Thursday, May 1, 2008

Midterm for Sociology Class ~ Factors of America's Working Class Dilemma

I was looking through my old papers and I found this one. Figure since I put up my final, I might as well put up the midterm, which I do believe I either got a B+ or A- on. (I'm leaning towards A- being the correct grade...) Anyways, here it is.

Factors of America's Working Class Dilemma

This country has a problem, one that can possibly change America’s economic processes. This problem is what can be done to help those that are thought of as the working poor. In the book Nickel and Dimed: On (not) getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich joins the poor working class to gain an insider view of what these people have to go through everyday as apart of her social experiment. From what she experiences one can see just how acute the issue has gotten. Studies such as Ehrenreich's have always prompted people to seek out whom to blame for the existence of this problem, as they search for a solution. However, the blame for all of these people's situations cannot be placed solely on one factor. There are many contributors that helped lead the poor to their current state of limited success, some of which include the sets of conditions they were born into, the corporations they work for, and ultimately their own actions.

Class is one major agent to consider when looking for the root of this problem. In recent years, there has been talk that the American middle class is slowly withering away, leaving America with heavily polarized rich and poor classes. In junior US senator Bernie Sander's article The Collapse of the Middle Class; he discusses some of the problems the middle class is facing and what that could spell for the whole country. "…The United States is rapidly on its way to becoming three separate states. First, there are a small number of incredibly wealthy people who own and control more and more of our country. Second, there is a shrinking middle class in which ordinary people are, in most instances, working longer hours for lower wages and benefits. Third, an increasing number of Americans are living in abject poverty -- going hungry and sleeping out on the streets." In this quote, Sander sums up the state he feels this country is in. He then goes on to explain some of the reasons why this has happened. Obviously, the lack of a middle class would mean that people would fall under the rich or poor label, without much room to move about on an economic scale. As a consequence, it would make it harder for anyone that is considered poor to level the playing field and advance into the rich class, creating even more of a social stratification between the classes.

The issue of race can be thought of as a subset of class, or can even be looked at as an element all on its own. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book, “Unlike many low-wage workers, I have the further advantages of being white and a native English speaker. I don't think this affected my chances of getting a job, given the willingness of employers to hire almost anyone in the tight labor market of 1998 to 2000, but it almost certainly affected the kinds of jobs I was offered.” (Pg.6–7) One can see how the race card plays out in this example. The significance within the fact that it was not getting a job that was changed, yet it was the kind of job that was altered is that it shows just how race can hurt or help the opportunities given to someone in their life time. These opportunities of any kind become increasingly more important when one is living in any situation of this kind.

Education also takes a toll on these people's lives and the chances that they are given. In the textbook, Sociology: The Essentials, authors Andersen and Taylor explain schools as “...sites where social interaction between groups influences chances for individual and group success” and education's place in society is that it “fulfills certain societal needs for socialization and training; 'sorts' people in society according to their abilities.”(Pg. 355) These two statements reflect the symbolic interaction and functionalist viewpoints respectively. The majority of the poor have access to educationally weak schools, and by using the logic of the two previous statements, it is clear to see that the result of attending such schools is that you would not be fully taught how to perform in the world around you. And because of that, you would have a handicap of sorts while living life – one would be in the position of which no real life chances would manifest themselves in.

The businesses that employ them have a role in all of this as well. More and more companies are paying their workers less than what is truly needed to live on, as well as cutting back on extras like health care. They have created a sort of cycle that keeps people trapped within and makes them unable to move to any other job that may just allow them a way out of their despair. “Wal-Mart, when you're in it, is total – a closed system, a world unto itself. I get a chill when I'm watching TV in the break room one afternoon and see... a commercial for Wal-Mart. When a Wal-Mart shows up within a television within a Wal-Mart, you have to question the existence of an outer world.” (Pg. 178-179 Nickel and Dimed) Ehrenreich could feel this way because she was only being a visitor to this life style. If she were to stay out of necessary, she would not feel that level of shock. She would become use to it and start to overlook all of the other quarks like those around her. They would continue on with their lives, not paying attention to the subtle conditioning taking place.

Along with being trapped in the on going bubble that is the larger corporate beings, comes the element of poor treatment of workers. When Ehrenreich was in Maine working as maid, she experienced what probably is the most physically demanding job out of all that she attempted during her experiment. After describing the role that a connection to others that one works with (which for her is physical one) she then wonders about just how clueless to their pain the homeowners and bosses are. “Do the owners have any idea of the misery that goes into rendering their homes motel-perfect? Would they be bothered if they did know, or would they take a sadistic pride in what they have purchased – boasting to dinner guests, for example, that their floors are cleaned only with the purest of fresh human tears?” (Pg. 89 Ibid) Many of these businesses take advantage of their workers in many different ways, so its understandable to ask if they really know what is going on or if they do and they somehow do not care, so long as profits are to their liking. All of the massive workloads break the workers down to the point where they cannot complain, all the while keeping them under sociality's label of ‘poor’.
However, even though the conditions of the job can be horrible, people sometimes has no choice but to stick with the bad jobs they have. “Why does anyone put up with this when there are so many other jobs available? ... But there are some practical reasons for sticking with The Maids: changing jobs means a week and possibly more without a paycheck...” (Pg. 115-116) This is simply a matter of logic. Many people live paycheck to paycheck and to not be able to depend on it would be a disaster in those households. The 'security' of staying where one is located is preferred over the uncertainty laced with going into the process of changing jobs, unless it was absolutely necessary.

The actions of the poor themselves need to be analyzed. Everyone has a responsibility to take ownership over his or her own lives. Many who consider the poor has a factor of their own problems focus on the thought that “poverty is the result of early childbearing, drug and alcohol abuse, refusal to enter the labor market, and crime.”(Pg. 203 Andersen & Taylor) This theory does hold some truth. It does not make sense to add on to your plight with children or abuse of substances. While these were just examples, they point out the need for the realization of responsibility. There is also the culture of poverty theory, which calls for the main causes of poverty are “the absence of work values and the irresponsibility of the poor.”(Pg. 204 Ibid) The interesting thing about this idea is that people think, when using it, that poverty is passed on from one person to their children and so on.

Lastly, along with the need for added awareness within the circle of the poor, the social conscience has to be stirred. Ehrenreich one night sat around watching television, getting a peak at the world outside of her self-inflected predicament. After contemplating about this world she concludes with this statement: “...the poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from its daily entertainment. Even religion seems to have little to say about the plight of the poor...”(Pg. 117-118, Nickel and Dimed) Another way to think of what she wrote is that the poor are the ‘pink elephants’ in the room. And while almost everyone has an opinion on them, no one really voices their thoughts out loud, leading to nothing real or concrete ever being done.

The social view of the poor cannot be over looked as well. Many of those who only see one window of the poor feel that they are just in the way or they are a waste. Ehrenreich once ventured to ask some of co-workers why the people whose homes they clean treat them with such hostility and cruelty. One of the replies was: “They think we’re stupid… They think we have nothing better to do with our time.’”(Pg. 100 Ibid) Another was “”we’re nothing to these people… We’re just maids”. Both responses indefinitely reveal why they are handled as sub-humans. Being looked down upon can be thought of as another cause of the situation because it adds to the mental segment of the issue.

Ehrenreich then carries on to explain what happened to by people she did not even know. “Then there's the supermarket. I used to stop on my way home from work, but I couldn't take the stares, which are easily translatable into: What are you doing here? And, No wonder she's poor, she's got a beer in her shopping cart! True, I don't look so good by the end of the day and probably smell like eau de toilet and sweat, but it's the brilliant green-and-yellow uniform that gives me away, like prison clothes on a fugitive.”(Pg.100 Ibid) From simply having the maid uniform on, people around her passed judgment on her. This type of behavior is one of the first things that need to be curbed, if people are to help the poor.

In the end, the existence of the poor is still, very much so, a reality. A reality that seems to have no real end in sight. And due to the impossibility of locating a single subject to fully place the blame upon. This issue has to be looked at has a whole and not segmented. Once the whole is understood, we will stand a better chance at helping to eliminate poverty all together. Such a goal is going to be a difficult one to reach maybe even not possible, but it is still better than just sitting around not doing anything. The ‘pink elephants’ will not be silent much longer so it is indeed better to start creating a plan before time runs out.

Works Cited

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. 2001

Sociology: The Essentials (fourth edition)– Margaret L. Andersen and Howard F. Taylor, 2007

The Collapse of the Middle Class by Rep. Bernie Sanders, 2003

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