and economic prosperity in America, saw poverty spike by 53% since 2000.  Four of the ten poorest suburbs in America — Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, and Modesto — sit side by side on a map of California’s Central Valley like a row of broken knuckles.  The poor are also concentrated in border towns like El Paso and McAllen, Texas, and urban areas cratered by the housing crash like Fort Myers and Lakeland, Florida.

The epidemic of poverty has hit minorities especially hard. According to Census data, between 2009 and 2010 alone the black poverty rate jumped from 25% to 27%. For Hispanics, it climbed from 25% to 26%, and for whites, from 9.4% to 9.9%. At 16.4 million, more children now live in poverty than at any time since 1962.  Put another way, 22% of kids currently live below the poverty line, a 17-year record.

America’s lost decade also did a remarkable job of destroying the wealth of nonwhite families, the Pew Research Center reported in July. Between 2005 and 2009, the household wealth of a typical black family dropped off a cliff, plunging by a whopping 53%; for a typical Hispanic family, it was even worse, at 66%. For white middle-class households, losses on average totaled “only” 16%.

Here’s a more eye-opening way to look at it: in 2009, the median wealth for a white family was $113,149, for a black family $5,677, and for a Hispanic family $6,325. The second half of the lost decade, in other words, laid ruin to whatever wealth was possessed by blacks and Hispanics — largely home ownership devastated by the popping of the housing bubble.

The New Lost Decade

As for this decade, less than two years in, we already know that the news isn’t likely to be much better. The problems that plagued Americans in the previous decade show little sign of improvement.

Take the jobs market. Tally the number of jobs eliminated since the recession began and also the labor market’s failure to create enough jobs to keep up with normal population growth, and you’re left with an 11.2 million jobs deficit, a chasm between where the economy should be and where it is now. Filling that gap is the key to any recovery, but to do so by mid-2016 would mean adding 280,000 jobs a month — a pipe dream in an economy limping along creating an average of just 35,000 jobs a month for the past three months. Unless the country’s jobs engine were somehow jump-started, 11.2 million jobs in this decade would be a real stretch.

But few in Congress, and none of the controlling Republican politicians, will even think about using the jumper cables. President Obama’s relatively modest American Jobs Act, for instance, was declared a corpse on arrival at the House of Representatives. On Monday, a reporter asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), “The $447 billion jobs package as a package: dead?” Yes, Cantor assured him, indeed it was.

The president and his administration watch despondently from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. And for the majority of Americans, a jobless “recovery” exacts an ever-greater toll on their earnings, their families, their health, their basic ability to make ends meet.

The question on many economists’ minds is: Will the U.S. slump into a double-dip recession? But for so many Americans living outside the political and media hothouses of Washington and New York, this question is silly.  After all, how can the economy tumble back into recession if it never left in the first place?

No one can say for certain how many years will pass before America regains anything like its pre-recession swagger — and even then, there’s little to suggest that the devastating effects of the middle class’s lost decade won’t have changed this country in ways that will prove permanent, or that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else will do anything but increase in good times or bad in the decade to come. The deep polarization between the very rich and everyone else has been decades in the making and is a global phenomenon. Reversing it could be the task of a lifetime.

In the meantime, the middle class has flat-lined. Life support is nowhere close to arriving. One lost decade may have ended, but the next one has likely only begun.

Andy Kroll is a staff reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine and an associate editor at TomDispatch. He writes about the economy and national politics, and has appeared on MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, and Countdown with Keith Olbermann.

Copyright 2011 Andy Kroll

Tomgram: Fraser and Freeman, Taps for the Unemployed

5:39 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at

On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, this country is once again focused 24/7 on a single disaster that tore up one field in Pennsylvania, destroyed part of the Pentagon, and took down three giant buildings in New York City.  Almost three thousand people died in the process and the American economy took a temporary hit. 

Bells will ring, names will be solemnly read off, moments of silence will be observed, a memorial will be opened and consecrated, and casualties of every sort will be remembered and honored.  For the disasters that have occurred since September 11, 2001, the ones that are so much a part of our post-9/11 world, there will, however, be no bells, no lists of names, no moments of silence, few memories (in our world at least), and no museums or memorials

That applies to the hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, the millions sent into exile, and the resulting stunted and ravaged lives.  It applies no less to those casualties of the Great Meltdown of 2008, which the same administration that drove us into the Afghan and Iraq disasters had such a hand in causing.  As I write this, the unemployment rate officially stands at 9.1% (and if you include those too discouraged to look for work and those who are working part-time when they want full-time jobs, heading for 17%.)  Last month saw zero job growth and no expert seems to think that there is anything better in store for this country in 2012. 

Yet another Labor Day holiday has passed, little noted except for its traffic jams, even though, for growing numbers of Americans, every day is (un)Labor Day and it’s no vacation.  Think of this, in fact, as our country’s economic 9/11 — the people taken down by the crew that hijacked our economy and ran it into the nearest set of buildings.  In this case, however, tower after tower has already collapsed, and more are shuddering, while millions of previously employed Americans are now the equivalent of desperate internal exiles in their own country.  It’s a slo-mo catastrophe for which, startlingly, the first responders have not yet arrived and show no signs of ever doing so.

As TomDispatch regulars Steve Fraser and Josh Freeman point out, the most surprising aspect of all of this, given our past history, is how little upset it’s caused. Tom  


Uncle Sam Does(n’t) Want You
America’s Reserve Army of Labor Marches Through Time

By Steve Fraser and Josh Freeman

Not long ago, the city council of Ventura, California, passed an ordinance making it legal for the unemployed and homeless to sleep in their cars.  At the height of the Great Recession of 2008, one third of the capital equipment of the American economy lay idle.  Of the women and men idled along with that equipment, only 37% got a government unemployment check and that check, on average, represented only 35% of their weekly wages. 

Meanwhile, there are now two million ”99ers” — those who have maxed out their supplemental unemployment benefits because they have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. Think of them as a full division in “the reserve army of labor.”  That “army,” in turn, accounts for 17% of the American labor force, if one includes part-time workers who need and want full-time work and the millions of unemployed Americans who have grown so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for jobs and so aren’t counted in the official unemployment figures.  As is its historic duty, that force of idle workers is once again driving down wages, lengthening working hours, eroding on-the-job conditions, and adding an element of raw fear to the lives of anyone still lucky enough to have a job.

No one volunteers to serve in this army.  But anyone, from Silicon Valley engineers to Florida tomato pickers, is eligible to join what, in our time, might be thought of as the all-involuntary force.  Its mission is to make the world safe for capitalism. Today, with the world spiraling into a second “Great Recession” (even if few, besides the banks, ever noticed that the first one had ended), its ranks are bound to grow.

The All-Involuntary Army (of Labor)

As has always been true, the coexistence of idling workplaces and cast-off workers remains the single most severe indictment of capitalism as a system for the reproduction of human society.  The arrival of a new social category — “the 99ers” — punctuates that grim observation today. 

After all, what made the Great Depression “great” was not only the staggering level of unemployment (no less true in various earlier periods of economic collapse), but its duration.  Years went by, numbingly, totally demoralizingly, without work or hope.  When it all refused to end, people began to question the fundamentals, to wonder if, as a system, capitalism hadn’t outlived its usefulness. 

Nowadays, the 99ers notwithstanding, we don’t readily jump to such a conclusion.  Along with the “business cycle,” including stock market bubbles and busts and other economic perturbations, unemployment has been normalized.  No one thinks it’s a good thing, of course, but it’s certainly not something that should cause us to question the way the economy is organized.

Long gone are the times when unemployment was so shocking and traumatic that it took people back to the basics.  We don’t, for instance, even use that phrase “the reserve army of labor” anymore.  It strikes many, along with “class struggle” and “working class,” as embarrassing.  It’s too “Marxist” or anachronistic in an age of post-industrial flexible capitalism, when we’ve grown accustomed to the casualness and transience of work, or even anointed it as a form of “free agency.” 

However, long before leftists began referring to the unemployed as a reserve army, that redolent metaphor was regularly wielded by anxious or angry nineteenth century journalists, government officials, town fathers, governors, churchmen, and other concerned citizens.  Something new was happening, they were sure, even if they weren’t entirely clear on what to make of it.

Unemployment as a recurring feature of the social landscape only caught American attention with the rise of capitalism in the pre-Civil War era.  Before that, even if the rhythms of agricultural and village life included seasonal oscillations between periods of intense labor and downtime, farmers and handicraftsmen generally retained the ability to sustain their families. 

Hard times were common enough, but except in extremis most people retained land and tools, not to speak of common rights to woodlands, grazing areas, and the ability to hunt and fish.  They were — we would say today — “self-employed.”  Only when such means of subsistence and production became concentrated in the hands of merchant-capitalists, manufacturers, and large landowners did the situation change fundamentally.  A proletariat — those without property of any kind except their own labor power — made its appearance, dependent on the propertied to employ them.  If, for whatever reason, the market for their labor power dried up, they were set adrift.

This process of dispossession lasted more than a century.  In the early decades of the nineteenth century, its impact remained limited.  The farmers, handicraftsmen, fishermen, and various tradespeople swept into the new textile or shoe factories, or the farm women set to work out in the countryside spinning and weaving for merchant capitalists still held onto some semblance of their old ways of life. They maintained vegetable gardens, continued to hunt and fish, and perhaps kept a few domestic animals. 

When the first commercial panics erupted in the 1830s and 1850s and business came to a standstill, many could fall back on pre-capitalist ways of making a living, even if a bare one.  Still, the first regiments of the reserve army of the unemployed had made their appearance.  Jobless men were already roaming the roads, an alarming new sight for townspeople not used to such things.

Demobilizing the Workforce Becomes the New Norm

When industrial capitalism exploded after the Civil War, unemployment suddenly became a chronic and frightening aspect of modern life affecting millions.  Panics and depressions now occurred with distressing frequency. Their randomness, severity, and duration (some lasted half a decade or more) only swelled the ranks of the reserve army.  Crushing helplessness in the face of unemployment would be a devastating new experience for the great waves of immigrants just landing on American shores, many of them peasants from southern and eastern Europe accustomed to falling back on their own meager resources in fields and forests when times were bad.

The very presence of this “army” of able-bodied but destitute workers seemed to catch the essential savagery of the new economy and it stunned onlookers.  The “tramp” became a ubiquitous figure, travelling the roads and rails, sometimes carrying his tools with him, desperate for work.  He proved a threatening specter for villagers and city people alike. 

Just as shocking was a growing realization — made undeniable by each dismal repetition of the business cycle — that the new industrial economy wasn’t just producing that reserve army, but depended on its regular mobilization and demobilization to carry on the process of capital accumulation. It was no passing phenomenon, no natural disaster that would run its course.  It was the new normal. 

Initial reactions were varied and dramatic.  Local governments rushed to pass punitive laws against tramping and vagrancy, mandating terms of six months to two years of hard labor in workhouses.  Meanwhile, the orthodox thinking of that moment raised steep barriers to government aid for those in need.  During the devastating depression of the 1870s, for instance, President Ulysses Grant’s Secretary of the Treasury put things succinctly: “It is not part of the business of government to find employment for people.”

Punishment and studied indifference were, however, by no means the only responses as emergency relief efforts — some private, some public — became common.  The ravaging effects of unemployment, the way it spread like a plague, and its chronic reappearance also put more radical measures on the agenda, proposals that questioned the viability and morality of what was then termed the “wages system.”

Calls went out to colonize vacant land and establish state-run factories and farms to productively re-employ the idled.  Infuriated throngs occupied state houses demanding public works. Elements of the labor and populist movements advocated manufacturing and agricultural cooperatives as a way around the ruthlessness of the Darwinian free market. Business “trusts” or monopolies were often decried for driving other businesses under and so exacerbating the unemployment dilemma.  In some cases, their nationalization was called for.   Militants of the moment began to demand work not as a sop to the indigent, but as a right of citizenship, as precious and inviolable as anything in the Bill of Rights.

The greatest and most prolonged mass mobilization of the mid-1880s was the national movement for the eight-hour work day.  It was animated partly by a desire for more leisure time, but also by a vain hope that its passage by Congress might effectively raise wages. (Industrialists, however, had no intention of paying the same amount for eight hours of work as they had for 12.)  Its main impetus, though, was a belief that mandating a national reduction in the hours of work would spread jobs around and so diminish the ranks of the reserve army. 

Some were convinced that capitalism’s appetite for human labor was too voracious for business ever to agree to such limits.  So long as the business cycle was on its upward arc, the compulsion to exploit labor power was insatiable.  When the market went south, all that surplus humanity could be left to fend for itself.  Its partisans nonetheless believed that the movement for an eight-hour day would expose the barbarism of the economic system for all to see, opening the door to something more humane.

In other words, a wide spectrum of responses to unemployment was enfolded within a broad and growing anti-capitalist culture.  Within the organized labor movement, that proto-union, the Knights of Labor, was immersed in the idea of an anti-capitalist insurgency.  Most trade unions of the time, however, accepted that the “wages system” was here to stay and focused instead on the issues of job security, fighting for unemployment benefit funds for members, seniority, prohibitions against overtime, and the shortening of working hours. 

Even agitation to ban child labor and limit female employment was motivated in part by a desire to temper the pervasiveness of unemployment by curtailing the pool of available labor.  Other trade union procedures and proposals were more mean-spirited, including attempts to ban immigration or exclude African-American and other minorities or the unskilled from membership in the movement.  That insularity bedevils trade unionism to this day.

As part of this tumultuous season of upheaval, which lasted from the 1870s through the Great Depression, the unemployed themselves organized demonstrations.  A gathering in Tomkins Square Park of thousands of New Yorkers left destitute by the panic and depression of 1873 was dispersed with infamous brutality by the police.  Local newspapers labeled the protestors “communards.” (The recently defeated Paris Commune had ignited a hysterical fear of “un-American” radicalism, a toxin that has never since left the American bloodstream.) 

Although the Tomkins Square rally was mainly a plea for relief and public works, there was some talk of marching on Wall Street.  Such radical rhetoric, not to speak of actual violence, was hardly unusual in such confrontations then, a measure of how raw class relations were and how profoundly disturbed people had become by the haunting presence of mass unemployment.

Just as telling, the unemployed and those still at work but at loggerheads with their bosses frequently displayed their solidarity in public.  During the “Great Insurrection” of 1877, when railroad strikers from coast to coast faced off against state militias, federal troops, and the private armies of the railroad barons, they were joined by regiments of the “reserve army.”  Often these were their neighbors and family members, but also strangers who, feeling an affinity for their beleaguered brethren, preferred setting fire to railroad engine houses than going to work in them as scabs.  Amid the awful depression of the 1890s, a cigar maker caught the temper of the times simply: “I believe the working men themselves will have to take action.  I believe those men that are employed will have look out for the unemployed that work at the same business they do.”

Marching Armies (of the Unemployed)

Demonstrations of the unemployed resurfaced with each major economic downturn.  In the depression winter of 1893-1894, for example, ragged “armies” of the desperate gathered in various parts of the country, 40 of them in all. (Eighteen-year-old future novelist Jack London joined one in California.)  The largest commandeered a train in an effort to get to Washington, D.C., and was chased for 300 miles across Montana by federal troops. 

The most famous of them was led by Jacob Coxey, a self-made Ohio businessman.  “Coxey’s Army” (more formally known as “the Commonwealers” or the “Commonwealth of Christ Army”) made it all the way to the capital, a “living petition” to Congress.  It was led by his 17-year-old daughter as “the Goddess of Peace” riding a white horse.

In the nation’s capital, the “Army” lodged its plea for relief, work, and an increase in the money supply. (Jacob’s son was called “Legal Tender Cox.”)  President Grover Cleveland wasn’t hearing any of it, having already made his views known in 1889 during his first term in office: “The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include support of the people.” 

Christian charity was not Cleveland’s long suit.  Others of the faith, however, believers in the social gospel and Christian socialism especially, staged spectacular public dramas on behalf of the “shorn lambs of the unemployed” — even a mock “slave auction” in Boston in 1921 during a severe post-World War I slump, in which the jobless were offered to the highest bidders as evidence of what “wage slavery” really meant.

The Great Depression brought this protracted period of labor turmoil to a climax and to an end. In its early years, the ethos of “mutualism” and solidarity between the employed and unemployed was strengthened.  In those years, railroads began to report startling jumps in the numbers of Americans engaged in “train hopping” — the rail equivalent of hitchhiking.  On one line, the “hoppers” went from 14,000 in 1929 to 186,000 in 1931.  

In 1930, when the unemployment rate was at about today’s level, in cities across the country the first rallies of the unemployed began with demands for work and relief.  Later, there were food riots and raids on delivery trucks and packinghouses, as well as the occupations of shuttered coalmines and bankrupt utility companies by the desperate who began to work them.

“Leagues” and “councils” of the unemployed, sometimes organized by the Communist Party, sometimes by the Socialist Party, and sometimes by a group run by radical pacifist A.J. Muste, marshaled their forces to stop home evictions, support strikes, and make far-reaching proposals for a permanent system of public works and unemployment insurance.  Muste’s groups, strong in the Midwest, set up bartering arrangements and labor exchanges among the jobless. 

In support of striking workers, unemployed protestors shut down the Briggs plant in Highland Park, Michigan — it manufactured auto bodies for Ford — pledging that they would not scab on the striking workers.  A march of former and current employees of the Ford facilities in Dearborn, Michigan, made the unusual demand that the company (not the government) provide work for the jobless.  For their trouble, they were bloodied by Ford’s hired thugs and five of them were killed. 

President Herbert Hoover took similar action.  In a move that shocked much of the nation, he ordered Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur to use troops to disperse the Bonus Expeditionary Army, World War I jobless veterans gathered in tents on Anacostia Flats in Washington asking for accelerated payments of their war-time pensions.  They were routed at bayonet point and MacArthur’s troops burned down their tent city.

How the New Deal Dealt

The Great Depression was, however, so profoundly unsettling that the unemployed finally became a political constituency of national proportions.  The pressure on mainstream politicians to do something grew ever more intense.  The Conference of Mayors that meets to this day was founded then to lobby Washington for federal relief for the jobless.  Even segments of the business community had begun to complain about the “costs” of unemployment when it came to workplace efficiency.

Unemployment insurance, work relief, welfare, and public works — all of which had surfaced in public debate since the turn of the twentieth century — made up the basic package of responses offered by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to the inherent insecurity of proletarian life.  None were exactly expansive either in what they provided or in their execution, and yet all of them found themselves under chronic assault from birth (as they are today).  

The most daring legislation under consideration, the Lundeen bill (authored by a Minnesota congressman), would have provided unemployment insurance equal to prevailing wages for anyone over 18 working part or full time.  Though it never became law, it was to be financed by a tax on incomes exceeding $5,000, and administered by elected worker representatives.  It was not atypical in its most basic assumption which once would have been thought intolerable — that unemployment at significant levels would continue into the indefinite future. 

Unemployment was now to be ameliorated, but also accepted.  Harry Hopkins, who ran the New Deal’s relief efforts, was typical in predicting that “a probable minimum of four to five million” Americans would remain out of work “even in future ‘prosperity’ periods.”  Consequently, the new relief reforms were to be considered defense mechanisms designed to recharge the batteries of a stalled economy and to minimize the political fallout from outsized joblessness.  This menu of “solutions” has constituted the core of the labor and progressive movement’s approach to unemployment ever since.

“The Natural Rate of Unemployment”

After World War II, unemployment became, for the most part, a numerical and policy issue rather than a social phenomenon.  By the 1960s, what once struck most Americans as unnatural and ghastly had been fully transformed by economists and political elites into “the natural rate of unemployment” — a level of joblessness that should never be tampered with because it was futile to do so and to try would induce inflation. 

More recently matters have turned truly perverse.  Neo-liberals, who during the Reagan era of the 1980s eclipsed Keynesians as the dominant thinkers when it came to economic policy, were worried that unemployment might not be high enough.  It was increasingly feared that, if the ranks of the jobless were not large indeed, both labor costs and inflation would rise, threatening the future value of capital investments. The world, in other words, had turned upside down.

As official society adapted to the permanence of unemployment, the unemployed themselves subsided into political quiescence. There were exceptions, however. 

Perhaps the most massive unemployment demonstration in the nation’s history took place in 1963 when 100,000 Americans marched on Washington for “Jobs and Freedom.”  It is a telling commentary on the political sensibilities of the last half-century that the March on Washington, recalled mainly for Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech, is rarely if ever remembered as an outpouring of righteous anger about a system that consigned much of a whole race to the outcast status first experienced by the young women of New England textile mills in antebellum America.

Today, the question is: As the new unemployment “norm” rises, will the “99ers” remain just a number, or will anger and systemic dysfunction lead to the rebirth of movements of the unemployed, perhaps allied, as in the past, with others suffering from the economy’s relentless downward arc?  Keep in mind that the extent of organized protest by the unemployed in the past should not be exaggerated.  Not even the Great Depression evoked their sustained mass mobilization.  That’s hardly surprising.  By its nature, unemployment demoralizes and isolates people.  It makes of them a transient and chronically fluctuating population with no readily discernable common enemy and no obvious place to coalesce.

Another question might be: In the coming years, might we see the return of a basic American horror at the phenomenon of joblessness?  And might it drive Americans to begin to ask deeper questions about the system that lives and feeds on it? 

After all, we now exist in an under-developing economy.  What new jobs it is creating are poor paying, low skill, and often temporary, nor are there enough of them to significantly reduce the numbers of those out of work.  The 99ers are stark evidence that we may be witnessing the birth of a new permanent class of the marginalized.  (The percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months has grown from 8.6% in 1979 to 19.6% today.)  Moreover, our mode of “flexible capitalism” has made work itself increasingly transient and precarious. 

Until now, ideologues of the new order have had remarkable success in dressing this up as a new form of freedom.  But our ancestors, who experienced frequent and distressing interruptions in their work lives, who migrated thousands of miles to find jobs which they kept or lost at the whim of employers, and who, in solitary search for work, tramped the roads and hopped the freight cars (even if they could not yet roam Internet chat rooms), were not so delusional. 

We have a choice: Americans can continue to accept large-scale unemployment as “natural” and permanent, even — a truly grotesque development — as a basic feature on a bipartisan road to “recovery” via austerity.  Or we can follow the lead of the jobless young in the Arab Spring and of protestors beginning to demonstrate en masse in Europe.  Even the newly minted proletarians of Ventura, California, sleeping in their cars, may decide that they have had enough of a political and economic order of things so bankrupt it can find no use for them at any price.

Steve Fraser is Editor-at-Large of New Labor Forum and co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books).  He is, most recently, the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace.  He teaches history at Columbia University.

Joshua B. Freeman teaches history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is affiliated with its Joseph S. Murphy Labor Institute.   His forthcoming book, American Empire, will be the final volume of the Penguin History of the United States.

Copyright 2011 Steve Fraser and Josh Freeman