The New Working Class

Jeffrey J. Williams

Tamara Draut is a policy expert and social critic based at Demos, a progressive think tank. Her latest book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America, calls attention to the new demographics and experiences of the working class. It extends research from her first book, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead, an exposé of the difficulties that young Americans currently face, starting with student and credit card debt and compounded by the high price of housing and other obstacles. Her writing has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the American Prospect, and the Boston Review.

<i>Message on Bascom Hill</i>. Photograph by Joe Brusky / Flickr


Jeffrey J. Williams (JJW): There’s been a lot of attention paid to the figure of the public intellectual lately. Working at Demos, you have a different kind of position than most academics, but with your essays and books, such as Strapped and Sleeping Giant, you have a role as a kind of public intellectual. How do you see your role?

Tamara Draut (TD): I see myself as a public policy expert. Policy is my great love, so I see my role as solving public problems and being an advocate. One of the things that we do at Demos is take positions on issues. We don’t just describe public problems, but put out actual solutions. That is a key piece of what I do—if we’re not making real policy change happen, then we’re not doing our jobs. I wrote Strapped, and now Sleeping Giant, not just to illuminate a problem but to try to build public will and political will for real, transformative change.

JJW: Strapped, your 2006 book, is generationally oriented, looking at Generation Xers and Millennials who are mired in a web of problems, starting with student debt and charge card debt, and, on top of that, the inflation of housing costs relative to salary, all impeding people’s ability to have a family and develop a decent middle-class life. The combination of all these factors creates daunting conditions for many younger Americans, and that’s a serious social problem. How did you come to focus on that set of problems?

TD: Two or three years into my job at Demos, we started looking at credit card debt. The trend was that income was not keeping up with costs, and college had become a minimum ticket required to get into the middle class, and it now required student loan debt. It occurred to me that, if you looked at earnings across generations, at what a 25- to 34-year-old would make today compared to what their dads or moms made back in 1970, a lot has probably changed. I started looking at trends, comparing earnings and housing costs today to what they were three or four decades ago, and I found that there’s been a huge decline in living standards, particularly for people without college degrees.

I went out of my way in Strapped to make sure that the stories and the circumstances of young people without bachelor’s degrees were interwoven with the other stories. Most media coverage was on people who went to college, so you’d see a story on an upwardly mobile professional Manhattanite because the media’s headquartered here in Manhattan. I remember I had an interview with Jack Cafferty at CNN, and I’m talking about how earnings have plummeted for people without college degrees, and he immediately starts talking about how the problem with today’s generation is they go to clubs and get table service. I was like, wait, what? If you want to personify this generation, it is not an upwardly mobile Manhattanite, it’s a 24-, 25-year-old in community college, who’s working full-time and trying to get ahead.

That experience, of not being able to lift up the working-class young people who’ve suffered the most in terms of real degradation of living standards, is part of the reason I wrote Sleeping Giant. The thing about this new working class, unlike the previous generation who were mostly shuttered away in assembly lines and factories, is that they are all around us and we interact all the time. I was talking to a cashier at a grocery store in Brooklyn and she was explaining that it took her almost two hours to get to work because she commutes all the way from Harlem—and that’s for a job making minimum wage! They give us our coffee and ring up our groceries and care for our kids.

There’s been more recognition, thanks to all of the organizing that has happened around the Fight for $15 with fast-food workers, but this new working class is still largely cloaked in invisibility. I don’t think there’s a true understanding of how much the bottom has fallen out in terms of what life is like on the lower rungs of our labor market today. It’s not very visible, and it is the majority of America.

<i>A Strike and a protest march for a $15 minimum wage in Dinkytown, Minneapolis</i>. Photograph by Fibonacci Blue / Wikimedia

JJW: Why is it that they’re invisible?

TD: I talk a lot about that in the book. I think part of it is that the new working class is much more female, and much more black and brown. And I think anytime you’re talking about women and people of color, it’s easy to erase their contribution and ignore what’s happening. Also, this new working class is not men in steel-toed boots with hard hats, and they don’t make stuff; they serve people. So there’s a subservient status, and we tend to not value what’s traditionally seen as women’s labor, whether it’s caring or serving. And that’s a lot of the new working-class jobs.

The other part is that the social distance from the people who control our public debates and our political debates is so vast now compared to what it was a generation ago.

JJW: Was it really better a generation ago?

TD: Yes. I cover the stats in my book. The percentage of journalists that come from college-educated families is much higher today, and the staff in Congress is almost entirely pulled from elite private institutions. So people who are our newsmakers and policymakers are very distant from the working class today, and there is no touchstone other than when they go to the grocery store or a big box retailer. It’s not like they live in the same neighborhood, and their kids don’t go to school with working-class kids, so it’s just not part of their understanding of lives in America.

the major problems we have in our society are stuck because we have the wrong narrative, and those narratives are often shaped by elite individuals who do not quite understand what is happening.

If you only read the New York Times, up until a little bit ago you would think that the major problem with work-family balance is that women with Ivy League educations are dropping out of the labor force. It’s a huge blind spot. Chances are that, back a few decades, those individuals might have come from families where their parents didn’t have college degrees, but now we have a system where mobility is so constrained. Whether or not you go to and finish college is tightly correlated with whether your parents went. So people who are at the highest levels of media or are working for Congress are doing that because privilege has replicated itself.

A lot of Baby Boomers were the first in their family to go to college. There are fewer people in my generation who can say that, and Millennials are two generations away from it, and it’s a much more privileged ecosystem that newsmakers and policymakers are pulled form.

JJW: With academic jobs, I call it “the Great Stratification.” So it’s more deeply stratified now?

TD: Yes, and what are the stories that are being told by journalists? By and large, they are not stories about what happens when whole communities have foreclosures lining their blocks. I did an analysis of how the Great Recession was covered in network TV shows, cable TV shows, and print, and the overwhelming majority of coverage was not about how it was impacting people; it was mostly about the bailout of the auto companies, the bailout of the big banks, and very little about the foreclosure crisis. The Washington Post did a front-page, 10,000-word story about how hard a VP of one of the credit card companies was finding life on $300,000, post-recession.


JJW: Do you think that there was more investigative reporting before, when people were more organically tied to the working class?

TD: Definitely. I also think that this can’t be separated from the massive levels of inequality that we have. We all live much more segregated lives than 30 years ago in terms of class and race. Even from a pop culture standpoint, if you look in the ‘70s, all of the major sitcoms were about working-class people. There was Alice, there was Welcome Back, Kotter, there was Good Times. There hasn’t been a major sitcom about the working class since Roseanne. The working class has pretty much disappeared from TV.

<i>The Evans family from the television program</i> Good Times. Photograph courtesy of CBS Television / Wikimedia

JJW: How did you come to do this? And how do your politics inform this?

TD: I guess I would classify my ideology as progressive. I believe that government has and should play a large role in ensuring decent living standards for everybody in the country and for maintaining and developing public systems like K–12 schools and higher education. I would now add childcare as an essential part of the social contract—the United States is a major outlier in not developing that. So I believe in the role of government and I believe in the fundamental goodness of people.

I also believe that progress demands we constantly rethink the way we do things. I believe that systems really matter, in that individuals are constrained by the systems in which they grow up. And I don’t think that the market is the proper place for the public interest to be mediated.


JJW: Does your background affect the problems you’re attracted to?


TD: Yes. I grew up in a working-class household—my father worked at a steel factory and my mom went back to work when my youngest sibling was in fourth grade. I can contrast that with what it is like to grow up in a working-class household today; there’s a complete difference in living standards, and that contributes to the hardening of privilege that we have in this country. There were things that enabled me to get ahead that don’t exist anymore. One was that we had a middle-class living—from an occupational standing we were working class, but we could take yearly vacations and from an income standing were solidly middle class. Another was that there was truly affordable public higher education. I went to a public university and my parents could pay for it out of pocket, and I left with zero debt.

Those two things are not around anymore. For the most part, young people who are growing up in working-class households, their families are not making middle-class incomes, and college costs triple what it did when I went.

I really feel that the loss of a vibrant working class has been detrimental to American politics and American society, so my goal is to revive the idea that there is a working class.


JJW: How do you go about doing the research? Do you go through data and do interviews?

TD: It’s a lot of data, and the key is figuring out what data you need to look at, and then how to slice the data to get at the questions you want answered. Do you want to look at it by age or by race across time? Do you want to look at what similar age groups were experiencing at different points in our history, or are you just interested in what’s happening today and how that might differ by race? So it’s trying to figure out what the questions are and then looking at the data to answer them.

At Demos, we have economists and data people who do that work for us, so I don’t do it very much.

JJW: For Sleeping Giant, what data did you draw on?

TD: There’s a ton of data, but most of it hasn’t been looked at the way I’m looking at it, comparing working-class people to those with college degrees, and the differences in earnings over time, and the occupations that are adding the most jobs, and the current occupational composition. Data can be lifeless—and let’s face it, boring. So you need to make it come to life and explain what is important about it and why we should care.

JJW: Part of your method is to point out these things we haven’t seen, and part is to point out myths. In Strapped you disabused us of the idea that most college students are party girls or boys; most college students are working. People at state universities work something like 25–30 hours a week on average, even though all the statistics show that it ruins grades and impedes completion.

TD: Most students are working, and they’re working longer hours than ever before, and they’re taking on debt on top of that. Also, we still call them four-year colleges, but they’re really five-year, six-year colleges at this point, since students take longer because they’re working and they can’t get the courses they need to graduate.

The reason why the narrative is so important is that you cannot build public will for change if the way people understand the problem is wrong. If you understand the problem as a bunch of white upper-middle-class kids having some student loan debt that they need to pay off, it’s not a national crisis. But if you understand what’s really happening, that the lion’s share of these revenues get borne by students and parents who are from the working class, then it’s a different narrative. And the gaps of who goes to college and who completes it are widening by race and class. We’ve fallen from first in the world to fifteenth in terms of the percentage of our young population that has a college degree. We have the best-educated older population in the world, but only the 15th-best younger population in the world.

A lot of the major problems we have in our society are stuck because we have the wrong narrative, and those narratives are often shaped by elite individuals who do not quite understand what is happening. Keep in mind that the New York Times and the Washington Post are must-read papers for elites. In the Times, most of their college coverage will be about how über-competitive it is to go to college, how you need tutors and test prep and all of this stuff, when in reality most people in America are looking at going to their local community college or to their state college.


<i>Student Loans Shackle</i>. Photograph by Christopher Lucka / Flickr

JJW: You use statistics and they help dispel the received narrative, but another element you use is interviews, which give more texture about how people actually experience these things. How do you do the interviews?

TD: Verbally, with most of them on the phone. It would be hard to travel to all of them. I have an outline and a set of questions because I try to get the same information from everybody I interview. I usually start with asking them to tell me a little bit about themselves. Are you married, do you have children? Just basic stuff, but then I ask them to tell me about their job and what a day is like in their job, and really go into detail about what it is they do for a living. I ask them to walk me through that step-by-step, from when they show up for a shift to when they clock out.

And I ask people what they like most about their job, and what they like least. That question generated one of the themes in the book, whether home health aides, fast-food workers, Walmart workers, or janitors: almost everybody really took pride in the work they did and felt that the work they did had value. Whether it was helping an elderly person who just got released from the hospital or somebody who worked at a big retail company and made their electronics display look good, they felt good about that. That contrasted sharply with the way they are treated by their managers, particularly the folks who may not be high up in the company but directly supervise them. It was amazing to hear the level of disrespect—it was really patronizing, the mindset that they should feel lucky they have a job. It’s the inverse of noblesse oblige, as if employment is some act of charity that you’re giving people.

JJW: How did you come to do this kind of work? You have a degree in journalism from Ohio University and then you worked in marketing, but then you changed courses.


TD: I learned about public policy in a haphazard way. I ended up volunteering in the Public Affairs Department of Planned Parenthood of New York City. I was in the right place at the right time, because there was a shake-up and a woman who was acting VP asked, “Do you want to be my research assistant?” I said, “Yes!” So I stayed there for two years and realized I wanted to work in public policy, and I realized I had to go to grad school if I wanted to have a career in it. I came to Demos right after I finished. Demos was this new, progressive think tank. It was created out of the idea that progressives needed a multi-issue think tank, in contrast to all the right-wing think tanks, and the two issues it would work on were political and economic inequality. Demos is unusual in that it’s headquartered in New York—most of the policy think tanks are in DC—and I got a job as associate director of what was called the Commonwealth Project in 2001, right after I graduated from grad school. And the rest is history—now it’s about 60 people.


JJW: How do you see the effect of what you do?

TD: I see the effect in a couple different ways. One has been real policy change. I sat in the Rose Garden, in the front row, when the president signed the Credit CARD Act, which included a lot of the things that we had been advocating for a long time, so that felt pretty darn good. And it has saved people billions of dollars every year in interest rate charges and fees. That was a great moment because we had gotten laughed at in the beginning. There’s a DC beltway mentality, “Well, that’s never going to happen, we’re never going to regulate the credit card companies.” So I got the last laugh on that one, and that felt good.

Debt-free college is now a real idea that has taken hold and is part of the political debate. I think even the Republicans are feeling like they have to have some kind of proposal around college affordability. It’s a very different place than where we were four to six years ago, when the fights were about lowering the interest rates for student loans. We’ve set the North Star as debt-free college, and it has gotten a fair amount of traction and pickup from media and policymakers. The Senate introduced a resolution for debt-free college that was signed by several dozen members.

Another one is a reform that makes it possible for people to show up and register and vote on the same day. Same-day registration now reaches about one-quarter of the electorate, and it used to be 5 percent. Getting policy change is very difficult, especially at the federal level, but I think it’s happening. The problems we’re addressing weren’t created overnight and they’re not going to get changed overnight. They will take, in some cases, decades to get where we want them to be, but can I see that we’re making a difference in the interim? Yes, absolutely.