Working Class Values

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

“People in my neighborhood don’t like the phrase ‘working class.’ The guys I grew up with, their mothers mostly didn’t work back in those days, and their fathers didn’t go to college. But they were proud, and if you asked them what they were, they were middle class.”
–Joe Biden, video presentation at the Democratic National Convention

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad about Joe Biden. Barack Obama was my first choice for the nomination, John Edwards my second (who knew?). I liked Biden, Dodd, Kucinich, and Richardson as potential presidents, not so much as potential candidates. I would have supported any one of them who won the nomination, and any would have been fine with me as the VP nominee.

But what Biden said about the working class in his video Wednesday night insulted me and a bunch of other working class people I know. It also disappointed me on several levels. I don’t think it’s worth my time writing to him about it, so I’ll tell you and then I can get it off my mind.

Some years ago, at potluck lunch with a bunch of people who considered themselves religious liberals, my husband referred to himself as a working class man. “Why do you put yourself down that way?” one of the people asked. My husband was too stunned, or too polite, to answer. I’m the mouth in our family, so I told her — politely, I hope — that “working class” is not an insult. It’s a fact.

I grew up in my grandfather’s house, with my parents and two sisters. My parents had lost their entire $500 in savings when the banks closed in 1929. That would be $6,400 now. At the time $500 was about half the price of the kind of Philadelphia row house my grandfather owned. My parents never got back to the point where they’d saved enough for a down payment on a house of their own until about the time I left home in 1954.

We were working class people. My father was a printer. My grandfather had a little machine that took the stuff mothballs are made of and pressed them into the shape of a little bottle. While they were hot, he stuck the hook part of a metal hanger into the bottle so it could hang on the bar in a clothes closet. When the bottles cooled, he went out and sold them door to door.

Before the Depression people didn’t talk about class, but everyone knew where they fit in. There were the homeless people, usually migrant families; the poor; the working class, who did the hard stuff, working with their hands and their backs; the middle class – shopkeepers, small business owners (not small like the SBA defines small, but just big enough to support a few families), teachers, doctors, and men who managed rich people’s businesses. Then there was the upper class, whose lives never got near ours, even when we worked as their servants.

The depression leveled things out for all but the upper class. The middle class was in some ways worse off than the working class. There was nobody to buy from the shops, there were few businesses to manage, people desperate for doctoring paid with fresh eggs or by taking in their family’s laundry. At least working class women could clean houses and office buildings, working class men could work for the county cleaning up along the sides of roads. Since the country’s opinion leaders couldn’t admit that the middle class had fallen, economically, to the level of the poor and working class, everyone had to be considered part of the middle class. To say otherwise would be to admit a great defeat. Now, no one knew where they fit in, but people still didn’t talk about class. The subject had become taboo, except among far-left intellectuals.

Today, when some sociology professor with a grant sends a bunch of graduate students out with a questionnaire, 85 percent of Americans define themselves as middle class. Sure they are. And all the children are above average.

I don’t know which of the candidates in this year’s primary campaign first started talking about the working class as a group apart from the working poor. I was delighted that people were again recognizing the existence of the working class, even though before long Hillary Clinton discovered her working class creds (as if), pretending to knock back a shot (of Crown Royal, for crying out loud) and hoist a beer mug. Obama talked about working class people at a fundraiser and was maliciously misquoted (and will be again this fall, no doubt.)

Still, there seemed a chance that working class people might be recognized for what they are – the wheels that keep this country moving. So when Biden dissed the working class, I felt foolish for having hoped that a Democratic win would bring workers to a position of dignity.

What disappointed me about Biden’s video remarks on how people in Scranton felt about being called “working class” was that it is a steaming pile of cow flop. In the first place, nobody called them working class. Nobody talked about class at all. And if you asked a man what he was, he’d answer with what he did. He’d say, I’m a janitor, a millwright, a farmer, a punch press operator. And he’d say it with pride. For working class people life is work, and work is the source of dignity.

When a plant closes and a working class person loses a job they’ve worked at for years, it’s more than an economic loss. It’s a loss of identity, personhood, dignity. Training someone for a new kind of work is a necessity, but our leaders should never forget that training is only a financial solution. Training doesn’t ameliorate the grief over the loss of one’s co-workers, the sense of belonging somewhere. When you stop getting a paycheck it’s like the world stops saying you deserve the air you breathe.

It also pissed me off that Biden said women “mostly didn’t work back in those days.” Working class women worked 18-hour days back then, cleaning, cooking, doing the wash – often by hand – minding the children, anticipating their men’s physical and emotional needs so the men didn’t have to think about what they needed. Food, clean clothing, and all the rest of it was always there for them. During the war, women worked in factories and then came home and did the housework, too. Listening to Biden say they “didn’t work” was like traveling back in time. He should know better than that by now.

I think Biden has some making up to do, with working class people and stay-at-home moms. He can do it. There’s time. But if he can’t do it honestly and with humility, he’d better not do it at all. They may live in cities, some of them, but working class people know a pile of manure when they smell it.

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6 Responses to “Working Class Values”

  1. For a person who can not vote but living in the U.S. right now, it is amazing the common sense is not getting through. The small things are clouding the big picture:

    This election will show to the people in the U.S. or outside of U.S. what kind of country U.S. will be in the next 50 years: Will it be the country of gun, christianity and antiabortion, or a country that has a will to put economy first and work out social values among the people?

    If McCain wins, people are not going to come to U.S. as used to be. The strength of the U.S. will be gradually eroded. It will be the beginning of the decline of the American power. It may not be clear to the voting citizens but decline of a country is norm, not exception. U.S. has been an exception for 200 years. McCain and Palin will show the world that this country has no willingness to move ahead, but backforward.

    Just think:  If abortion is illegal as Republicans intended, even in the case of rape, I don’t think people want to come to live in the U.S. And the decline of a country’s first signal is people are not flocking to this country any more.

    As to whether Biden’s ad. offend you or not, I believe you can say you disagree on the terms of the ad. But is that enough to go to McCain? Does he have to apologize so that the other side can get away from all the other things they have never apologized? I mean, in a defining moment like this, if Obama didn’t win, it’s because domocrats have lost their sense of the greater goods.

  2. Thank you for your reasoned comment, Lee, and for the chance to clarify what I wrote.

    Nothing on earth could make me vote for the Republican candidate. I will vote for Barack Obama, and contribute to his campaign whenever I can.

    I don’t expect Biden to apologize, but I’d like to see him modify what he says in the future about the working class, and about women who stay home to care for their families.  Both are worthy of more respect than his video demonstrated.

    That said, it is clear to me that what little respect he expressed in that quotation is much greater than the respect the Republican Party shows working class people.  And their respect for women is demonstrated by the fact that they don’t trust women to take charge of their own lives and bodies.

  3.  My parents were people who prefered to think of themselves as middle class though clearly they were working class.  Class warfare has always swirled around taking offense that certain class designations had well, less class than others.   Building a “class” less society where everyone feels equal “worth” is the real American dream for many people.  For me, none of the labels matter.  And I suspect Joe Biden feels pretty much the same, but I think I understand what he was saying and I don’t take offense at all.

  4. I have to say that Biden’s comment resonates with me. I come from a background that was clearly working class, and I don’t think that’s an insult. However, I always thought my family was middle class, and possibly even upper middle class, until I went to college. It was there that I realized that I came from a working-class background. It didn’t make me feel bad–in fact, I felt proud that my parents were giving me the same opportunity that children of much wealthier parents had. It said a lot to me about their values. I did realize, though, why my parents had coached me, when people invited me places I couldn’t afford, to say that I had other plans. They had no patience with people who talked “poor mouth.” For better or worse, this was one way they expressed their pride in who they were, which Biden stresses. We were always told that we had enough, which isn’t such a bad message.
    If you read literature about ethnic minorities, you find that often they don’t realize that they are a minority until they go to school and it’s pointed out to them. I think class issues can work the same way. In my hometown, my parents seemed to be doing pretty well compared to a lot of other people. They gave to charity, and I always assumed you had to be pretty darn well off to do that! I had to leave my tiny New England villlage to discover that I was from a different class.

  5. I was born during WWII into a family of 5 children whose father worked at the city’s sewage disposal plant (not in the office) and whose stay-at-home mom brought in extra income by renting out a bedroom that was by no means a “spare room” to single persons – there were few apartment buildings in my town – and to stretch my dad’s paycheck, she planted and tended a huge vegetable garden in our back yard every summer, followed by weeks with a steaming kitchen filled with boiling water, canning jars and a huge, dangerous pressure cooker, “putting up” her vegetables and store-bought fruit in order to provide a portion of our family’s food.  I took no offense whatsoever at the Biden commercial – our generation did not bristle at the idea of our moms being labeled as “not working” – it was a term that rarely was even heard, just the typical way to differentiate between the rare single women who were employed outside the home and the rest of the women like my mom – And I and my siblings, and most of the other children from my neighborhood who grew up together back then had no idea we were “working class” families or that to say our moms “didn’t work” might one day be construed as an insult.

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