Citizen Green: What work is worth

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Every November I remove the leaves from the grounds of my church. It’s a side job that supplements my income as a journalist, as do two or three lawn mowings per month during the spring and summer months.

Particularly in November, as the leaves rot and the cold sets in, the repetition and physical exertion of raking and bagging reminds me of some fundamental truths. In the immediate aftermath of an election that many people I know invested huge amounts of hope and energy only to lose everything, returning to fundamentals holds a particular poignancy.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to do some manual labor because it reminds me of where I come from. It reminds me of the tobacco I’ve cut, the rough carpentry work on McMansions and houses I’ve painted in new subdivisions, and the seasonal stores I’ve set up and torn down in shopping malls. It reminds me of the rhythm of work before I went into debt to get a fancy Ivy League degree and cultivated the kind of professional network that would allow me to pursue a career in journalism.

One advantage of work that is not very intellectually demanding is that it encourages of meditative frame of mind that can present some revelations if you’re paying attention. I’ve had some time to think about the value we place on work, and how strange it is that the work that delivers the most tangible results — grounds maintenance, bathing elderly and infirm people, taking care of children, working the grill in a restaurant kitchen or bussing tables — is that which pays the least. The message every teenager hears from parents and school guidance counselors is: Work hard and you won’t have to spend your life working behind a cash register at McDonald’s. But, let’s face it, someone will. There aren’t enough teenagers to fill all the essential but low paying jobs that make society run.

The way that work has been structured over the past three decades is one of the unsettling questions underneath the political convulsion that we’re experiencing. And let me be really clear here: It’s just one of the root causes we have to confront. No economic analysis should overshadow the role of white supremacy and patriarchy as drivers of Trump’s election.

Just before the election, the New Yorker published a fascinating overview by George Packer of the social forces that have produced this moment. The article’s single biggest insight is encapsulated in a quote from Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech: “Democrats, we are the party of working people, but we haven’t done a good enough job of showing we get what you’re going through.” Packer later asked Clinton what she meant, and in the ensuing conversation she spoke of the limits of an “educationalist” mindset, what she called a “peculiar form of elitism.” She went on to say, “We need to do something that is really important, and this is to just go right after the denigration of jobs and skills that are not college-connected.”

The supreme irony of Clinton’s position, as Packer notes, is that educationalist elitism gained currency during her husband’s administration in the 1990s. My mom worked in a program in Kentucky called Parent And Child Education, or PACE, during that era. The idea was that by helping parents attain their GEDs and providing early education to their children, the cycle of generational poverty would be broken. But I remember my mom noting at the time that the jobs that were supposed to become available through educational advancement never seemed to materialize. Meanwhile, the wealth gap widened, and the big financial gains went to financial managers and tech entrepreneurs.

Now, the technological innovations undergirding President Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st Century” have hollowed out even the creative economy. Since everyone is a content creator, professional journalists and musicians find it almost impossible to commodify our work because we’re competing in a marketplace where content is free. Hence the surreal turn of events that finds an Ivy League-educated journalist like myself making ends meet by raking leaves.

Most of the people I know who are my age — writers, editors, artists, programmers, web designers and food service workers in their thirties and forties — haven’t particularly prospered during the Obama administration. We supported Hillary Clinton because we’re invested in the project of multiculturalism and LGBTQ equality. For many rural whites in places like Kentucky, what we experienced as an affirmation of our cosmopolitan identity feels more like a social demotion. That such sentiments are laced with racism, misogyny and homophobia doesn’t make them any less real to the people who harbor them.

If the Democrats want to win back the White House in four years, they need to devise an economic program that is compelling to people on both sides of the cultural divide. That conversation needs to begin right now. If they wait until the spring of 2019, when they start poll-testing candidates, it will be too late.