Opinion: Today’s working class roughed up, cheated and ignored

SHARE Opinion: Today’s working class roughed up, cheated and ignored
SHARE Opinion: Today’s working class roughed up, cheated and ignored

We are now just a year away from the general elections of 2016, and those in the running for various offices, from senator to president, are hauling out the magic words and phrases, which when spoken, give the illusion that something will be done when nothing really will. Hocus-pocus! and rahnagazoo!

Regarding employment: “I’ll create jobs!”

Regarding education: “Children are our future!”

Regarding economic opportunity: “I know how to grow the middle class!”

Ah, the politically sacred middle class, for whom all politicians and their parties are supposedly working to protect.

OPINION

At the risk of offending many readers, I have never worried or cared about the middle class; I worry, and care, instead, about the working class, as I am a product of it — once a third-generation steelworker on Chicago’s Southeast Side where I was born and raised.

For me, the working class has been this country’s saving grace, as from its ranks have risen our best writers, artists, athletes and leaders; from its collective mindset have come the ideas of hard work, fair play and equality. The philosopher Eric Hoffer has been attributed with saying that the working class is “lumpy with talent,” and I agree.

At the end of World War II, the veterans — who overwhelmingly came from the working class — returned home and entered the work force or the classrooms and transformed the nation. Since the Great Recession, however, today’s working class has been roughed up, cheated and largely ignored.

The working class in America hasn’t withered due solely to the dwindling of blue-collar jobs, although this has played an important role in its diminishment. The problem is that few, if any, people want to identify themselves as being members of the working class.

Many Americans, and especially politicians, look at the working class as being either “welfare queens,” Medicaid deadbeats or unworthy recipients of unemployment benefits. To be working class is akin to being poor, which is another way of saying that someone is worthless … or a minority. Yet, as always, the members of the working class are expected to pay their taxes and fight overseas, while the middle class and the elites are largely spared from such things.

The working class — its steelworkers, carpenters, plumbers and other tradesmen, as well as its police and firemen — couldn’t stand being working class, and instead, reconceived of themselves as middle class in their attitudes and spending habits. Yet I would argue that the middle class — doctors, lawyers, teachers — has always been a narrow spectrum of professions.

The working class, led by the nose by advertisers, the media and the siren call of consumerism, crossed over the economic line in its mentality, as well as in its actual ability to spend. New cars, large screen televisions, personal computers, expensive family trips, houses bigger than their needs and more expensive than their means — all the material aspects of the middle class weighed down the working class.

In our corporate-controlled, consumer-oriented world, luxuries became necessities, image trumped substance, and in the fall of 2008, as the real estate debacle unfolded on Wall Street, the blue-collar world couldn’t bear that weight and the American economy came down in smoke and ash.

Members of today’s working class, especially the young, don’t need pity or scorn, and they don’t need to be either ignored or romanticized. They need good, full-time jobs (sorry, no part-time jobs in dollar stores or fast food joints) and access to an affordable liberal education rooted in literature and history that cultivates an analytical mind and that instills a sense of ethical and civic responsibility. (If an image is needed here for reference, consider the painting “Freedom of Speech,” from Norman Rockwell’s 1943 series “The Four Freedoms.”) The last is especially important, if only for one reason: to be able to decide who to vote for … or against.

The working class doesn’t need to be turned into merely consumers of things beyond their immediate economic reach, or into corporate drones. The greatest benefit to being a member of the working class is that one could, in fact, aspire to become something else. The struggle to make that come true is what makes us human, and what once made this country thrive.

John Vukmirovich is a writer and researcher who lives in Chicago.

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