Reader's advisory note: The following books, which I have read (links to my GR reviews), may share appeal factors with Dr. Dodson's book:
- Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed.
- Gary Rivlin, Broke USA.
- Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, The Rich and the Rest of Us.
- The works of Jonathan Kozol, such as Rachel and Her Children.
The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy by Lisa Dodson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Let's cut to the chase. The reason I did not rate this book higher is that it can get repetitive at times. The book also is a bit heavy on anecdotes, and to be honest, it goes more into effects and impact of poverty, which are important topics, than into the moral underground concept, which is the real reason I picked up the book. Now, don't let that fool you. This book presents some very solid research the author did over eight years, and it does include plenty of notes and documentation for those who want to go further. Do understand that names have been changed to protect people who often take great risks to help out their fellow human beings who happen to be poor and need a hand in a society that pretty much discards them. Anyhow, the book spends two-thirds of the content on the exposition of the poverty issue, and only towards the end does it get to the point promised in the title. After a while, you can skim some of it.
Now, leaving the negative I saw as a reader aside, this is a book that more people need to be reading. What I am afraid of is that the usual "poor blaming" and "victim blaming" crowds (you know them, the asshats who always say "if those poor people only did X and Y" and "why the hell do they keep breeding?") will probably glance at it, then toss it aside, minds already closed and made up. But they need to read this. Policy makers, educators, social workers, teachers, parents, all need to be reading this. Because when we think of poverty, we usually think of those who suffer it. The real issue, in addition to that, is the impact that poverty has on the rest of society. The poor do work, and they work hard. In their underpaid, often exploitative jobs they come across middle class people, their employers and managers, and this creates tension and strife. Some of these managers lack any sense of empathy or compassion in spite of the fact they are the ones who often enable an unjust system that does not even pay a living wage. But Dodson points out that there are some small points of hope: managers, supervisors, superiors, so on who see injustice and refuse to simply watch it happen. They show compassion and empathy, and they disobey the rules as need be because immoral conditions should not be tolerated. So, a manager might overlook a worker being late because of a mother having to take a kid to the doctor, or maybe said manager alters the time clock so she gets her full pay if the mother had to leave early for said doctor appointment. What conservative hypocrites fail to appreciate, and it is very well laid out here, is that minimum wage jobs not do not provide a living wage: period. For all their whining about "welfare moms" and other stereotypes of unemployed people, there are are tons of working poor, who have, you know, real jobs. And in their minds, work is what is supposed to lift them out of poverty and give them progress. Well, when you pay shitty wages that force someone to work two or even three jobs to make ends meet, other corners have to be cut. So, mom has to leave her child alone at home for a few hours because she cannot afford day care on the shit salary your slave job pays. Is that really neglect? It's either the kid or the job. Most middle class people would probably say the kid first, but they have the resources to buy child care as needed. Poor people often lack that option, and when they do, that situation does have ripples throughout the rest of society, something that most whiny right winger conservatives and libertarians fail to see.
So, a small, mostly invisible moral underground emerges where some folks with compassion do whatever they can to help out their poor workers and friends. Some of these managers do have compassion and hearts, and they see the plight of their workers. A doctor writes a prescription for an asthmatic patient, but puts it in the name of the aunt, for instance, because said aunt has health insurance, so the medication will be covered. Fraud? To the letter of the law moralists, maybe. But it's either that, or let a child go without life saving medicine. If I was that physician, I know my choice. Do you? And this kind of thing does happen all over the place. However, as Dodson points out, it is not visible. It is an underground. She had to do a lot of work and give a lot of reassurances to get some of the information. You see, people in the Moral Underground have certain mechanisms and knowledge in place, information they are not going to share with just anyone, if at all. In many cases, the best Dodson could do was just provide outlines of what some folks do, or mention they did something without giving any specifics so as not to disrupt a pipeline.
At the end of the book, Dodson does provide a plan, outlining what needs to change and happen for things to get better in order to have a truly fair economy for ordinary people. Overall, this is probably one of the best books I have read, and I do wish more people will read it.
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The problem of poverty is not just people being severely underpaid and not able to make ends meet. There is plenty of collateral damage:
"Employers spend every day with working parents being paid less than what they need for their families to survive. Teachers spend every day educating children whose parents can't keep them safe and nurtured, let alone make sure all homework is done. Health care practitioners send sick people out the door knowing that they can't buy the medicines or care needed to save their lives" (3-4).
Some people decide to take a moral stand, to do what is right and fair:
"Like other regular Americans in the past, Andrew [manager of a large food business company] decided that when you see people being treated unfairly and, worse still, you realize you play a direct role in that unfairness, the right thing to do is to act against it. In the tradition of civil disobedience that marks the nation's history, often unassuming but morally clear-eyed people like Andrew refuse to go along with the economic mistreatment of other people" (5, emphasis in the original).
In other words, people like Andrew have a conscience and are not sociopaths, unlike most politicians and business tycoons. People like Andrew are overall decent human beings. Maybe, just maybe, the world can change with one Andrew at a time for starters. Injustice in society cannot be ignored. Sure, paying low, crappy wages may be legal, the "market wage," good for business, but it is still inhumane and indecent.
"I heard from distinctly different people across the country that when you ignore injustice embedded in your society, you become part of it, complicit with what you consider immoral. And for some this changed how they saw their role in the world and the work they did" (6).
Here is a question that should be asked, but it is usually ignored or brushed aside. Hey, as long as it does not affect you, right?
"Do losses to a family, probably an extended family, maybe even a community eroded by mounting poverty-induced problems-- does all that matter in a larger way?" (15).
Some managers and employers subvert the unjust system to help their workers. They do this in secret, often breaking rules out of necessity given their exploitative company policies. Thus, a moral underground emerges:
"This moral disobedience differed in form according to their industry, their status within it, and the particular work conflicts that arose, yet the results were similar: time, food, fuel, education, clothes, vacation, and health care were informally added to some low-wage workers' compensation only through breaking rules" (71).
Dodson quotes an excellent thought by Professor Paul Krugman, and it is a sentiment I strongly share for I do despise people who instead of working working to reduce poverty and suffering, are happy to engage in blame and making excuses:
"America's failure to make progress in reducing poverty, especially among children, should provoke a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, what it often seems to provoke instead is great creativity in making excuses" (qtd. in 73). -- Paul Krugman, "Poverty is Poison," New York Times, 2008.
On children, their needs, and schools:
"In the United States the ingredients of 'mainstream' childhood have to be bought, ingredients like stable housing, health care, extra help when needed, good nutrition, and reliable child care. But millions of families don't earn nearly enough to buy such basic children's needs. Some teachers and other practitioners say it is wrong to apply rules and standards as though they are equitable when children come from profound inequality. Sarah [a public school vice principal] and others believe obeying these rules means being complicit in such injustice" (75).People who whine that "those women need to work harder and get their act together" are usually those in some position of privilege and fortune who never had to work three jobs while minding a child or two without the resource of child care. If anything, those women do work harder, and considering what they lack, they make do quite well with what little they have. They can't buy the day care, the fancy tutors, the medical care, so on, their children may need because they don't get paid well enough. We can go into the question of society not valuing a lot of jobs it claims to be essential, but we'll get to that shortly. Maybe the whiners need to get their act together and work towards a more just society where workers are all paid well so poor working women don't have to work two or three jobs just to barely get a roof over their heads. You know, the whole notion of investing in children as the future, so on that conservatives love to give lip service to until they actually see a child.
By the way, just because you are above the poverty line, it does not mean you are not impoverished. Making ten bucks over the poverty line should not be something that gets you disqualified from public assistance since all of a sudden you do not stop being poor.
"Put another way, in America being above the poverty line does not preclude being impoverished. You may be unable to pay for housing, food, warmth, lights in your home, shoes, or diapers-- much less health care or child care-- but you're still 'above' the poverty line. And this is the line that various federal agencies, many politicians, and remarkably, a few obedient social researchers stick to when measuring how our families are faring. While there are 13.3 million children who live below the poverty line, there are close to thirty million who are chronically deprived" (83).
To put it bluntly, as a society, the U.S. simply does not give a shit about its own children. The U.S. is at the bottom of developed nations when it comes to investing in its own children, including being last, along with Mexico, out of 26 OECD countries:
"Political rhetoric aside, children in the United States are of very little value if compared to spending on military, banks, and corporate bailouts" (84).
You can tell the values of a society by what it spends its money on. Talk, on the other hand, about how much the U.S. cares and protects its children, that is cheap and plentiful in the U.S. Serious action? Nowhere to be found. Overall, Americans know where the problems are; they even know how to fix them. They just choose to do nothing, and that is immoral.
When teachers and others, like politicians, engage in parent blaming of low income families (and as a former teacher, I can tell you doing this is very tempting. For me, becoming more mindful and aware was part of my education when I started out as a school teacher. It can be a trap, but I can say not one I fall for), saying they are lazy, undisciplined, etc., that is basically a load of bullshit. Those people basically have no idea of actual costs:
"Routine child care, transportation, pediatric visits, grocery shopping, bill paying-- these are not simply the habits of 'disciplined' people; they are either purchased on the market or provided by a parent who can afford to manipulate his/her hours of employment around the needs of family-- or to not be in the labor market at all" (100).
Usually the complainers are either middle class folk with no real clue since they've got theirs, or just out of touch rich people who can buy anything they need. They also tend to be conservative right wingers, libertarians included, of the kind who believe every individual is on their own and as long as they got theirs, who gives a shot about anyone else? The problem with that belief system is that, sooner or later, their poverty, mostly created by an unfair, immoral system of their own devising, will come back to bite them. The effects overall and collateral damage do hit all of society.
Here we have why society undervalues teachers, social workers, and any other work dealing with children. Yes, as an educator, I have heard this message loud and clear, even from some family members and friends who shall remain nameless:
"What was being said was that given that society treats working-class children as having little public value, should you choose to dedicate your life to them, you risk a diminished status too" (123).
Naturally, you also get any blame from society when you are not paid well, when making a living becomes challenging (which for me it has been at times), when you suffer ill emotional health (you try dealing with a classroom full of teenagers in various states of emotional condition and home situations and see how you come out), so on.
In the end, I think this passage summarizes a lot and brings the points home:
"What most people explained, in story after story, was that even during the wealth-boom years there was always another America. There were always millions of families with earnings so low they struggled to pay for heat, food, transportation, child care, and health care. People like Emily, Walter, and Nicole described the immediate damages of bad jobs and lousy pay. And they went beyond personal stories; they analyzed how economic mistreatment degrades the very value of work in America. Why should those people cherish jobs that the larger society holds in such regard? Would you? And beyond that, parents told me how all this destabilizes children and families that, in turn, further hampers job performance, health, schooling, and so forth. Ultimately, it corrodes the nation; as Rosemary put it so succinctly in an earlier chapter, 'It goes around in a circle'" (190-191).
You really did not think the poor magically appeared after the recession, right? And to be honest, it is a miracle we still have teachers, social workers as well as waiters and hotel maids who still show a good disposition to work considering how society degrades those jobs and those working in them. And given how the issues do corrode society, honestly, people who say, "those poor people need to work harder and pull themselves by their bootstraps" should simply shut the fuck up. It is clear they bring nothing to any serious conversation of how to bring about reform. Think about it. If those working people are in ill health, do you really want them preparing your food? Or do you want them around your children in school? Maybe not so much the teachers; teachers often can get sick days and a substitute teacher, but how about the cafeteria lady preparing your child's lunch? You really want her sick with the flu at work, for instance? And if said lunch lady also has a sick child of her own she can't afford to keep home, do you want that sick kid around yours? It's a chain. It's not just that there are poor people who work, and you can just ignore them. Sooner or later, the effects will reach out to the rest of society. These are effects that can be lessened, maybe even eliminated, but society has to choose to work on that. In the meantime, we see some people unwilling to enable or stand idly by while they see an exploitative system make others suffer. So they silently and discreetly make a stand. They make the right moral choice even at personal risk. Some may call it a crime or fraud or some other rule-based misbehavior. It's part of the tradition of civil disobedience and of fighting for what is fair and right. I know what my choice would be. What would yours be?
(I don't say this kind of thing often, since this blog does not attract much traffic, but I will say it now. If you are one of those who just loves to blame the poor for their ills, who spouts the "personal responsibility" nonsense because it sounds cool or you posit your own unique personal experience as model for all-- also known as the "I did, so why can't they?" syndrome--and you have no idea how the world really operates, you can go comment someplace else. I am not interested in that kind of immoral rhetoric, and I am sure you can find some other blog that will be happy to take your rant. You pollute my comment thread, I will be happy to delete you. Trolls and clueless asshats are not tolerated here. Take your bigotry elsewhere).