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Betrayed American Workers

I

Welfare!” a bricklayer snorts. “Those lazy sluts having kids like it was a factory…. You don’t work, you don’t live, right?” Yet later, talking about his oldest boy: “Why should he bust his balls to go to work, let him take it easy for a while—I’ve done some drifting of my own….”

This seeming contradiction comes from a strong and complicated belief in sacrifice which emerged from long interviews we held with people from 100 working-class families in Boston. The people came from five neighborhoods, all white, but with different mixtures of Irish and Italians and of working-class families and middle-class students. The interviews were conducted in 1970; for the most part, people were interviewed first in small groups and then singly. These people feel that the anxieties they experience in contemporary America, the tensions they have to bear, ought to give them the right to demand that society give something in return, that government and large institutions should not make their burdens any worse. But to them society seems to give back ingratitude. It refuses to acknowledge that their sacrifices give them a claim for respect from the outside world.

Government welfare payments to those who do not work is the most obvious violation of the sacrificial contract; and yet the feelings of white working-class adults are more complicated than current clichés of “backlash” or “working-class authoritarianism” make them seem.

People on welfare, the bricklayer feels, have given up trying to win respect in the social order and have “gotten away with it.” “I work for my money,” he says. “My job is to work for my family.” But hidden behind such familiar sentiments is a fascination with the thought of people on welfare: “They don’t wanna work, they live for nothing but kicks, nothing but good booze and good sex.” The image of the welfare “chiselers” draws him like a magnet; he returns to it again and again, fascinated by their refusal to make his sacrifices. “What kills me are these people that are on welfare and things like that—or like these colored people that’re always squawkin’. Yet they don’t wanta work. I go out, I work sometimes nine, ten days in a row, I got five children. That’s what burns me, when somebody else—like this woman on the street here that collects welfare. She’s a phony, but she can still collect it. She takes a cab back and forth to shop, and we pay for it.”

Yet when asked directly what it might be like to be on welfare, he answers quite differently. He knows very well that most people on welfare are unable to work, that the number of possible chiselers is in fact quite small. The wife of another laborer describes how he comes home drunk four or five times a year, arguing, “It’s not worth it. What’s it all about? Let’s go on welfare.” Although tempted at times by the material advantages that, in moments of passion, he believes those on welfare receive, this man is aware of how such people are actually treated, by the degradation he feels public assistance would bring to himself.

Why does the image of the “chiseler” so excite people? Why is their anger so out of proportion to the number of “chiselers”? The reason is not simply that those sensitive to welfare chiselers tend to equate people on welfare with blacks. In none of the discussions we had did anyone speak about blacks as a group tainted by heredity. The distinction manual laborers made between “good” blacks and “bad” was that the “good” blacks were people whom they saw living and thinking like themselves, while “bad” blacks were the opposite—lazy, sexually insatiable, dropouts who appealed to an establishment contemptuous of the worker. While all welfare chiselers were supposed to be black, few blacks were welfare chiselers.

In much of the recent concern about discontent among white workers in America and in England, blue-collar workers have been described as especially prone to feelings of racism or racial animosity, on the grounds that the challenges of blacks press most directly on them. Careful studies fail to support this notion. Racial attitudes, as Gunner Myrdal was first to point out, followed by Adorno and contemporary writers like Gary Marx, are formed by far more complicated factors than occupation. Distance from a black community, for example: those living farther away tend to fear blacks more, since their picture of blacks comes not through daily contact but through fantasies generated by isolation. Laborers living in neighborhoods where blacks are moving in are more prejudiced than laborers living in already mixed neighborhoods. In one survey, the group most prejudiced against welfare “chiselers” and rioters turned out to be black middle-class women living in black suburbs.

It is not, then, blacks that disturb the workers we interviewed, but the idea of people “getting away with something I never got away with.” Because a man sacrifices, he, if anyone, deserves a break. Welfare chiselers, however, disturb him because they pose a temptation to him: If people refuse to make sacrifices, yet are subsidized by the state, their very existence calls into question the meaning of his own acts of self-abnegation. Since sacrifice is a voluntary virtue, a meaning the sacrificer has created out of material circumstances of his life, it takes only one welfare chiseler getting sympathy and help from the authorities without any show of self-sacrifice to make that willed, created meaning vulnerable.

Do the “chiselers” have some secret he doesn’t know about? No, that would leave him with absolutely nothing; even sacrificing himself would then fail to give strength. If women on welfare are free, if they can receive money from the state to support themselves and their always present but never seen men, then he has become superfluous as the provider for his family, his sacrifices are no longer essential to his wife and children. Yet the working-class fathers we spoke to believe only sacrifice makes a person “worth” something to those he loves.

Those who refuse to sacrifice must therefore be the incarnation of evil, the denial of anything a decent man does, evil not simply unto themselves, but destroyers of his own powers. They, with their reputation for good sex and boozing, show the kind of freedom that comes when you stop trying to perform. The immediate result is that blacks receiving public assistance—whom most studies show to hate living on welfare as passionately as employed workers—meet a wall of anger and desire for revenge.

II

The same anger directed at the betrayers of the contract of sacrifice reappears, however, when the threat comes not from below but from above.

Fred Gorman, a television repairman, yields to no one in his dislike of “lazy” people on welfare. Yet his anger is equally great toward two of his fellow workers who are graduate engineers but could not survive the depression in the aerospace industry that began in the late Sixties. (Precipitous declines like this occur, according to one estimate, to about 13 percent of professional workers.) Now they are repairing TV sets just as Gorman does. Why does a fall from respectability so rare as this earn Gorman’s scorn?

I just don’t like people like them among us,” he says. “I mean, they got education.” By his ideals of personal independence, educated men should not be changing TV tubes. He has become reconciled in his own way to his own position—“I just hack around”—but it is hard for him to accept the idea that the social order could sacrifice such men as these. Educated men are supposed to have an inner, unalienable freedom, to have developed within themselves the kind of power no one else can take away. If even they prove weak, it means there is no security, no freedom, no possibility of escape for himself or for his children; it means his sacrifices are empty of their meaning. Thus he rebels at any interpretation of the fate of these men that would imply that they were not in control, and insists that they must have perversely decided to “hack around,” troubling men like himself and making them feel afraid. Having such men as coworkers appears to Gorman to be not only a travesty of the social order but a personal insult. Their decline to equality with him is a kind of betrayal.

The anger many workers feel toward students springs in part from the same root. A refusal to sit comfortably on the throne of ability and privilege seems a personal insult to those who are denied this seat. If a privileged kid doesn’t want to stay respectable, how can I believe there is any escape from my own privations? They embody the future, and the future is betraying me.

At the same time, over and over again in our talks, people expressed great resentment against “being treated like nothing,” “being treated like you was dirt,” “like you are part of the woodwork.” How is a man to make himself visible?

So there’s these people down the street, who act like they got no self-respect…I mean their kids is in rags almost and they’re livin’ it up…parties and all…the house is always a mess, they don’t make no effort…. Yeah, it makes me mad, ‘cause you know we’re watchin’ our step, we’re trying to make a decent home, and you get people like that, they’re ruining things in the neighborhood.”

The anger here is expressed by a white butcher toward a white fireman, where both families stand about equally in the world. Using the tool of his own self-discipline as a yardstick, the speaker can set himself apart from the “trash” down the street who have no self-respect. Sacrifice is the last resource for individualism, the last demonstration of competence. It is always available to you, because your desires are always part of you. It is the most fundamental action you can perform that proves your ability to be in control, the final demonstration of virtue when all else fails.

Sacrifice, then, legitimizes a person’s view of himself as an individual, with the right to feel anger—anger of a peculiar, focused sort: In setting you off as an individual, a virtuous person compared to others who are less forceful, self-denial makes possible the ultimate perversion of love: it permits you to practice that most insidious and devastating form of self-righteousness in which you, oppressed, in your anger turn on others who are also oppressed, rather than on those intangible, invisible, impersonal forces that have made you all vulnerable.

The trouble is that investing one’s social position with moral meaning through sacrifice is a desire bred in its turn by forces beyond a person’s control. Society forces men to translate their social position into images of personal worth. The social genesis of feelings of betrayal we can perhaps make clearest by quoting in full and then interpreting one of the more dramatic discussions of our formal interviews.

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