Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up?
Why are today’s working poor so quiescent? I’m not the only one posing this question.
“Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” asks The Economist. “Why don’t voters demand more redistribution?” wonders David Samuels, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. The headline on an April 7 National Catholic Reporter article reads: “Why aren’t Americans doing more to protest inequality?”
There are legitimate grounds for grievance. For those in the bottom quintile, household income in inflation-adjusted dollars has dropped sharply, from $13,787 in 2000 to $11,651 in 2013. According to the Census Bureau, 64 million Americans currently live in the bottom quintile.
Still, it’s possible that poverty is less grueling than in the past, for several reasons. First, although incomes have declined, the cost of many goods – televisions, computers, air-conditioners, household appliances, cellphones – has fallen, leaving the bottom quintile less deprived than simple income figures might reflect. Second, people nowadays marry and have children later in life than in the past, postponing some financial demands to better earning years. Third,some economists contend that commonly used inflation measures result in excessively high estimates of the real-world cost of goods for consumers, thus making living conditions less dire than they might otherwise be.
But there is another reason that there has not been broad public insurrection.
Society has drastically changed since the high-water mark of the 1930s and 1960s when collective movements captured the public imagination. Now, there is an inexorable pressure on individuals to, in effect, fly solo. There is very little social support for class-based protest – what used to be called solidarity.
Describing a process that sociologists have termed “individualization,” Christopher Ray, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in England, makes the point that individualization is, on one hand,
a positive, enabling and democratic phenomenon. On the other hand, the same dynamic generates the conditions of omnipresent and ever-changing risk, perceived as new obligations or burdens, and new forces bearing down on the individual and on local life.
People today, Ray continues, “are not only able to make choices in an ever-expanding range of situations, but they are also compelled to do so.”
In effect, individualization is a double-edged sword. In exchange for new personal freedoms and rights, beneficiaries are agreeing to, if not being forced to, assume new risks and responsibilities.
In addition to opening the door to self-fulfillment, “the rise of individual rights and freedoms has its price,” writes Nikolai Genov, a sociologist at the Berlin Free University in “Challenges of Individualization,” published earlier this year.
Placing an exclusive stress on the expansion of rights and freedoms of individuals by disregarding or underrating the concomitant rise of individual responsibilities brings about social pathologies. They undermine solidarity as the glue of social life.
As a result, individualization can come “at the expense of various forms of common good in general, and of various forms of solidarity in particular,” Genov observes.
Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist who died earlier this year, noted the obstructions to collective social action. In 2002, in his book “Individualization,” Beck wrote that those who in the past saw co-workers as colleagues and allies now face competitive pressures such that when “a shared background still exists, community is dissolved in the acid bath of competition.” The result is “the isolation of individuals within homogeneous social groups.”
Beck goes on to contend that in advanced nations people have been released “from traditional class ties and family supports.” That has forced people to use their own resources to determine their “fate in the labor market, with all its attendant risks, opportunities and contradictions.”
In a 2007 paper, Beck argues that in the new social order, traditional classes – and traditional bonds of community — are disappearing. In their place, an alternative social hierarchy has emerged with comparable inequities:
Risk and social inequality — indeed, risk and power — are two sides of the same coin. Risk presumes a decision, therefore a decision maker, and produces a radical asymmetry between those who take, define the risks and profit from them, and those who are assigned to them, who have to suffer the ‘unforeseen side effects’ of the decisions of others, perhaps even pay for them with their lives, without having had the chance to be involved in the decision-making process.
Insofar as individualization has taken hold in the United States, the prospects for collective action on behalf of the poor are dim, at best.
Collective action on behalf of the poor requires a shared belief in the obligation of the state to secure the well-being of the citizenry. That belief has been undermined by what Beck calls the “insourcing” of risk, transferring obligations from the state to the individual. This reallocation of responsibility has been studied from various angles.
In his book “The Great Risk Shift,” Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, joins the argument by documenting the economic pressures on individuals resulting from the widespread erosion of social insurance. “For decades, Americans and their government upheld a powerful set of ideals that combined a commitment to economic security with a faith in economic opportunity,” Hacker writes. “Today that message is starkly different: You are on your own.”
Collective social action, in turn, has been supplanted by a different kind of revolt. David A. Snow , professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, noted that the top priorities of the specific movements associated with individualization – “the feminist movement, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender movements, the black power movement, the disability rights movement, and, most recently, the fat-acceptance movement” – do not lend themselves to broad economic demands on behalf of the less well off.
Instead, Snow wrote in a chapter of the 2013 book “The Future of Social Movement Research,”
concern with distributional inequities and injustices tends to take a back seat to procedural issues and injustices bearing on rights and associated matters of inclusion and exclusion and to group reputational issues.
The most recent example of the populace’s rising up to substantially change the course of legislation was not in support of raising the minimum wage or of making the tax system more progressive. It was the enormous and successful outcry – three million emails to Congress, a petition with 4.5 million signatures, 2.4 million tweets and 10 million calls to members of Congress — over the attempted enactment of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012. Supporters of the net neutrality movement saw free or low-cost access to music and video resources on the Internet threatened by the measure. Their complaints, backed by tech firms whose profits depend on open access to the Internet — Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter etc. – defeated the bill backed by their commercial adversaries, the music, motion picture and cable industries.
Compare the SOPA protest to the sole organized attempt to challenge the flow of wealth to the top 1 percent and the profits funneled to the finance industry: Occupy Wall Street, which collapsed in less than a year, despite intensive, generally favorable media coverage.
Instead of boosting prospects for the poor and working class, the agenda associated with individualization works in tandem with rapid technological advance, the internationalization of commerce and thedemise of the paternalistic or loyalty-based workplace to exacerbate inequality. This agenda has contributed to an upheaval in traditional family structures. And the well educated and the affluent are better equipped to adapt to such upheaval while the less well off and the less well educated bear the brunt of change.
The differing consequences for those at the top and those at the bottom are visible in the class-based responses to a key element of individualization: changing sexual mores.
After a period of turbulence and high divorce rates in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the well educated are coming to terms with the sexual revolution by postponing marriage and delaying fertility as divorce rates for this class have stabilized or declined. The children of the affluent are, in turn, prospering.
Conversely, the less well off – from all backgrounds — have struggled with high levels of family dissolution, father absence and worklessness, leaving their own prospects, and those of their children, bleak.
The cultural pressures driving inequality are, in addition, reinforced by heightened competition that has accelerated the decline of unions, served to justify the Republican refusal to raise minimum wages and undermined the workplace stature of employees. The result has been not only surging incomes at the top and little or no growth for the rest, but a withdrawal of community from those who need it most.
All of which brings us back to the question of why there is so little rebellion against entrenched social and economic injustice.
The answer is that those bearing the most severe costs of inequality are irrelevant to the agenda-setters in both parties. They are political orphans in the new order. They may have a voice in urban politics, but on the national scene they no longer fit into the schema of the left or the right. They are pushed to the periphery except for a brief moment on Election Day when one party wants their votes counted, and the other doesn’t.