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An open letter to the white working class

by HPR Contributor | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Last Word | November 24th, 2017


By Gary Olson olsong@moravian.edu

I’m writing this letter as the proud son of the working class. My father, who never attended college and was our family’s breadwinner, worked as a Greyhound Bus ticket seller, part-time mail carrier and grocery store stock boy. When he died of a sudden heart attack at age 47, he was working the night shift as a hospital orderly. I was 12 years old and my younger brother was seven.

Because my dad was a World War II vet, we had a very modest house, purchased under the G.I. Bill’s Home Loan Guaranty Program. Under provisions of the Social Security Act’s Aid to Widows with Children, my mother received some scant relief, but never beyond the maximum legal amount of $200 per month.

As recipients, single moms were not to work outside the home. It wasn’t easy, but I shudder to imagine our lives without these federal government programs. It also taught me that a government responsive to its citizens can be a positive, make-or-break difference.

After growing up a poor kid in Fargo, North Dakota, I managed to achieve some success through hard work, sacrifice and determination, but I certainly displayed no more grit than you’ve expended. Earlier this year, my wife and I retired to a comfortable lifestyle, with all that implies.

Changing times change outcomes

I mention this background only because I think it conveys an important lesson: had my back-in-the-day working class existence occurred thirty-five years ago instead of sixty years ago, all my determined self-improvement wouldn’t have produced the same positive outcome. Why? Because times changed.

A long economic decline occurred and you’ve been working harder for decreasing wages and benefits. Just how bad is it? When you total up their debt and total up their assets, 40% of Americans (4 in 10) have zero dollars. Zilch. They’ve been cheated out of opportunities that once were available to me and other members of the white working class. That America no longer exists.

Now, is it possible to determine with precision just who’s to blame for this state of affairs. You betcha. What about the white working class today and Donald Trump?

It’s well known that the white working class makes up one-third of the American adult population and they supported Donald Trump by a margin of two to one. Their votes in the key electoral states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin tipped the election to Trump. Hillary Clinton had dissed the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees, including those in these states.

I trust you to correct me, but my take is that Trump offered hope with his “I’m not a politician” maverick outsider status.

Policies of both major parties diminished your livelihoods, leaving you unable to afford child care, housing, and education. Many Trump supporters are one medical emergency from economic disaster. Whatever your household income, the future seemed precarious, headed in an inevitable downward spiral, and prospects of a better future for your kids were slipping away. For decades, no one was listening, but Trump seemed different in his pledge to get matters “under control.”

But what has Trump actually done since taking office? Here are just three examples among many: During the campaign he demonized Hillary Clinton for being in bed with Goldman Sachs (she was), the financial firm that “robs our working class” (it does). Yet we’ve recently learned that Trump’s long-awaited tax cut plan was written by former Goldman investment bankers now on his team. The tax plan is an obscene giveaway of trillions of dollars that will, in the words of economist Jack Rasmus, “redistribute income massively upward from the middle and working classes to the rich.”

Meanwhile, Trump wants a spending cut of $1 trillion in Medicaid over the next decade and continues to shred what’s left of the social safety net after Bill Clinton’s devastating cuts in 1996. I don’t believe this is what you were voting for.

Finally, you might recall that Trump proclaimed he would be “the greatest jobs President that God ever created.” Well, we’re still waiting. And so are the 1.5 million workers who lost jobs during Obama, another “jobs creator.” Many of them have fallen into poverty and opiate addiction, and have suffered permanent psychic scarring. More and more jobs are being outsourced or converted to part-time, seasonal, and low-wage, while still others are being replaced by robotics.

Just recently, here in my hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 460 workers at the Wells Fargo call center were told to report to the cafeteria, where they were abruptly fired. Many left the meeting in tears.

Nancy Jenkins, 53, was one of them, and told the local newspaper, “We have a lot of single parents who worry they’ll have to take a minimum wage job and aren’t sure how they’ll make it.” Jennings herself recently had a kidney transplant and worries she’ll be unable to pay for anti-rejection meds. Jennings’s starting salary at Wells Fargo: $13.82 per hour. Wells Fargo’s profit just this quarter: $4.47 billion.

You may have seen Trump’s recent late-night response to all of this when he tweeted, “Stock Market at an ALL-TIME high!” How much stock do you own?

So, what’s next?

I’m not the first person to say there is one tiny minority that’s dangerous to you. It’s the wealthy, privileged, and overwhelmingly white oligarchy that rules over all of us. They have never given a rat’s ass about us, our children or our grandchildren. All they want from us is our labor, and that only if the price is low enough.

The pain and fears of the white working class are real, but the diagnosis is wrong, and, if not corrected, terribly dangerous. This letter was my attempt to offer a second opinion, one which goes beyond symptoms towards pinpointing the actual cause, those who own and benefit from our deeply dysfunctional economic system. I wrote these paragraphs not to cast blame or make judgments about Trump supporters, but to begin a much-needed conversation about our country’s future.

There are people, including some I know, who depict Trump sympathizers as bigoted, ignorant, gullible rubes, almost congenitally incapable of empathy. In fact, a few individuals advised me not to bother with this letter because “Trump supporters are fact-resistant and won’t give you the time of day.”

And the sweeping claim that all 62 million Trump voters are incapable of thinking and acting in their own interest is smugly condescending.

I’ve never doubted that white working class folks, if privy to all the facts, constitute one pillar in constructing the basis for a social movement that — operating outside the hopeless two party system — can fundamentally change our country. For me, that feels like our last and best hope.

[Gary Olson is Emeritus Professor of political science, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA]

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