My parents believed in the American dream so fervently that when it collapsed for me, they decided that the fault lay within me, not their vision of the world, and they cut off contact. I slowly became aware of social class during my childhood, long before I had words to describe it. I was white, and when I was young, my parents were working class. My father worked at a packing house. My parents decided they would never get ahead that way, and my father took a second job and a course to be a radio engineer. For awhile he also worked as a janitor. In order to own a home, he and my mother got a book and built a house from scratch. We lived in Iowa, and during the summers, my parents would dig and cement in a basement and erect and insulate the outdoor walls. As fall came, they put in plumbing and electricity, and we moved into the shell of the house before cold weather hit. During the winter, they divided it into rooms and finished it off. They built three houses that way and paid off some of their bills.
We lived on the edge of town near a community that had makeshift, tar paper houses and broken-down cars. One of my close school friends came from those homes. I took my used clothes and shoes to school for her. Her mother, not much more than a child herself, waited for us after school, and the three of us played hopscotch in the school yard.
One day, my mother told me and siblings that we all had been invited to our dad’s boss’ house for a picnic dinner. Other workers would be there too. For days, Mom drilled us on manners, then dressed us in our best. We went to the largest house I had ever seen.
My parents were part of the post-war generation, a time of great and growing prosperity for the nation. My dad believed with his whole heart that anyone, with hard work, could rise to the “good life.”
When, later, after a divorce when I was a single mother of three young children, his world seemed shattered. I had worked hard, but we were very poor. How could this be? He clung to his world view for years and rejected me until shortly before his death.
If he were living now, how would he explain the financial crash and the Great Recession? What about his small pension? What would he do when the value of his house plummeted? Would he think he failed?
Sometimes when I talked about the need for more equal distribution in income, he would answer, “If you gave everybody the same amount of money today, within a year some would be rich and others would have none. It doesn’t do any good to try to change things.”
I have been reading Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson (2010) This book explains what happened over the past decades that caused both a financial collapse and an inequality that would have astonished people like my dad.
I learned about the book by reading a Bill Moyers article in The Nation (8-23-2011). He said, “The rise of the money power in our time goes back forty years. We can pinpoint the date. On August 23, 1971 a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell–a board member of the death-dealing tobacco giant Philip Morris and a future justice of the Supreme Court–released a confidential memorandum for his friends at the US Chamber of Commerce. We look back on it now as a call to arms for class war waged from the top down.”
This class warfare from the top has gradually permeated our political system to such an extent that today we have the highest income inequality in the advanced world.
Hacker and Pierce ask, “What were the motives behind public policies that fostered [an economy in which] winner-take-all? How, in a representative democracy, could public officials favor such a small slice of Americans for so long?” (41)
They find the culprit in the organized politics of the right, rather than massive economic forces. Right wing think tanks and commentators developed battle plans. Interest groups with millions of dollars lobbied congress. Using conservative social policies, the Republicans bought the support of white working-class voters from the South. They repeatedly defeated labor. They also used the filibuster to block reform. Gradually, those opposed to such developments have been purged from power, and Democrats have been co-opted. Mostly, those opposed to a rule by the rich have been politically out organized.
Hacker and Pierce believe it is in hard fought organization that the current inequity must be fought. They say that it is not overwhelming economic events that have shaped our class division in this country but political choices. And as hard as it is, with long term organization, we can affect political change.
I reflect on my father’s belief that there can never be progress. I have fought that idea throughout my life. We have to believe it isn’t true. I am old now and call on younger people to continue the fight. The stakes couldn’t be higher.