It was in the parking lot of the United Auto Workers hall in Janesville, Wisconsin, that I learned, among other things, about the insufficiencies of my toolbox.
I was visiting the UAW several years ago, to talk about politics with some of its members. We were standing around a Ford F-350 that belonged to a veteran General Motors Co. assembly-line worker. A monstrous, gull-winged toolbox took up a quarter of the truck’s bed. Its owner had two GM trucks, but his decision to drive a Ford that day made him the target of amiable mockery. A Toyota or a Honda in the lot would draw not insults but vandals. I was told that local police would categorize slashed tires on a Japanese car in a UAW lot as an act of God, and leave it at that.
But about that toolbox. Its proud owner gave me the tour, handing me tools I had never seen with names I had never heard. I’m not a complete alien in these situations -- I’ve worked on a farm and on a loading dock -- but this was an education. The box must have cost $600, and the tools were doubtless worth thousands.
He used the tools on the light-truck assembly line at GM’s mammoth Janesville plant, and also for home repair and vehicle fixes and carpentry. He could do anything with his hands, he said. He was a high-school dropout, but his hands were geniuses.
Among the ‘Pinched’
I thought about this man when I heard, at the end of 2008, that GM was shuttering the Janesville plant, and I thought about him again as I read a compelling and disturbing new book about the U.S. unemployment crisis called “Pinched,” by Don Peck. (Peck is a colleague of mine at the Atlantic magazine, but I’m not involved in his coverage of the economy.)
Peck explains, with coolness and concision, the brutal new realities faced by Americans without college degrees. And he delivers a dystopian vision of a country in which the American dream will soon be dead to the majority of its citizens.
He describes an already entrenched two-tiered U.S. economy. The upper tier is populated by people without elaborate toolboxes but with advanced degrees and superior analytical, creative and interpersonal skills. These people congregate in places like Washington, Boston and San Francisco. They feel few, if any, effects of the recession.
The lower tier is made up of people in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas and Tampa, Florida, who are educationally and even dispositionally ill-equipped for a globalized economy. The recession was a body blow to these people, of course, but they are also suffering because of some longer-term and more systematic problems, such as our neglect of our national infrastructure (think of the jobs that would have been created if we had taken care of our bridges, highways and airports over the past 30 years), our long journey away from manufacturing, and the painful consequences of increased automation and globalization.
The Main Victims
The Janesville GM workers fell into this lower tier -- men who may not have excelled at school but who knew how to make things and fix things.
Men, in fact, are the main victims in this economy. “Pinched” describes a downturn in which men with limited education have suffered disproportionately, and perhaps permanently.
About three-quarters of the 8 million jobs that disappeared in 2008 and 2009 were held by men, and many industries dominated by men, such as construction, were devastated. The economy now needs nurses, not assembly-line workers. Men can and do work as nurses, but many men -- and especially, Peck says, men who pride themselves on the toughness of their jobs -- loathe the idea of work in what they see as feminized fields. And they are terrified by the thought of returning to the classroom. So what do they do instead?
“They leave the workforce,” Peck told me. “In 1967, among men with a high-school degree between the ages of 30 and 50, 97 percent had jobs. Today, it’s 76 percent. There are a lot of guys who are just leaving the workforce.”
What happens next, of course, is disaster.
“When you have these communities where you have a lot of people without much education, and all of a sudden the construction and manufacturing jobs are lost, the guys don’t know what to do, and the whole community changes,” Peck said. “You have a very low marriage rate, but women still want to have kids and do have kids. Couples just don’t stay together.”
He went on, “These men derive so much of their sense of self-worth from their jobs, and that translates into happy marriages, good family, strong churches and civic life, clean streets, deep friendships, lower rates of domestic violence, far less drinking and much more stability generally.”
Peck points to a survey from last year that found that, among people unemployed for seven months or more, 46 percent said they had become quick to anger; a majority said they tried to avoid encountering friends and acquaintances; and 14 percent said they had become substance abusers. Rates of out-of-wedlock births that were once seen as socially catastrophic are now the norm in some communities.
No Easy Fixes
Peck prescribes some fixes for these problems, but none of them will be easy. In particular, he calls for a second stimulus, one that focuses heavily on public works projects, the sort of work that would draw brigades of toolbox owners. In the longer run, he says, the country needs to carve a path to the middle class that doesn’t rely on a four-year college degree -- we spend a great deal more money on college aid and loans than we do on vocational and retraining programs, though only about 30 percent of Americans have degrees.
Overall, he makes a compelling case that the most pressing problem the U.S. faces is not the bloated national debt, but the hollowing of the middle class.
“We’re talking about the disappearance of the American idea,” he said. “We are not bound by common ethnicity or religion, we’re bound together by optimism and the sense that everyone can get ahead if they apply themselves. That is what is being lost, right now.”
I spent some time on the phone last week looking for a couple of workers I had met in Janesville. The fellow with the toolbox, as far as I can tell, moved to Arizona after the plant closed. Perhaps he will move back: GM is considering expanding domestic operations, and the UAW is pressing the company to restart the Janesville line. In its desperation, the union has offered significant wage concessions, telling the company it would be willing to see some new workers paid $14 an hour.
That’s half what a typical Janesville plant worker earned before the shutdown. It’s enough to put food on the table. But $14 an hour is not a wage that sustains a middle class, or that buttresses a skilled worker’s self-worth.
It is, ultimately, a reminder that some dreams are no longer attainable.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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