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Books and the Arts: Life After the Great Industrial Extinction

Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

By Tracy Neumann

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

 

From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City

By Chloe Taft

Harvard University Press, 2016

 

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, all eyes turned to the Rust Belt. We heard stories of Youngstown and Erie, of the misery of coal country, and of how the anger of laid- off factory workers drove them into the arms of Donald Trump. Two new books suggest we have a good deal more to learn about what has been happening in what used to be the arsenal of democracy. Tracy Neumann’s Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America and Chloe Taft’s From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City respectively examine postindustrialism in the former steel towns of Pittsburgh, Hamilton, Ontario, and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Things are not so simple after the factory gates close, both argue.

Neumann and Taft both complicate and expand on the definitions and geography of deindustrialization offered in seminal works like Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison’s The Deindustrialization of America and Daniel Bell’s optimistic The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. These well-researched, passionately-argued books each show, in the words of Neumann, “the primacy of local place in understanding how global and national social, political, and economic processes that constituted postindustrialism were worked out on the ground.” In their close attention to the particularities, processes, and context of how local communities grappled with these large-scale transformations, they complicate not just existing definitions of postindustrialism, but also neoliberalism. Neumann and Taft’s approaches reveal the value in exploring what geographers Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have deemed “actually existing neoliberalism” rather than simply critiquing neoliberal ideology.

While Remaking the Rust Belt and From Steel to Slots seem to cover similar ground, they are neither in conflict nor redundant. Both authors expand the parameters of the “community study” approach to scholarship, breathing new life into the method. Yet they are quite different books and offer distinct perspectives and approaches.

Remaking the Rustbelt redraws the geography of the Rust Belt, drawing in Canada and Western Europe. Neumann challenges the widespread assumption that postindustrial transformation was historically inevitable and the by-product of “natural business cycles” and  “neutral market forces.” Instead, she reveals how it emerged from the deliberate efforts of public-private partnerships between politicians and corporate elites. She defines postindustrialism simultaneously as a “pervasive ideology that privileged white-collar jobs and middle-class residents” and “a set of pragmatic tactics” of public-private partnerships, which “included financial incentives, branding campaigns and physical redevelopments.”

Pittsburgh is routinely celebrated as the success story in narratives of urban rebirth, while Hamilton—its smaller Canadian counterpart—is seen as Toronto’s unsuccessful sibling. The comparison between the two steel cities enables Neumann to show both that the Rust Belt was a transnational phenomenon and how postindustrialism developed unevenly not just within cities, but among them.

Neumann demonstrates that while postindustrial ideology doggedly emphasized the future, it had roots firmly in the growth coalitions that had dominated postwar cities. Upending many treatments of postindustrial and neoliberal urbanism, she contends that public-private partnerships did not emerge de novo in the 1970s, but were intensifications of arrangements forged during the era of urban renewal. The postindustrial city was not a form of rupture, but rather continuity.

Pittsburgh offers an effective case in point. In the 1950s and 1960s the city initiated a massive urban renewal program called the Renaissance aimed at revitalizing the central business district (“the Golden Triangle”), which created key alliances between the public and private sector. In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of mayors in the New Democrat mold joined corporate leaders to reinvigorate that model. The members of this growth coalition saw in the decline of steelmaking not an impediment, but an opportunity. They initiated “Renaissance II,” mobilizing public subsidies to draw corporate headquarters downtown, swapping smokestacks for skyscrapers. Renaissance II developed new retail, entertainment and leisure spaces beyond the Golden Triangle to transform the city into “a postindustrial utopia for young well-educated professionals.”

Neumann provides an insightful analysis of how the city’s branding campaign served as a “material and symbolic” to create a new mental map of urban space. Mayor Richard Caliguiri’s goal was a population of “less people with high incomes than more people relatively low earning and spending power.” He wanted “to tear every picture of Pittsburgh’s smokestacks out of the country’s textbooks.” While branding and other tactics stopped short of that ambition, they were able to transform Pittsburgh’s reputation and physical landscape. By the mid-1980s, it earned the designation as “America’s Most Livable City.” The mid-1980s, of course, simultaneously saw a Depression-scale social and economic collapse in the old blue-collar neighborhoods along the Monongahela River. “Livable” for whom?

Pittsburgh, nevertheless, became an international model for other cities across the Rust Belt, including Ontario’s Hamilton. That steel center had its own growth coalition, which sought to remake it into a headquarters for the service and financial sectors. Hamilton’s bureaucrats emulated Pittsburgh, exchanging ideas and taking “policy tours” of their southern neighbor. However, Canadian policy constrained Hamilton’s leaders. The federal and provincial governments imposed a provincial growth policy requiring the city to remain a manufacturing center and preventing it from taking steps that might threaten Toronto’s position as the center of the postindustrial economy. Despite efforts on the part of the growth coalition and the consultants they hired, Hamilton had difficulty transcending its “lunch bucket” image. Ultimately city leaders had no choice but to embrace that reputation in a rather less successful urban branding campaign than Pittsburgh’s.

Rather than examine the hard-luck workers, Neumann focuses primarily on the efforts of the politicians, corporate leaders, technocrats, policy officials, and urban branders who together produced these new visions of the postindustrial landscape. She is careful to neither celebrate nor revile them. Neumann instead contends that that these figures pursued such a vision because they saw it as their only politically viable option. This was less “neoliberalism by design,” and more  “neoliberalism by default.” Such choices often emerged from forces beyond policymakers’ control; nonetheless, they inscribed inequality even deeper into the urban landscape.  

Neumann’s attention to urban policy is important for understanding the construction of key structures and systems of inequality. The book gives concrete meaning to abstractions like neoliberalism and postindustrialism. Her approach, nevertheless, demonstrates a tradeoff not only for policymakers but also for the scholars who study them. Neumann’s emphasis means that she gives less voice to the blue-collar and poor residents who absorbed the brunt of the urban transformation. She describes how branding campaigns glossed over Pittsburgh’s tradition of labor unrest, but at times she unintentionally replicates that tendency. She does describe the valiant and often dramatic efforts of activists against urban growth coalitions, though they were of little avail. In the epilogue, Neumann notes that by 2010 Pittsburgh had the highest rate of poverty among working-age African Americans in the forty largest metropolitan areas in the United States. While the book explains some of the policy that produced this calamity, there is little discussion of the people who experienced it.

While Neumann might not pay enough heed to how ordinary people made sense of the remaking of the urban economy and landscape, this is the central focus of From Steel to Slots. Taft provides an ethnographic analysis of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which sits 300 miles east of Pittsburgh.  Throughout the twentieth century it served as headquarters of Bethlehem Steel, at one point the world’s second largest steelmaker. Following the closing of “the Steel” in 2009, Sheldon Adelson’s Sands Casino Corporation—the world’s largest casino operator—opened an outpost on the former site of the mill. This transformation reveals an alternative model of public-private partnership and economic redevelopment rooted in the gaming industry. Yet the relationship between Adelson and local bureaucrats is not what interests Taft.  Rather, she concentrates on “how locals have variously embraced and grappled with the remaking of their steel town as a postindustrial city.”

. While Neumann defines postindustrialism in terms of urban policy and development, Taft is more invested in its cultural dimensions—what postindustrialism means to those who live it. She offers a literally fine-grained analysis, showing how particles of dust, Christmas lights, and mailboxes all became sites where residents grappled with the transformation of Bethlehem. In her examination of the texture of the city, Taft illustrates how economic restructuring left its mark on a range of spaces and experiences from churches and local festivals to heritage tourism exhibits. Where Neumann grounds her argument in planning reports and other evidence culled from municipal archives, Taft relies on interviews with 76 residents. These lend the book a conversational tone.

Taft’s source base also helps her show that deindustrialization was “not a finite moment or breaking point.” She finds instead a “diversity of experiences and interpretations of ongoing economic change.” Taft’s informants transcend class, racial and spatial boundaries and include representatives from Bethlehem’s sizable white-collar workforce and significant Latino population. These perspectives help her dispel the assumption that white steelworkers were the only people who lived in Bethlehem or who experienced deindustrialization.

Taft avoids declaring Bethlehem’s transformation a success or a failure. She does not offer a nostalgic view of the city’s bygone industrial era or castigate Bethlehem’s links to a global gaming network extending from Las Vegas to Macau. Bethlehem has long been enmeshed in a wider world. The Steel’s products were always part of the global market. The same roadway built to carry Bethlehem’s products to market now brings Chinese immigrants from New York and New Jersey to test their luck at the Sand’s baccarat tables.  “Lived from day to day,” she writes, “postindustrialism reflects an ongoing process marked by complicated, and at times paradoxical, continuities that also challenge well-worn categories of ’before’ and ‘after.’”

The casino itself highlights this duality. The Sands Corporation decided to abandon the Venetian-themed aesthetic of its other casinos for an industrial style, designing the building to evoke a steel mill in 1942. Taft suggests that by selecting that particular year, which represents the apex of production, the casino’s design offers as much of an escapist fantasy as the gondolas in Las Vegas. The decision of the Sands to embrace an industrial aesthetic might appear perverse—even cruel. Taft, though, finds a signification that the process of creative destruction was never entirely as complete as it might seem.

Taft provides a fascinating and detailed discussion of the ways in which the casino operates as a “postindustrial factory”—a phrase that succinctly collapses the dualities of before and after. While the dealers’  jobs reproduce the routinization of factory work without the midcentury social contract, many of the dealers have absorbed the company ideology about the value of entrepreneurship, individual responsibility, and flexibility. She suggests the dealers’ labor and attitude stands in for the broader experiences of postindustrial employment insecurity. However, if casino workers have indeed bought in to management ideology, it seems doubtful that they would join in the kind of collective action that Taft repeatedly suggests the built environment and processes of “place-making” could bring.  

From Steel to Slots suggests that the casino itself reflects the larger financialization of the “new economy.” While Taft’s focus on Bethlehem allows her argument an intimate scale, her discussion of aspects of economic and political structures is much more vague than Neumann’s. Taft frequently alludes to a neoliberal and free-market logics without explaining what she means. This type of analysis ultimately makes the forces of the market seem inevitable and natural rather than the product of policies, deliberate decisions by politicians and corporate leaders, or even identifiable economic processes. Despite a few references to Adelson, managers, bureaucrats, and politicians play a minor role in the book and there is little attention to specific policies—those that Neumann draws out so well. (For example, what process led Pennsylvania to loosen regulation on the gaming industry in the 2000s, allowing the casino to be built in the first place?) Taft’s attention to how residents made cultural and social meanings out of economic restructuring is compelling; ultimately, though,  without more context about local, state and international political economy, it is hard to grasp in material terms how such meanings provide building blocks to create the “more equitable future” she calls for. It might make some readers skeptical that it would be possible.

As Neumann points out, policy decisions shape “the material possibilities and daily lives of urban dwellers.” By now it has become clear that our national politics are being whipsawed by the retribution for decades elite control over such material possibilities. In facing the new political order emerging throughout the North Atlantic, sensitivity to the unevenness of postindustrial development—to “actually existing neoliberalism”—is needed now more than ever. Neumann and Taft’s collective analysis is extremely important for demonstrating that there is no one definition or uniform set of policy prescriptions that will work in all communities. There is no singular Rust Belt space, resident, or experience; nor is there a singular postindustrial city. Economic change has gnawed away quickly here, slowly there, creating a variegated map of deprivation and prosperity. Such understanding will be crucial in organizing to resist policies that do not take such forms of unevenness into account and for proposing ones that do.

In 2016, Uber deployed its first self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. The high-tech car service giant has come to represent both the transformation of American cities into “livable” playgrounds for the affluent and, at the same time, the worst kind of gig economy working conditions. The growing tech boom in Pittsburgh—reflected in Uber’s presence—is the fruit of the urban redevelopment efforts of the postwar years and particularly the 1970s and 1980s. This approach to postindustrial renewal has, on its face, been successful in bringing about a new economy. But we should not overlook the irony that even cab drivers are now at risk of replacement by automation. Professional-class Democrats counting on “retraining” to make the Rust Belt working class vanish and drop its grievances would do well to take note, and to heed the lesson of these books: the Rust Belt did not just happen, but was made. Those who live through economic restructuring do not always have the same experiences, or interpret those experiences in ways that are predictable. No one is immune to creative destruction, but we are not helpless before it either.

 

How Census Data Mislead Us about Ethno-Racial Change in the United States: A Response to Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz

I am pleased to open a conversation with G. Cristina Mora and Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz about census data and what they indicate about ethno-racial change

in this issue of New Labor Forum. To forestall misunderstandings, I think it advisable at the outset to make clear the framework within which I am operating. I take it from the way that Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz formulate their critique that their starting point is critical race theory, with its normatively inflected concerns about the deep and persisting structures of American racism and the pathways to eventual racial justice. That is fine. But I am operating from a different standpoint, that of sociological realism, which has the goal of identifying and understanding important ongoing social processes and discerning their implications. This, it should be obvious, does not mean that I am unconcerned about racial justice, just as critical race theorists generally are not unconcerned about empirical patterns and their consequences.

It does not help the conversation that Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz tend throughout to downplay the significance of the concerns behind my analysis, which they characterize as narrowing “debates to the issue of ‘methodological accuracy’.” I find
this an unfortunate attempt to reduce my argument to mainly technical issues (granted, these are part of the story); they miss that I, too, am talking ultimately about social power, even if I do not place it in the foreground in the piece I wrote for The American Prospect (it is more clear in other writings, some currently under review [1]).

As if in further challenge to my arguments, Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz caution that “demo- graphic projections must be handled with care.” But I could not agree more; that is in fact why I wrote The American Prospect article. Has any demographic projection received more widespread credence than the one that America is heading inevitably toward a majority-minority society, in which whites will finally be reduced to numerical minority status? According to the Census Bureau, this outcome is destined to occur before the middle of this century [2]. At the end of the last century, this transition was already heralded by then-President Bill Clinton, who declared in a widely quoted 1998 speech that in fifty years America would not have a “majority race.” Since 2000, Americans have grown more confident about this outcome, supported by regular communications from the Census Bureau that seem to support it. For instance, whites are now a minority of U.S. babies, according to one Census Bureau report (the claim in my view is false, or at least deeply misleading, because the majority of U.S. babies have a white parent) [3]. The confidence that a majority-minority society is on the near horizon has produced websites advising whites how to handle this new situation, given white supremacist groups an appeal for recruiting, and perhaps spurred over-confidence among some multi-culturally disposed intellectuals.

To clarify my problems with this vision of the American future, I have to correct some impressions conveyed by Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz. They appear to think that I am arguing that Hispanics who report their race as white on the census should be regarded as white, and so should individuals from mixed racial backgrounds (more specifically, those whose families include white and minority parentage). Neither supposition is correct. And, in the case of Latinos who check the “white” race box on the census, I agree with Mora and Rodríguez- Muñiz that the reasons for this choice are variable, and it can be a sign of resistance rather than of membership.

Yet one of the big stories of the early twenty-first century has to be the growing group of Americans, disproportionate among children and young adults because of the recent rises in the frequency of mixed unions, who come from mixed majority-minority families. Due to the limitations in census data, which are particularly severe for Latinos, this group can be most unambiguously identified among infants because one can in most cases examine the ethno-racial backgrounds of the parents (or, in the case of single-parent families, compare what the parent says about the child with what she, in the usual case, says about herself). Analyzing census data from 2013 with PhD candidates Brenden Beck and Duygu Basaran Sahin, I estimate that this group amounts to 10 to 11 percent of infants; about half are part Anglo and part Latino, a group central to the exchange with Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz [4]. These are larger numbers than one would obtain by looking only at the reports parents provide for infants. This is true for two reasons: parents sometimes report only a single race for mixed-race children, and, more important, the ethno-racial questions on the census do not permit reports that individuals are partly Latino and partly something else. (A proposed change for the 2020 census—merging the race and Hispanic-origin questions—might ameliorate this problem.)

I contend that the group of mixed-[race]origins is of great significance for discerning ways that ethno-racial boundaries may be blurring and for contemplating the American future, at least that of the next several decades. Its members straddle these salient boundaries and possess close family ties on multiple sides of them. Their experiences can reflect a potent new form of conviviality, which brings together family members from across ethno-racial divides, at least for important symbolic occasions such as weddings and funerals. Yet these experiences may also be deeply colored by power differentials, in which the less powerful experience forms of distancing such as micro-aggressions. This seems particularly apparent in the cases of individuals who are partly black.

I acknowledge that we do not yet know a great deal about the mixed-origins group. But what evidence we have is highly suggestive: to start with, an examination (in census data) of the income and residential characteristics of the families of mixed infants indicates that, on the whole, they resemble much more all-white families than they do the all-minority families that share the same minority origin. Families that have a white mother and a black father, which make up the great majority of white-black unions, are the exception to these generalizations [5].

If we examine the adult characteristics of individuals from mixed majority-minority family backgrounds—and, admittedly, the evidence is sparser here—we find a picture consistent
with integration into the white mainstream for most, with those of partly black ancestry again the prominent exception. Social identities appear to be more fluid and contingent than are the identities of individuals with unmixed backgrounds. For individuals who are partly white but not black, this fluidity often “tilts white,” in the sense that they incline more to the white side of their ancestry than to the minority side—for instance, in their sense of acceptance by others [6]. The social worlds of individuals with white and non-black minority parentage also tilt white. For example, individuals whose parentage is partly white mostly marry all-white partners. In the case of individuals who are white and either American-Indian or Asian, about 70 percent do. Even in the case of adults who are partly white and partly black, a majority takes white partners [7].

This picture of the group from mixed majority-minority backgrounds leads to the hypothesis, empirically verifiable in the future, that a white majority is likely to persist longer than the widely believed census projections indicate. Indeed, I believe that we should understand the majority-minority society the Census Bureau projects for the future also as a hypothesis, rather than a predictable certainty.

What is the rationale for my hypothesis? It does not, as Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz seem to believe, rely on analytic reclassifications (i.e., forcing individuals of mixed background into the white category). Rather, the instability of the social identities of these individuals implies that they will appear in the census more often as white and non-Hispanic than we would expect based on current data. We have direct evidence on this point: in a meticulous analysis that takes advantage of a unique Census Bureau data set linking individual records from 2000 and 2010, sociologists Carolyn Liebler, Sonya Porter, and their colleagues show that individuals of mixed background frequently appear as mixed (or white Hispanic) on one census and unmixed—most often as white and non-Hispanic—on another [8]. Granted, we do not understand precisely the mechanisms of this instability, which could reflect shifting individual identities or the varying perceptions of other family members (those who complete the census form), but it occurs on a sizable scale. Moreover, for Mexican-Americans, who are the majority of the Hispanic population, we have in addition the finding of labor economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo that, in the third generation, the identification with Mexican origins falls off sharply in accordance with the number of Mexican-born grandparents, a relationship that reflects the occurrence of inter-marriage in the second generation [9].

This identity instability is likely to produce more non-Hispanic whites in future censuses than one would expect because Census Bureau projections start with current census data. Individuals of mixed family background are over-represented among children, whose ethno- racial backgrounds are reported by parents, who in turn are highly likely to indicate mixed backgrounds for them. But the Census Bureau classifies these children then as non-white, and this exaggerates the growth of the minority portion of the population and ramifies through the projections (since non-whites beget non-whites). In criticizing these census practices, I never envisioned, despite what Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz suggest, that these children should be reclassified as whites. Rather, I have urged the Census Bureau to abandon binary thinking, which is not appropriate for this important and growing group. Preferable, in my view, would be to treat its members as neither white nor minority; they deserve a new category. In the event, speaking strongly against viewing them as simply minority is the degree of integration with whites that they typically evince, as described above.

Let me come now briefly to the question of power, on which Mora and Rodríguez-Muñiz focus. I argue that the patterns of identity and social affiliation evidenced by individuals with mixed backgrounds are one indication that the white-dominated mainstream is expanding, taking in some individuals of minority origins. (Although space limitations prevent me from exploring historical analogies, it is worthwhile to point out that this has happened before, most notably, in the post–World War II period, when what was originally a white Christian, that is, Protestant, mainstream absorbed large numbers of Jewish and Catholic ethnics.) This expansion is not only limited to those of mixed background, but also includes many socially mobile minorities, especially from immigration backgrounds, who are entering white-dominated spaces—such as workplaces and neighborhoods—and integrating there. This is not a frictionless process—it certainly was not historically—but it is expanding and altering the mainstream, making it visibly more diverse, at least in some regions of the United States.10 Perhaps these new members of the mainstream continue to suffer some disadvantages vis-à-vis established whites, but that was true also of the white ethnics in the beginning.

This expansion is likely to have political consequences, effectively extending the political power of the white majority, if the electoral behavior of new members of the mainstream comes to resemble that of whites—determined less by minority origins than by such factors as income, education, and residential location. Based on history, this seems a plausible hypothesis [11].

In closing, I urge Mora and Rodríguez- Muñiz to rethink their argument in light of some of their own concerns. They are, for instance, concerned with the ability to use census data to measure ethno-racial disparities; so am I. Under current census practices, minority categories are increasingly heterogeneous—in the case of Latinos, census data prevent the identification and separate classification of individuals who are partly Hispanic and partly non-Hispanic white (except when they are children living with parents), and consequently, the Hispanic category includes a rising share of individuals who are integrated with whites and, in many cases, not very different from them. This heterogeneity gets in the way of measurements of disparity, which would be sharper if the portion of a group most exposed to systemic disadvantage could be identified.12

Their concern for social justice leads me to a different, quite political point. One of the forces that has driven our electoral politics far rightward is the anxiety many whites feel about demographic change and the prospect of losing power as they become a numerical minority in parts of the country and in the United States as a whole. Indeed, white supremacy is feeding on these anxieties, which have in turn been nourished by the Census Bureau’s projections of a majority-minority future. But the projections, I argue, are based on absurd classification decisions, such as treating children with one white and one non-white parent as non-white, as if the one-drop rule of nineteenth- century racism was still operational. It is time for census data—and other data, for that matter—to reflect more accurately the social mixing across the white-minority boundaries that is taking place on the ground in many parts of the United States. Whether greater accuracy in this respect will allay the concerns of whites, I cannot say. I have no doubt, however, that the current distortions in demographic data contribute to the toxic miasma in our political discourse enveloping questions of diversity.

Notes

1. Richard Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority,” The American Prospect,  January 2016. Cf. Richard Alba, Brenden Beck, and Duygu Basaran Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again,” under review; Richard Alba and Jan-Willem Duyvendak, “What about the Mainstream? Assimilation in Super-Diverse Times,” under review; Richard Alba, “The US Is Becoming More Racially Diverse. But Democrats May Not Benefit.” The Monkey Cage, The Washington Post, January 6, 2017.

  1. Sandra Colby and Jennifer Ortman, “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060” (current population report, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2015).
  2. D’Vera Cohn, “It’s Official: Minority Babies Are the Majority among the Nation’s Infants, but Only Just” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2016); cf. National Vital Statistics Report, “Births: Preliminary Data for 2015” (Atlanta, GA: National Center for Health Statistics, 2016).
  3. Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority.”
  4. Alba, Beck, and Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again.”
  5. Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean, The Diversity Paradox: Immigration and the Color Line in Twenty-First Century America (New York: Russell Sage, 2010); Pew Research Center, Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers (Washington, DC, 2015); Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race (New York: Russell Sage, 2008).
  6. Michael Miyawaki, “Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness? A Look at the Marital Patterns of Part-White Multiracial Groups,” Sociological Forum 30, no. 4 (2015): 995-1016; Telles and

Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion.
8. Carolyn Liebler, Sonja Rastogi, Leticia

Fernandez, James Noon, and Sharon Ennis, “America’s Churning Races: Racial and Ethnic Response Changes between Census 2000 and the 2010 Census” (Center for Administrative Records Research and Applications, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, 2014).

9. Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo, “Intermarriage and the Intergenerational Transmission of Ethnic Identity and Human Capital for Mexican Americans,” Journal of Labor Economics 29, no. 2 (2011): 195-227.

10. Alba, Beck, and Sahin, “The American Mainstream Expands—Again.”

11. Alba, “The US Is Becoming More Racially Diverse.”

12. Richard Alba, Tomás Jiménez, and Helen Marrow, “Mexican Americans as a Paradigm for Contemporary Intergroup Heterogeneity,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 37 (2014): 446-66.

A Response to Richard Alba’s “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority”

That politics undergirds censuses is a truism. At least since Benedict Anderson wrote Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism in 1983 [1]. scholars have accepted that censuses are both political and scientific enterprises. Census racial classifications are a case in point because they have historically become instituted through political efforts. For example, “Mulatto” became a census classification in 1850 after politicians, alarmed by racial miscegenation, demanded that the Census Bureau enumerate those of black/white parentage [2] More recent ethnoracial categories have arisen as a result of the political efforts championed by community stakeholders. To wit, the Hispanic/Latino classification emerged as Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other community leaders pressured the Census Bureau for official recognition during the 1970s [3] And if a Middle Eastern/North African category is added to the next census in 2020, as is predicted, it will be because activists, academics, and others have lobbied over two decades for its inclusion. In effect, rather than reflecting an existing reality, all census racial categories emerge, or are negotiated, in such a political fashion—none exists in nature.

Despite the political origins of our official racial and ethnic categories, lay and academic prognostications about the country’s demo- graphic future rarely take politics seriously.

Take, for example, sociologist Richard Alba’s provocative commentary published in The American Prospect, “The Likely Persistence of a White Majority.” [4] Alba argues that recent reports

about the looming “browning of America” and the development of a “white minority” are over- blown. His claim rests on two points, the first of which involves how the Census Bureau presents racial statistics to the public. Specifically, because it classifies Latinos and mixed-race (i.e., white/ racial minority) Americans as non-white by default on census reports, the Bureau, according to Alba, “produces the smallest possible estimate” of the size of the white population. Alba contends that at least some Latinos and some persons of mixed racial heritage would be more accurately classified as white. Doing so would increase the size of the white population and thus generate a less “biased” portrait of America’s racial future.

Alba’s second point concerns the Bureau’s racial forecasts, specifically its recent contention that America is moving toward a minority majority future. He argues that the Bureau’s (and other analysts’) prognosis ignores the extent to which Latinos, immigrants, and mixed-race persons are assimilating into the white-dominant mainstream. He points to increases in mixed-race marriage (white/non-white) and higher levels of individual social mobility among minorities to make his case. The “likely result” of assimilation, Alba contends, “will be to alter the circumstances under which individuals are seen as belonging to marginalized minorities.” As a result, the “longstanding processes of assimilation could produce a white-dominated mainstream at the national level.”

Neither of Alba’s points, however, deals squarely with politics. His claim about census reporting conventions ignores the implications that racial classifications have for racial justice. After all, various activists still fight for these categories to include whom they do for specific political reasons relating to the needs of their communities. Moreover, his argument about assimilation and the enlargement of the white mainstream overlooks the sociopolitical complexity of race, especially the role of privilege and hierarchy. This failure to grapple with politics hinders broader conversations about census race data because it narrows debates to the issue of “methodological accuracy,” a concept that itself is not devoid of politics [5]. As a result, conclusions about who racial minorities are and what census race data represent become decontextualized and incomplete.

In response to Alba, we bring politics to the fore, specifically as it relates to knowledge construction and the issue of racial incorporation. Our response focuses primarily on Latinos, as this population is a key category in Alba’s analysis and is the subject of our sociological expertise. We begin by considering the politics of census reporting conventions, highlighting the much-neglected issue of racial justice. We then move on to a discussion of census data and assimilation. We conclude by addressing racial forecasts, demonstrating how politics, rather than simply demographic inevitability or the dynamics of social mobility, will also ultimately determine the country’s future and the status of its ethnic and racial populations.

Census Statistics and Racial Justice Projects

Alba critiques the Census Bureau in the interest of producing more “accurate data.” He writes,

“Not only do its rigid and illogical classifications distort important new realities, the bureau is also not forthcoming about the errors and uncertainties involved.” This language of accuracy and validity—language the Census Bureau itself embraces—treats census classifications and reporting practices simply as technical and methodological matters. Accordingly, it narrowly assesses census data in relation to statistical procedures and presentation. But there are other ways to evaluate census statistics, such as looking at them “in terms of their practical utility for social projects.” [6]

What practical utility do census race statistics have today? The answers vary, as different stake-holders use these data for different ends. Government agencies use race statistics to assess the social landscape and inform policymaking. Corporations rely on race data to market their products to different demographic communities. Social scientists draw on the statistics in their analyses. Census categories and statistics even foster narratives of community and belonging, not to mention a sense of moral worth, for those seeking an identity or recognition.

In addition, activists and social movements, particularly in the wake of the civil rights era, have turned to racial statistics to expose social inequality. In a political context that values numerical forms of knowledge, statistical evidence of underrepresentation and inequality has been indispensable to racial justice campaigns. For example, although Mexican-American and Puerto Rican activists in the 1960s argued continuously that their communities suffered from poverty and low levels of education, it was not until they possessed official census figures showing disparities that their arguments gained traction in many government sectors [7]. Census race data have also been—and continue to be— vital for monitoring voting districts and curtailing the gerrymandering practices that often disenfranchise people of color. If there is any question about the importance of racial statistics for these efforts, we implore readers to follow what has happened in Texas and North Carolina—states where the revamping of districts effectively diluted the political clout of racial minorities.

Racial statistics, as the preceding examples illustrate, are employed to make visible the systems of domination and punishment that affect communities of color at material and cultural levels [8] Indeed, black and Latino classifications help to provide evidence of how these communities suffer from limited access to quality education, grapple with mass incarceration and racial profiling, and remain underrepresented in major centers of power, from the academy to elected office. In many ways, our census race data show that the cultural scripts and institutional barriers that treat minorities as morally and professionally inferior to whites are still very much operative.

Given this racialized system, census statistics and issues of classification cannot from our perspective be assessed narrowly in terms of statistical procedure. Questions of accuracy and validity are important, but exclusively focusing on these issues ignores larger matters. We argue that proposals for making changes to census categories or reporting practices must address the political utility of race statistics for racial justice. In other words, questions and analysis of racial classification must also grapple with the issue of how changes in reporting, classifying, and collecting race data will affect racial justice projects.

Evaluating census statistics with these overt political criteria reveals the limitations of Alba’s suggestion that some Latinos and mixed-race individuals would be more accurately classified as white. We believe that adopting this practice could make it more difficult to uncover certain forms of ethnoracial inequality, given that the distinct patterns of these communities may be lost when subsumed within the broader white data. Indeed, this lack of identifying information was precisely the problem prior to the adoption of the “Hispanic” category. Only when Hispanic data were disaggregated from the white category did it become possible to statistically track the discrimination and disparities facing the Latino population. In other words, classifying Latinos as white imperiled rather than aided their fight for racial justice. Undergirding Alba’s suggestion, we believe, is an unserviceable conception of whiteness. This conception ignores the institutionalized complexity of race, including patterns of hierarchy, privilege, and domination. Thus, we now turn to the issue of precisely how to conceptualize race and whiteness within census analyses.

Assimilation and the Meaning of Whiteness

In government and marketing reports, whiteness is just another variable, a racial category among many: a self-selected identity with certain correlated attributes (e.g., education level, income). Whiteness, in other words, is a statistical artifact that distinguishes a certain population from others.

However, as conceived in racial justice projects, and for race scholars more generally, whiteness is about privilege and hierarchy [9]. Being white in America is not simply about identities or individual attributes that can be gained or lost, but rather about a privilege that has been reified within most institutions in America—from schools to workplaces to jury rooms to police forces. Moreover, it is about a hierarchy that attaches narratives about moral worth and legitimacy to images of whiteness. As such, those deemed “white” can lose income, status, or other individual attributes but not necessarily become divested of the privilege that whiteness affords, benefits that the pre-eminent sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois described as the “wages of whiteness.”

These two competing conceptions of whiteness have different implications for how we theorize the present and potential future position of Latinos and mixed-raced individuals. Viewing whiteness as linked to power and privilege complicates claims about assimilation into the white mainstream. We do not deny that people of color can become more upwardly mobile and gain access to spaces that have historically excluded them. Alba emphasizes this in his essay, noting that many Asians and other minorities now constitute a larger part of the upper class. Nor do we wish to trivialize growing rates of inter-marriage among some Latinos and mixed-raced persons. However, we are critical of those analyses that are quick to link mobility and marriage patterns to blanket statements inferring white boundary blurring.

Our criticism of these assimilation conclusions is based on the fact that America’s racial scripts and hierarchies are still heavily institutionalized in ways that validate whiteness [10]. The recent incorporation of white nationalist (sometimes euphemistically called “alt-right”) groups within the present White House administration is but one clear example. Moreover, these racial scripts persist despite the fact that people of color have experienced improvements in social mobility. As such, even those folks of color who attain high professional status are often devalued because they are not white. Professors and other professionals of color, for example, are often presumed less competent than their white counterparts [11] President Obama, the first black president in U.S. history, and the first family were subjected to overtly racist tropes splashed across the covers of high-profile publications. And while we agree that a certain strata of minorities may become (or has already become) what sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “honorary whites,” [12] we insist that the broader racial scripts and systems of domination remain by and large intact.

With respect to Latinos in particular, the suggestion that on the whole they are becoming white underestimates the ongoing racial stigmatization and exclusion faced by many in this community. Such arguments do not account for present-day anti-Latino and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. Should we assume that mass deportations, which, too, often lead to the separation of Latino families, or inflammatory electoral campaigns will have no effect on how Latinos identify and understand their place in U.S. society for years to come? And what of the widespread presumptions of illegality that Latino citizens must contend with?

Moreover, scholars who see the growing number of Latinos selecting “white” on the census as straightforward evidence of Latinos becoming white rarely contextualize such data within political history or current social dynamics. To be sure, some Latinos understand themselves as racially white. This identification may be interpreted as aspirational—a kind of racial passing—but it does not necessarily provide blanket evidence for the inevitable social inclusion of Latinos in the white-dominant mainstream. In fact, Professor Julie Dowling of the University of Illinois shows that Mexican Americans identify as “white” on the census not because they are accepted as white or even because they see themselves as white. Rather, by reframing the borders of whiteness to include them, Mexican Americans resist racial “othering,” in an effort to be accepted as fully American [13]

Political sociologist Mara Loveman uncovers a similar dynamic in her research on early twentieth-century census enumeration in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico [14] These examples suggest that white self-identification—the very evidence some scholars have used to make claims about the whitening or assimilation of Latinos—may in fact register conditions of ethnoracial exclusion. In other words, choosing whiteness is also related to the perils of living as a minority for many.

Our discussions about assimilation and racial identification, then, must entail more than inter-marriage and social mobility patterns, however important these might be. They should also recognize that in the U.S. ethnoracial order, entrenched privileges and opportunities are afforded to some and not to others. Only once this is understood can scholars begin to interpret the relationship between social mobility and racial identification, for example. These realities of power and inclusion must also be accounted for when forecasting trends, as Alba does. Such analyses, however, also need to attend to the ways that forecasts themselves shape the political context in which assimilation or integration unfolds.

Racial Forecasts in National Politics

It is one thing to classify and report on current trends, another to make projections and forecasts about the nation’s future. We hesitate to join the chorus of commentators who proclaim one demographic future or another, as Alba and others do. Our reluctance stems from the fact that demographic projection typically ignores political context. Politics are, quite literally, not factored into the predictive statistical models. But this is not our only source of hesitation. Demographic prognosticators also tend to ignore or be less concerned with the political impact of their projections.

Indeed, forecasts have real consequences for national politics, both on the left and right. On the liberal left, the “browning of America” prognosis has quickly fueled a race to secure the Latino and Asian vote, because these communities are believed to be the impetus behind the nation’s demographic changes. Therefore, the Democratic Party has steadily built a ground game in states such as Nevada, Virginia, Arizona, and Florida with a focus on securing Latino and Asian support. These moves seem promising, but far too often, such efforts seek to simply capitalize on these populations rather than invest in or support them. Rarely, if ever, do electoral campaigns genuinely take on issues of racial domination and privilege, instead holding communities of color captive to the slow, almost glacial, progress of electoral politics.

On the right, arguments about the browning of America can fuel paranoia, backlash, and hate campaigns [15] The forecasts become twisted into narratives that minorities, especially immi- grants, are “taking over” and thus diminishing the values and morals upon which the nation was founded [16]. Alba himself makes the point that “the anxieties about the end of white majority status have fueled a conservative backlash against the growing diversity of the country.” This script has historically helped to shore up Republican Party support: President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Mexican immigration brings in “criminals” and “bad hombres” is a case in point. Such nativist resentment is fueled in part by a sense that the country is no longer majority Anglo.

Given this context surrounding demographic projections, our analyses must begin to factor in the real political consequences for how we understand race and for how Americans understand their position within the nation. Racial forecasts are not neutral; they are politically charged, particularly as they travel beyond scientific contexts. When we forget this, focusing instead on which forecast is more unbiased or more accurate, we reinforce the tendency to take projections as an inevitable truth rather than a contingent prediction. Moreover, in concerning ourselves with matters of accuracy, we may inadvertently contribute to the nativist backlash and fuel the very political trends that reinforce racial inequality. Of course, we do not contend that racial forecasts are the only, or most important, influence on national racial politics. However, we do believe that ignoring the political context and consequences of such forecasts leaves us blind to one of the factors that may be shaping the political conditions of incorporation for non-white populations.

For these reasons, demographic projections must be handled with care. No future scenario, including the white minority thesis, should be viewed as inevitable. Taking a stance against one forecast by offering another, as Alba does, simply perpetuates the faulty logic of assuming that there is a “true,” scientifically valid mode of interpretation. In addition, such an approach ignores the very ways that census forecasts play a role in reifying America’s pernicious racial scripts.

Let us reiterate the centrality of politics in demographic analyses. Racial classifications and race census data are political constructs that nonetheless help to code past and present forms of inequality and discrimination. They can provide vital measures of the exclusionary power structure, data that can bolster racial justice projects. However, when analyses and discussions about race data fail to acknowledge the central role of politics, arguments about accuracy, bias, and measurement will fall dangerously short. It is only when scholars begin to take politics seriously that our analyses of census data will more comprehensively reflect how race is lived in America.

Notes

  1. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Press, 1983).
  2. Melissa Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004).
  3. G. Cristina Mora, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
  4. Richard Alba, “The Likely Persistence of White Majority,” American Prospect, January 19, 2016.
  5. Theodore Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

6. Bruce Curtis, The Politics of Population: State Formation, Statistics and the Census of Canada, 1840-1975 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 34.

7. Mora, Making Hispanics.
8. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial

Formation in the United States (New York:

Routledge, 2015).
9. Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal

Construction of Race (New York: New York

University Press, 2006).
10. Natalia Molina, How Race Is Made in America:

Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

11. Gabriela Gutierrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Nieman, Carmen Gonzalez, and Angela Harris, Presumed Incompetent: the Intersection of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Salt Lake City: Utah State University Press, 2012).

12. Eduardo Bonilla Silva, “From Bi-racial to Tri-racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 27, no. 6 (2004): 931-50.

13. Julie Dowling, Mexican Americans and the Question of Race (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), 7.

14. Mara Loveman, “The U.S. Census and the Contested Rules of Racial Classification in Early Twentieth-Century Puerto Rico.” Caribbean Studies 35, no. 2 (2007): 79-114.

15. Melissa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal, White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015); Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, “Temporal Politics of the Future: National Latino Civil Rights Advocacy, Demographic Statistics, and the ‘Browning’ of America,” in Department of Sociology (Providence: Brown University, 2015).

16. Samuel Huntington, Who Are We: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

The significance of Bernie Sanders’s opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing

In years past, it has often been difficult to find anti-militarist beacons in Congress – Democrats included.  Particularly since Dennis Kucinich’s 2013 departure from the House, it’s sometimes seemed that the only prominent national political figure willing to oppose the latest White House military venture was the somewhat-libertarian Senator Rand Paul.  And today, with a Democratic Party left struggling to emerge and define itself in the midst of the Trump opposition, the imperative to create a sane foreign policy – distinct from that of politicians whose domestic policies often verge on the insane – has never been greater.  A Democratic left cannot claim to offer a thorough-going alternative to business-as-usual Washington politics until and unless we break with the conventional bipartisan wisdom on foreign policy.   All of which lends particular significance to Bernie Sanders’s prominent opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing.

Much of the mainstream response to the Syria raid was, of course, familiarly tragicomic – sometimes almost to the point of laughable – with one network newscaster sufficiently moved by the “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments” so as to quote “the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”  Another opined that by launching the attack, “Donald Trump became president of the United States.”  More significantly, Congressional leaders previously vowing to fight the man’s administration tooth and nail hastened to back him as he violated American law by usurping their exclusive right to declare war and violated international law by attacking a country that has not attacked us.

The really tragic aspect of the overall reaction, however, lies in the presumption that with this latest act of war, we have actually “done something” in response to the horrific circumstances of the Syrian war – “done something,” that is, in the sense of doing something positive.  And it is precisely on this point, that the Sanders response is most important, as he called on the Trump administration to “explain to the American people exactly what this military escalation in Syria is intended to achieve, and how it fits into the broader goal of a political solution, which is the only way Syria’s devastating civil war ends.”  Now this in itself hardly qualifies as a radical statement.  And the fact that it stands out as in any way unusual is itself an indictment of the current environment in which “doing something” meaningful for the Syrian people is presumed to require dropping bombs and/or sending troops somewhere – and little else.   But given our country’s history of liberal leaders who talk tough about taking on the powers that be, only to rush to join the parade to salute to the commander-in-chief when he plays the war card, the Sanders statement stands out as an all too rare example of a leader on domestic issues proving equal to a foreign policy challenge.

To be fair – and frank – about the current situation, lets not ignore the fact that when Sanders says, “we should’ve learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … that it’s easier to get into a war than get out of one,” and that if “the last 15 years have shown anything, it’s that such engagements are disastrous for American security, for the American economy and for the American people,” it was Barack Obama who was in the White House for most of those years.  To put it bluntly, the Obama presidency largely anesthetized the American antiwar movement.  Again, to be fair, they weren’t the only ones lulled into complacency – let’s not forget that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave him the world’s most prestigious prize early on in an administration that went on to bomb seven countries.  But if it takes a figure like Donald Trump to restore the American left’s mojo, well so be it.

A couple of short years ago, it was a fair question whether there really was such a thing as an American left – outside of college lecture halls and counter cultural institutions.  No more. Post-Sanders campaign, we now find millions seeking a government not dominated by Goldman Sachs and their Wall Street peers.  Millions viewing the richest nation on earth being unwilling to guarantee health care to all of its people as an absurd situation.  Millions considering the pursuit of corporate profit an inadequate governing principle for meeting twenty-first century global environmental challenges.  Millions looking for leaders who will reverse the growing divide of wealth and power – across the nation and world wide.   And, likewise, there are millions who recognize that the nation – and the planet itself – cannot indefinitely sustain our current delusionary policy of achieving world peace through ever-increasing armament and intervention.

No one in recent politics has been more insistent on the point that “It’s not me, it’s us,” than Bernie Sanders.  But at the same time, there is no getting around the fact that individual politicians are sometimes required to rise to the occasion.  And Sanders has done so at a particularly important juncture.  Frankness does also require that we recognize that he has not always shone in this area throughout his entire political career: After starting out as a mayor with a foreign policy – meeting with Ronald Reagan-nemesis Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua, when he held the top job in Burlington, Vermont – his focus shifted to domestic economic issues when he went to Congress and on occasion he seemingly fell into orthodox foreign policy voting.

He did, however, unquestionably break new ground in the history of presidential debates when he called climate change the greatest threat to our national security, excoriated the policy of overthrowing legitimately elected governments dating back to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and took Hillary Clinton to task for her association with Henry Kissinger.  And now, in standing up against the tradition of critical American political thinking ceasing once the president gets violent, he nurtures our chances to really develop an alternative to the bipartisan endless war consensus.  And yes, in the long run that is a job for us, not just him.

Appeal for a Reinvigorated Veterans Movement

I carry numbers. Ernest Hemingway carried numbers too. In his case, it was the numbers of roads and regiments. He didn’t care much for platitudes about glory, sacrifice, honor, or courage. He found them obscene. So do I. But my numbers are different from his. The numbers I’m most conscious of – that claw at me – are the numbers of the dead. Twenty-five. That’s the number of

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A Synopsis of ‘Conservatives for Single Payer’

Single-payer healthcare is back on the radar after the collapse of Trump’s attempt to “repeal and replace” the ACA. Senator Bernie Sanders announced that he would be introducing a “Medicare for All” bill soon. While pollsters have known for years that a majority of Americans support single-payer, universal heath care, including many Republicans, the conservative case for it hasn’t received much attention.

Conservative pundit David Frum writes:
“Whatever else the 2016 election has done, it has emancipated Republicans from one of their own worst self-inflicted blind spots. Health care may not be a human right, but the lack of universal health coverage in a wealthy democracy is a severe, unjustifiable, and unnecessary human wrong. As Americans lift this worry from their fellow citizens, they’ll discover that they have addressed some other important problems too.”  (http://pnhp.org/blog/2017/03/28/can-more-republicans-support-single-payer/)

The problems Frum lists range from hindered entrepreneurship, the struggles of the white working class, and a lack of racial equity. While not all of these problems weigh equally on the minds of conservatives, the understanding that universal health care coverage will make other goals easier to achieve.

Avik Roy of National Review argues that Republicans must “come to agree that it’s a legitimate goal of public policy to ensure that all Americans have access to quality health care” and that it is a mistake to “cede this moral ground to the Left”. He continues: “To credibly advance this approach, conservatives must make one change to their stance: They have to agree that universal coverage is a morally worthy goal…Ensuring that every American has access to quality health coverage is a legitimate goal of public policy, and it can be done in a way that expands freedom and reduces the burden on American taxpayers.” (http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/368772/conservative-case-universal-coverage-avik-roy)

Many past arguments against universal healthcare have revolved around a dislike of larger government, and the burden on taxpayers Roy mentions. In his article in IVM, Craig Burlin argues that neither of these have to be a reality in order to accomplish something along the lines of “Medicare for All”. He points out that:

“Unless someone is very poor or disabled and likely receiving disability or Medicaid benefits already, the tax base can be broad. This could be via a transaction tax, meaning everyone would pay including the underground economy and those who are at an age where they might forego coverage. The insurance pool would therefore be 100%, an actuarial benefit.” (https://ivn.us/2016/03/04/conservative-solutions-to-universal-health-care/)

He also references Australia’s system in which nearly half of the population retains private health insurance despite being entitled to free treatment, saying “Those of greater means can always afford things others cannot”.  Burlin also argues the moral stance, similar to Frum and Roy saying that “There is a compelling argument to be made that basing medical care entirely on the profit motive is likely going to produce the kinds of winners and losers that are hard to justify on an ethical basis.”

While such arguments from the right are unlikely to convert Republican Congress members any time soon, there’s evidence to suggest that movement is possible.

 

Sick on Arrival Health Care Reform in the Age of Obama

Despite all of the parallels drawn between President Obama and Franklin Roosevelt, the new administration initially responded to the health care crisis as though it were 1993, not 1933. Obama sought a minimalist health care reform solution, rather than seizing on the exceptional political moment to strike out in a bold new direction.

Held captive for so long by neoliberal ideas about how best to organize the U.S. economy and society, Obama and many other would-be reformers put competition and consumer choice at the center of their efforts to reform the U.S. health care system. Dozens of major organizations close to the Democratic Party, ranging from the AFL-CIO to MoveOn.org to the Children’s Defense Fund, mobilized over the last year or so on behalf of a breathtakingly modest solution: creation of a public health care plan—essentially a nonprofit insurance company—to compete with the commercial health care insurers. They largely abandoned the call for a single-payer health care system (modeled after Canada’s) around which many progressives have rallied since the demise of the Clinton administration’s Health Security Act. This faith in market-led solutions for health care remained largely unshaken in spite of the recent financial collapse.

The Public Plan Panacea

The centerpiece of their efforts was the creation of a new government-sponsored health care plan for uninsured Americans under age sixty-five who lack employer-based health benefits and do not qualify for Medicaid. This group would be able to choose between a standard package of benefits offered by the public plan or a comparable one provided by private insurers.

Private insurers insisted that a public plan would not compete on a level playing field and would ultimately drive them out of business. Their contention subtly recast the debate over health care reform. The focus shifted to how to make the public plan a “fair” competitor and away from the enormous inequities of the under-regulated private insurance market that have contributed so significantly to the country’s health care crisis. In order to rally support for a public plan and neutralize charges of unfair advantage, some supporters of the public plan watered down the original proposal beyond recognition or bargained away (or shunned) key reforms needed to rein in insurers and providers.1

Supporters of a new government-sponsored health care plan extolled the public sector for its reported superior ability to contain costs and pursue innovations that improve the quality of care.2 They heralded Medicare in particular for retaining wide access while containing expenditures on health care through cost-saving innovations like the prospective payment system introduced in 1983 and fee schedules for doctors introduced in the 1990s.3 Left out of the story is that, for many years, Medicare was largely an unregulated cash cow for providers. The quid pro quo to get physicians and hospitals to end their jihad against Medicare in the mid-1960s was an agreement to reimburse them on a fee-for-service basis and eschew imposing serious cost or budget controls.

For public programs, the devil is in the details. Medicare has been able to spread risks broadly and maintain wide access for the simple reason that the government bluntly requires it to do so. Nearly everyone qualifies for Medicare upon reaching age sixty-five, regardless of health status or income level. This has created at least some sense of social solidarity and given older Americans (across the board) a stake in defending a generous health care system for the elderly. Medicaid, the means-tested health care program for low-income Americans, has had a strikingly different trajectory. It has been far easier to starve Medicaid for funding because lower-income Americans do not enjoy the political clout of the elderly. Also, Medicaid is a mixed state-federal program, while Medicare is primarily a federal program with benefits not varying significantly from state to state.

The public plan that reformers envisioned differed from Medicare in key ways that reinforced the current pathologies of the U.S. health care system. First, supporters talked about the need for competition and choice. Yet employees (and their dependents) who receive health insurance through their workplaces (nearly 160 million Americans) would likely not be free to choose the public plan. These captive consumers might only have the option to go public if their employers decided to switch over to the public system or gave up providing benefits altogether and paid the penalty tax. If that penalty tax is set too low, employers might stop providing health insurance, forcing more of the health care coverage costs onto the government and, ultimately, taxpayers.

Even if the public plan turned out to be cheaper and better than private insurance plans, employers who continue to provide health care coverage would not necessarily offer their employees the public option. For some employers, this would be like drinking the Kool-Aid. In the history of the development of U.S. social policy, business leaders have repeatedly allowed their visceral ideological opposition to governmental programs to trump their immediate bottom-line calculations. The fear is that permitting an expansion of the public sector in one area opens the door to more governmental expansion in other areas. A number of large employers, most notably General Electric (GE), walked away from Clinton’s Health Security Act for precisely this reason.

Another crucial factor is that many large employers are, not surprisingly, large manufacturers of medical devices and other medical products. Is GE ready to funnel its employees into a government-sponsored plan with potentially enormous power to, say, reduce the costs and utilization of MRI machines, a multi-billion a year business for the company? Furthermore, as much as employers begrudge the cost of employees’ health care coverage, many of them do not want to relinquish the paternalistic control that employer-based benefits give them over their workers.

In theory, the public plan should be able to provide better benefits and services at lower costs because it presumably would not be saddled with high administrative costs and pressure to turn a profit for shareholders. But the public program, with its superior benefits and initially lower costs, could end up becoming a magnet for sicker patients in need of costlier care. This would drive up the costs of the public plan, prompting healthier people to flock to less expensive private insurance options.

It is not obvious that the public plan could compete with private plans in terms of costs, quality, and services alone if U.S. insurance companies (unlike those in Europe) remain free to market and advertise their products with few restrictions. One can imagine driving down the highway and seeing massive billboards paid for by private insurers with slogans like: “Should Uncle Sam’s plan tell your doctor what to do?” This could erode public confidence in the government’s ability to solve pressing problems.

The public plan option could undermine public support for governmental intervention in other realms of social policy. It might end up pitting the captive consumers of employerbased private insurance against people enrolled in the public plan. It would be politically explosive if employees covered by private health insurance came to believe that they were providing huge subsidies to a superior public plan in which they were not permitted to enroll. Private insurers would presumably frame their marketing and political strategies around allegations of unfair cost-shifting, putting the public plan further on the defensive.

In short, public plans are not necessarily innately superior when it comes to developing cost-saving innovations. The real question is: under what conditions do the political stars line up to the point where both the government and the public are willing to use their considerable powers as the prime purchasers of health care to rein in providers and insurers? The new public plan could look like the largely unregulated Medicare program in 1965, or the semi-regulated Medicare program in 2009, or today’s underfunded Medicaid program, or the health care equivalent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the quasi-public mortgage companies that were leading culprits in the recent subprime fiasco and foreclosure crisis).

The Single-Payer Alternative

The public plan option has split organized labor and other key groups. Just like fifteen years ago during the debacle over the Clinton proposal, supporters of a single-payer plan are some of today’s fiercest opponents of a minimalist approach to health care reform. They essentially advocate vaporizing the U.S. health insurance industry and replacing it with a government-run program modeled after Canada’s system. The government would pay most medical bills directly; doctors, hospitals, and other providers would operate within global budgets but remain in the private sector; and everyone would be entitled to a basic package of health benefits. The single-payer message has not changed much from the early 1990s, although supporters invested more effort this time around in mobilizing organized labor and other groups to endorse their position. Hundreds of union locals and dozens of central labor councils and state labor federations passed symbolic resolutions in favor of single-payer legislation, as did the international chapters of many major unions.

A single-payer system has a lot going for it. Single-payer advocates have drawn public attention to the extraordinary pathologies of the U.S. health care system, notably the enormous costs amidst gross lapses in care and coverage and the billions squandered on administrative costs. They also have offered the most progressive tax proposals to finance universal health care. When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analyzed all the major health care reform proposals then under consideration in 1993-1994, it concluded that a single-payer plan was the only one likely to achieve universal coverage while saving money. This time around, single-payer advocates have been pushing legislators to conduct hearings on the latest single-payer legislation and to have the CBO cost it out.

Earlier in his political career, Obama spoke strongly in favor of a single-payer system. Today he acknowledges that if he were starting from scratch, single-payer would be preferable but that the best option now is to build on the current system. In the opening months of the health care reform debate, the president, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT)—the chairman of the pivotal Senate Finance Committee—and other leading political players consciously sought to exile or delegitimize single-payer advocates. Meanwhile, they surrounded themselves at the March 2009 health care summit and other leading forums with the “men and women who made their careers killing health care reform,” in the words of the Washington Post. 4

Some key labor leaders publicly made polite noises about a single-payer system, while disparaging it behind the scenes. Most labor leaders focused their energy and resources on backing whatever Obama favored, even though the president was stunningly vague on key issues. Some rallied around the public plan after convincing themselves that it really is a Trojan horse that will ultimately unleash a single-payer plan after enfeebling the private insurance industry. Others signed up because they consider themselves political realists and view the single-payer option as politically dead on arrival.

The Insurance Industry

President Obama and other would-be reformers attempted to skirt an axiom of medical economics that is at the heart of health care politics: “A dollar spent on medical care is a dollar of income for someone.”5 Obama attempted to finesse the politically explosive cost-containment issue by focusing on what one critic called “faith-based savings,” like expanding the use of electronic health care records, and prevention and disease management programs.6 But most experts doubt that these measures will yield sizable savings any time soon.

Health care reform that achieves universal, high-quality, affordable care is fundamentally a redistributive issue with high political and economic stakes. Meaningful cost control will require strong governmental leadership that sets targets or caps on medical spending. This can be done directly, as Canada does with a single-payer system operating within global budgets and that accords private insurers a relatively minor role, or as Britain does with its government-run National Health Service. The alternative is to retain a large private insurance sector, as many European countries do, but keep it (and the medical industry) tightly regulated.

Competition is a weak, indirect way to contain costs in the absence of strong regulatory institutions. Historically, the United States has been shockingly unwilling to seriously regulate its private insurance industry. U.S. health insurance companies are not just underregulated compared to private insurers overseas, but also compared to many other major industries in the United States. A hodgepodge of loose regulations at the state level, enforced by ineffectual and sometimes corrupt state insurance departments, governs the health insurance industry.

Today’s insurance industry is gung-ho on serving as the stick that prods doctors and hospitals to adopt pay-for-performance standards and other cost-cutting and quality control measures. Insurers are outspoken advocates of greater transparency for physicians and hospitals, so that the public is better able to scrutinize their performance and costs. But insurance companies stridently defend their right to keep key information about their own operations confidential. As long as the private insurance industry is allowed to hide behind the cloak of business trade secrets, informed consumer choice—an important ingredient of successful market competition to contain costs—is a myth.7

Beginning in late 2008, U.S. health care insurers made what many commentators have billed as sweeping regulatory concessions. They signaled their willingness to accept all individual applicants, regardless of pre-existing health conditions. They also expressed their willingness to discontinue setting premium rates that are based on health status or gender, but only if Congress mandated that all Americans carry health insurance—i.e., if all Americans were forced to buy their products. These only look like major concessions in the American context, because U.S. insurers have included some whopping caveats. First, they would retain the option of setting rates based on age, geography, and family size in the individual market. This means that premium rates would continue to vary enormously, pricing many people out of the market. Insurers would also retain subtler means to attract healthier subscribers and discourage sicker people from seeking coverage, notably via their extensive marketing budgets and ingenious tactics—like locating their information offices on the upper floors of buildings without elevators. Insurers also made no promises to forego considering health status and other key factors in setting rates for small employers, one of the most profitable segments of the health insurance market.8

Reformers who bemoan the state of the U.S. health care system often bemoan the billions wasted each year on administrative costs, especially medical underwriting which separates the sick from the healthy so as to deny less healthy people insurance policies or charge them exorbitant rates for coverage. But other countries that depend on private insurers to deliver health care benefits—notably Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—engage in medical underwriting to determine which subscribers present the greatest health risks. The difference is that this is a joint endeavor that requires insurers to make their operations far more transparent to governmental regulators who manage elaborate risk adjustment systems. For example, Germany’s hundreds of sickness funds, or private insurers, are required to participate in a risk adjustment mechanism that helps equalize premiums by taking into account dozens of risk factors, not just health status and gender, so that insurers do not cherry-pick people who will use the health care system the least.

The public plan was supposed to force private insurers to become more aggressive with providers in order to hold down costs and prices, or else risk losing customers to the public plan. But why should private insurers be accorded such a preeminent role in defining the public interest in the allocation of health care resources and imposing it on physicians and other providers? Other countries have created formal institutional mechanisms that provide the public and a broad range of stakeholders with a meaningful voice in how to divide up the limited health care pie and monitor health care quality. These formal institutions have real clout and are a long way from the vague and largely unenforceable voluntary promises to cut costs that the U.S. insurance industry and medical providers announced in May 2009, and that President Obama hailed as a watershed moment in health care reform.

Supporters of the public plan solution conceded that the insurance industry needs to be regulated more tightly, but this was not their main focus. Their emphasis on competition reinforced the idea that health care should be treated primarily as a private consumer good distributed by market principles. This undermined the idea of health care as a social good that needs to be organized around underlying principles of social solidarity, not market competition.

Advocates of the public plan jeopardized enormous political capital to get so little. They bent over backwards to convince the public and critics in the insurance industry that they will create a level playing field. This fostered the impression that the insurance industry has been playing fair and square all along. The terms of the debate shifted to the imaginary injustices that a mammoth public plan will inflict on a Lilliputian insurance industry that has historically been too weak and fragmented (or too disinterested) to put the cost-containment screws on providers. This revisionist portrait was at odds with the insurance industry’s real role in the U.S. health care crisis, past and present.

The U.S. insurance industry has been a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator for well over a century. Each time health care reform has moved to center stage, outcries for more federal action have repeatedly ended up further entrenching the private insurance industry.9 This time may be no different.

Harry and Louise

The public plan solution emerged from the doldrums of the defeated Clinton proposal and out of a very particular reading of what went wrong fifteen years ago. In the revisionist account, Harry and Louise killed health care reform. Harry and Louise starred in a series of infamous commercials funded by the insurance industry. The fictional Harry and Louise sat around their kitchen table fretting that the Clinton plan would force them to change their current health care benefits and maybe even switch doctors.

The ghosts of Harry and Louise have had a striking hold on the current health care debate. The mantra from President Obama, Senator Baucus, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern, and other would-be reformers is that most Americans are basically content with their health care coverage and seek a uniquely American solution that keeps the current system of employer-sponsored benefits largely untouched. The biggest impact of the ad campaign (then and now) appears to have been on elite policy and opinion makers, who have persistently overestimated just how much Harry and Louise represented popular sentiment and how satisfied Americans are with their health care coverage. 10

Evidence continues to mount that Americans are profoundly dissatisfied with their health care system and are ready for major changes. The United States is nearly last in public satisfaction compared with other developed countries (and dead last among polled public health experts), and it’s no wonder why. Since the demise of the Clinton plan, the wheels have come off job-based benefits. Some employers have eliminated health benefits altogether while others are doggedly whittling them away.

It is no longer possible for most Americans to have six degrees of separation from the uninsured. With the official unemployment rate surpassing 8 percent in February 2009, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 52 percent of people with employer-sponsored coverage were worried about losing it. Nearly eighty-seven million Americans were uninsured at some point in the last two years. The foreclosure crisis has riveted public attention on the enormous number of Americans who go bankrupt and risk losing their homes because of medical debts.

The minimalist approach to health care reform did not tap into this smoldering public anger over the health care system, or into the explosive public outrage at the financial industry, the business sector, and their congressional patrons in the wake of the economic meltdown. The political futures of several Democratic barons in Congress—including Senators Christopher Dodd and Charles Schumer, and Representative Charles Rangel—are clouded because of their close, see-no-evil ties to the banking and insurance industries nourished over the years by enormous campaign donations from these sectors. The time was ripe for an ambitious health care reform agenda that fundamentally challenged these special interests because the economic meltdown has made legislators on both sides of the congressional aisle particularly vulnerable to charges of shilling for the business sector. Obama’s decision to seed his administration with many free market protégés of Citigroup’s Robert Rubin also made him vulnerable on this score. So did the choice of Nancy-Ann DeParle, who has served as a director of many large health care companies, to be his health care czar.

We are in the midst of an economic meltdown widely understood to be the result of breathtaking malfeasance by the financial sector and its political patrons. Yet Obama and key advisers repeatedly singled out health care expenditures as the leading threat to the country’s long-term economic health. Characterizing health care as primarily an economic issue is costly. It fosters an exaggerated faith in the possibilities of forging productive coalitions with the business and insurance sectors, and diminishes interest in cultivating a wider social movement on behalf of universal health care. This is exactly what happened in 1993-1994.11 It also distracts political and public attention away from arguably more dire threats to the economy, including the opaque bailout of the financial sector, the gargantuan military budget, and the grossly inequitable tax system. It also stokes public hysteria over the costs of Medicare and Social Security, paving the way for major retrenchments in these two central pillars of the U.S. welfare state.

The Obama administration and most other Democratic Party leaders have responded to the health care crisis in the same way that they have responded to the financial crisis. They have taken extreme care not to upset the basic interests of the powerful insurance industry and segments of the medical industry, and not to raise fundamental questions about the political and economic interests that have perpetuated such a dysfunctional health care system. The biggest surprise is how the leadership of organized labor and many supposedly progressive groups has unquestionably followed Obama and congressional Democrats on health care reform. As a consequence, they may be squandering an exceptional political moment. If the U.S. government can essentially seize control of its automobile sector and contemplate the nationalization of some banks, the beginning of the end of the for-profit health insurance industry seems less far-fetched than it once did.

If the Obama administration and leading Democrats calculated that the current political conditions were not fortuitous enough to secure a single-payer plan, they should at least have pushed for a seriously regulated insurance system of the kind that has predominated in Western Europe (and is now under siege by a push for more privatization there). Failure to attempt even that is perilous for the cause of universal health care and for their political futures. The president and the Democrats risk looking (in a couple of years) like Herbert Hoover and the Republicans on the eve of their historic 1932 defeat, rather than FDR and the Democrats on their march to a triumphant re-election in 1936.

There are not many times in American history when the previous administration and ruling party have been so thoroughly discredited, as have former President George W. Bush and the Republican Party; or when the princes of the financial sector have been “stripped naked as leaders and strategists,” in the words of Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.12 Would-be reformers who recently fought so doggedly to essentially create a nonprofit health insurance company did not recognize the potential of this political moment. Under the spell of the Stockholm Syndrome, they identified too closely with their captors—the insurers, the medical industry, and the lure of market-led solutions. Identifying too closely with one’s captors is risky. When the window opens, you don’t make a run for it; indeed, you may not even notice the opening.

Notes

 

1. Robert Pear, “Schumer Offers Middle Ground on Health Care,” New York Times, May 5, 2009; Len M. Nichols and John M. Bertko, “A Modest Proposal for a Competing Public Health Plan” (Washington, D.C.: New America Foundation, March 2009).

2. Jacob S. Hacker, “The Case for Public Plan Choice in National Health Reform: Key to Cost Control and Quality Coverage” (Washington, D.C.: Institute for America’s Future, 2008).

3. Instead of reimbursing hospitals for their itemized costs after the fact, under the prospective payment system hospitals receive a predetermined payment based on fee schedules for the specific diagnoses (the so-called diagnosis related groups, or DRGs).

4. Ceci Connolly, “Ex-Foes of Health-Care Reform Emerge as Supporters,” Washington Post, March 6, 2009.

5. Theodore Marmor, Jonathan Oberlander, and Joseph White, “The Obama Administration’s Options for Health Care Cost Control,” Annals of Internal Medicine 150 (April 7, 2009): 485.

6. Jonathan Oberlander, “Miracle or Mirage? Health Care Reform and the 2008 Election” (lecture, Leonard Davis Institute, University of Pennsylvania, October 10, 2008).

7. Diane Archer, “Making Health Care Work for American Families: Saving Money, Saving Lives,” statement before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Health, April 2, 2009.

8. Reed Abelson, “Health Insurers Balk at Some Changes,” New York Times, June 3, 2009.

9. Jill Quadagno, One Nation Uninsured: Why the U.S. Has No National Health Insurance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 75; and Jennifer Klein, For All These Rights: Business, Labor, and the Shaping of America’s Public-Private Welfare State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

10. Mollyann Brodie, “Impact of Issue Advertisements and the Legacy of Harry and Louise,” Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law 26, no. 6 (December 2001): 1353-60.

11. For more on the 1993-1994 debate, see Marie Gottschalk, The Shadow Welfare State: Labor, Business, and the Politics of Health Care in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

12. Simon Johnson, “The Quiet Coup,” Atlantic Online, May 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/ print/200905/imf-advice (accessed April 4, 2009).

Over the Rainbow: The Uncertain Future of U.S. Politics

The World Turned Upside Down: ‘Our Revolution,’ Trump Triumphant, and the Remaking of the Democratic Party

When Bernie Sanders conceded the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in July 2016, he likely assumed that in a few months, after Hillary Clinton won the presidency, he would return to a role similar to the one he played on the campaign trail: a kind of social-democratic gadfly to a largely neoliberalized party, capitalizing on the unprecedented popularity he drew in his presidential campaign to pull President Clinton—and the entire party—to the left.

Alas, to his surprise and ours, this arrangement was not to be. But rather than seeing his role as an oppositional figure diminish under President Donald Trump, Sanders’ opportunities to affect the Democratic Party and American politics more broadly may have actually increased.

For one thing, the party appears rudderless, adrift, and still shell-shocked at November’s results. Perhaps no one better exemplified this fact than Clinton herself, whose top post-election priority seemed to be wandering in the woods beyond the New York City suburbs. Sanders, meanwhile, has taken action: publishing numerous op-eds and a book, debating Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Obamacare and single-payer health care, speaking out against Trump’s policies. The party seems to lack real leadership right now; if anyone holds it, it seems to be a wild-haired, self-described democratic socialist who has deliberately rejected the party his entire life.

Despite his professed disdain for the Democrats, Sanders has long been a pragmatist, dating back to his days as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont.[1] It should come as no surprise, then, that a new organization that has emerged in the wake of Sanders’ primary loss and bears his blessing (though not his day-to-day involvement) is, despite its to-the-barricades name, actually a deeply pragmatic one.

Our Revolution (OR) is that organization, backing political candidates in races ranging from local school boards to Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair and attempting to affect a transformation of the party at the state and local level from the bottom up. It is also running progressive campaigns like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and demanding Democrats not vote to approve President Trump’s cabinet nominations.

The organization is young but has already experienced its share of turmoil, with a major staff revolt within weeks of its founding. Still, Our Revolution has positioned itself to absorb a large portion of the energy from Sanders’ campaign, raise large amounts of money through small donations and distribute the money to progressive candidates at all levels throughout the country.  It could play a major role in progressive campaigns and Democratic candidacies in the near future. Its overall aim appears to be nothing short of a major realignment of the Democratic Party in the very near future, pulling the party away from its pro-business, neoliberal shift of the past several decades toward a more robustly pro-worker agenda.

Much of the progressive and radical forces to the left of the Democrats expected to find themselves in a position in 2017 in which they could offer full-throated critiques of a rightward moving Democratic Party and a centrist-neoliberal president in Hillary Clinton. Instead, those forces—many of which have found a home in Our Revolution— now find themselves in a more delicate position in which they must balance building a united front approach to opposing Trump while confronting the party, the Democrats, which is currently the only viable home for those forces.

Right now, however, the organization seems to lack a stomach for the second part of that equation, the very thing that has made Sanders’ political career so unique: a deep-seated opposition to a party believed to be hopeless, corrupted, and unable to genuinely represent working and poor people’s best interests.

Candidates and Beyond

The scope of Our Revolution’s focus is broad, reaching far beyond individual candidates and even beyond the progressive campaigns du jour. The organization’s platform does not make for light reading: it features twenty-one separate issues ranging from “big money in politics,” affordable housing, and “Medicare for all” to disability rights and resolving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, many at great length and in significant detail.[2] As Sanders did during his speeches in front of massive crowds on the campaign trail, the group appears to trust the average American’s hunger for substantive, progressive politics will outweigh their short attention spans.

The group was involved in over 100 campaigns in the 2016 election cycle, including three in the Senate, fifteen in the House, and dozens at the state and local level. By the organization’s own count, they appear to have won slightly more than half of the races they became involved in. Our Revolution also backed seven ballot initiatives, such as a single-payer measure in Colorado and a campaign finance reform bill in Maryland. [3]

In an election off-season, the group has moved to focus more on issue-based campaigns, including support for the #NoDAPL protests in North Dakota and various efforts to oppose Donald Trump’s new administration (as well as centrist-leaning Democrats that they consider too milquetoast in their resistance to the president). Our Revolution issued broad calls for more vigorous debate over and opposition to Trump’s cabinet nominees, for example, after many Democrats put up little resistance to their confirmation early on. (The organization has not, however, targeted any incumbent Democrats with its email blasts or messaging since November’s election.[4]) Before Trump’s inauguration, they encouraged President Obama to commute the prison sentence of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has spent 35 years in prison for a number of charges related to bomb-making and armed robbery as part of a campaign for Puerto Rican independence. (Shortly before leaving office, Obama did pardon Rivera.)

The group is also the inheritor of Bernie Sanders’ massive and famed email list, which helped produce the highest number of small donations in a political campaign in U.S. history. The Democratic National Committee is desperate to gain access to the list and the potentially huge number of activists and donors it would bring them; so far, Our Revolution has remained unwilling to turn it over.[5]

One election the group stayed involved in after November, however, was Rep. Keith Ellison’s unsuccessful run for Democratic National Committee chair against former Labor Secretary Tom Perez—a contest that was billed as a referendum on the future direction of the Democratic Party. Given the current state of affairs in the party—with Sanders’ campaign revealing and stirring to action a massive section of progressive and even socialist-curious voters, (many of whom still feel that party’s leadership unfairly stole the nomination from him); and with Clinton and her centrist brand of politics being clearly discredited by the Republican sweep across the local, state, and national levels — one might have assumed that the Democratic leadership would finally be willing to toss this newly riled base a bone in the form of appointing Ellison as DNC chair.

But instead of reaching out to that base through such a choice, party leaders rebuked them, mounting a full-on campaign for Perez over Ellison—even after he was endorsed by much of the labor movement, including by the United Auto Workers ( UAW), American Federation of Teachers (AFT),  Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and AFL-CIO. In the internal party vote that took place in Atlanta on February 25, Perez came out on top. Ellison embraced Perez after the vote and encouraged his backers to do the same. In a supposed show of unity, Ellison was named “deputy chair” of the DNC. But as AFT President Randi Weingarten noted on Twitter, just hours after Ellison’s appointment to this position, the Democratic Party’s official account tweeted a graphic of their new leadership slate with Tom Perez at the top; neither Ellison’s name nor the title “deputy chair” appeared anywhere.[6]

The contest may offer some clues about the kind of disdain with which progressives and leftists will continue to be treated as they go about trying to transform the party. While these activists may feel like they have the only momentum within the party right now while Democratic centrists have been thoroughly discredited, this does not mean the party will hand over the reins without fighting tooth and nail.

Perez is certainly more progressive than someone like Hillary Clinton and was praised by unions as an effective labor secretary. But Ellison was an early backer of Sanders and is one of the most progressive members of Congress. If there is a left wing of the Democratic Party, Ellison is certainly on it, making his endorsement by Our Revolution a no-brainer. The rubric for determining which candidates qualify as progressive enough to gain the organization’s stamp of approval, however, remains confusing.

For example, Our Revolution endorsed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in her successful reelection campaign. Gabbard was one of the few members of Congress that backed Sanders in the primary and has spoken out against the war on Iraq after serving in a combat zone there through the Army National Guard, opposed a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary.

But Gabbard’s foreign policy stances are scattershot. Despite a handful of progressive stances, she also voted in favor of a 2015 Republican bill to ban Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, has visited Donald Trump in the White House and said her meeting had been “frank and positive.” Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers, told the press the two had “a lot of common ground.” Gabbard also has close ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the far-right Hindu nationalist who “bears a responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India” during his term as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, including a massacre of 2,000. The Atlantic called Gabbard “The GOPs Favorite Democrat.”[7]

Sanders’ campaign caught fire mostly thanks to his domestic policy agenda; his foreign policy, while far to the left of most in the Democratic Party, left much to be desired for many leftists, especially on issues like Israel-Palestine. Still, how could an organization dedicated to carrying on Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” within the Democratic Party continue to back a politician like Gabbard who has joined the GOP’s opposition to refugees?

The Exodus

Our Revolution was born in chaos. Within weeks of its founding on August 24, 2016, eight of the organization’s fifteen staff resigned in protest of the appointment of Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager and longtime associate, as the organization’s president.

Mainstream coverage of the staffers’ exodus adopted a bemused tone at the new organization of lefties who were at each others’ throats before their work was even up and running. The staffers who left laid the blame for Sanders’ defeat at Weaver’s feet, accusing him of mismanaging the campaign by focusing too much on television ads. They also emphasized a disagreement with the decision to adopt a 501(c)(4) tax status, which could allow the group to accept “dark money” from wealthy donors who would not have to disclose their donations—a perceived hypocrisy given Sanders’ relentless critiques of such campaign finance arrangements during his campaign.

“As a campaign manager, Jeff was a total disaster who failed Bernie’s supporters with his mismanagement,” former OR organization director Claire Sandberg told the Washington Post. We’re organizers who believed in Bernie’s call for a political revolution, so we weren’t interested in working for an organization that’s going to raise money from billionaires to spend it all on TV.”[8]

In addition to philosophical disagreements with this arrangement, Our Revolution’s tax status led to difficulties in coordinating with the candidates it endorsed. 501(c)(4) organizations can give unlimited donations to candidates as long as these groups do not directly coordinate with the campaigns that they have endorsed.

This supposed firewall between campaigns and “dark money” groups has been widely criticized as both thin and unrealistic, with obvious opportunities for violation by both sides. But no one appears to have explained how to violate this law to Our Revolution in a key House race in Florida.

Tim Canova, who was endorsed by Our Revolution in his bid to challenge former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for her House of Representatives seat, and his former staffers complained about first a duplication of work by Our Revolution and Canova’s campaign due to that lack of coordination; Canova then accused the organization of abandoning him, aiding his loss in the race. The incident led The Atlantic to ask “whether Sanders, Our Revolution, and his supporters will be able to give candidates inspired by [Sanders’] call to action what they need to win.”[9]

Still, Canova’s complaints are isolated. If other Our Revolution endorsees share his campaign’s sentiments about the group, they have not yet voiced them aloud. And even over the course of its brief life, the group can be credited for some impressive victories.

State Takeovers

The group has led some impressive state-level victories in just a few months. The Wall Street Journal characterized Our Revolution’s strategy as focused on “infiltrate[ing] and transform[ing] the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts that typically draw scant attention.”[10]

Perhaps the most impressive of these campaigns is the recent takeover of the California Democratic Party by “Berniecrats.”

Our Revolution ran what The Hill called “an on-the-ground get-out-the-vote effort to make sure supporters attended caucuses in each of the state’s 80 assembly districts” during an “ordinarily sleepy” event, electing 650 state party delegates out of 1,120, giving them a majority in the choosing of the state party’s officials including its chairperson.[11]

The organization’s operation reflected the ability to engage in the nitty-gritty of actual politicking that Sanders’ campaigns have always focused on. Our Revolution claimed to have sent over 100,000 emails and 40,000 text messages, and over 800 Bernie supporters signed up to run for delegate seats, according to The Hill, transforming a usually staid affair into one buzzing with excitement. Activists’ express purpose was to aggressively push one of country’s most progressive states into playing a vanguard role pushing for even more progressive policies that other states could emulate.

Our Revolution-backed candidates also won the chairmanship of the Washington-state Democratic central committee after defeating an incumbent, “seized control” of the party apparatus in Hawaii and Nebraska, and “swept” local Democratic Party officer positions in Florida. The Wall Street Journal quotes a Florida activist, Stacey Patel, who was elected Brevard County’s Democratic Party chairwoman; she can’t quite seem to wrap her head around the group’s accomplishments: “We didn’t know that 60 folks would be enough to take the majority” of the local party, she told the paper.[12]

In addition to the state-level party takeovers Our Revolution has led through its numerous state organizations, it has also enlisted local groups as affiliates. In January, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a left-wing organizing and electoral group in the Bay Area city, joined Our Revolution.  The group is one of the more promising local, independent political formations in the country, scoring major victories on a wide range of issues from police reform to fighting corporate-backed politicians to winning rent control in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area.

To do so, the RPA has gone toe-to-toe with centrist, business-friendly Democrats in Richmond that reflect many of the problems of the Democratic Party nationally. Our Revolution has supported RPA candidates in the past. In the most recent city council races, an OR email blast netted around $5,000 for each RPA endorsee as well as close to 900 donors’ contact information—a testament to the power of Bernie Sanders’s vaunted email list. If Our Revolution wants to transform the political landscape nationally, its leaders should take the RPA’s lessons on the need for independence from—and thus a level of combat with—the Democrats seriously, especially in one-party cities like Richmond.

The group also has the support of many of the former members of Labor for Bernie, a grassroots organization of union members and staffers around the country who backed Sanders’ campaign. Many did so in defiance of the decisions of their international unions, which either endorsed Hillary Clinton or stayed neutral in the election. National Nurses United (NNU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) (whose former president Larry Cohen now works for Our Revolution) have also worked closely with the group; both endorsed Sanders in the primary. The California Nurses Association has even given Our Revolution California a full-time staffer.

Given the complete lack of institutional mechanisms for establishing the party’s fealty to unions (unlike, say the Labour Party in the U.K., in which unions have a far greater say in the party’s direction) and the disdain with which much of the Democratic Party treats organized labor, this could be an important base from which organized labor pushes for its agenda within the party. In addition to the NNU and the CWA, the wide-ranging group of union staff and rank and file— many of whom also make up the most important activist and progressive wing of U.S. labor — that made up Labor for Bernie has now become Labor for Our Revolution, and could continue to play a role in pushing both the party and their own unions leftward.

Transforming the Party

Our Revolution organizers see the group as a vehicle for realigning the Democratic Party so it meets the needs of the working class rather than the one percent— something perhaps more closely resembling a twenty-first century labor party.

“We’re looking to transform the party,” said Our Revolution executive director Shannon Jackson after the California party takeover.

This is not the first time leftists and left-liberals have attempted to affect such a shift. Such attempts have a long history in American politics, ranging from Walter Reuther and the New Left in the 1960s to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988. None have been particularly successful, as the party has drifted further and further in a neoliberal direction.[13]

There are structural barriers to the transformation of the Democrats, both in the party’s history, its current composition, and the diminished power of organized labor. Many labor parties in Europe are rooted in breaks from bourgeois parties from earlier in the twentieth century, and took place at a time of rising strength of the industrial working class. That break never happened in the United States, leading to the Democratic coalition including several strongly conservative elements like various sectors of capital and Southern white racists alongside workers, unions, and (later in the twentieth century) African Americans and other people of color.

This has led to the classic dilemma endlessly debated by American radicals for decades: Should they struggle within a hopelessly compromised Democratic Party in order to make the greatest possible impact on the world, or should they abandon the party in favor of creating an alternative but risk complete political isolation? It’s a question that has never been an easy one to answer, and now is no exception. On the one hand, in the wake of November’s devastating results across the board for the Democrats and Sanders’ successful insurgent and unapologetic left-wing campaign, the party’s centrism has never appeared more bankrupt and the need for a real alternative never greater. On the other hand, faced with the extreme reactionary revanchism of the Trump administration and the immiseration its policies have already brought, the impulse for many is to put such battles to the side in favor of building the unity needed to defeat the Right.

Part of what makes Bernie Sanders’ career so unusual is that he is the most successful politician in the past half-century or more at striking a balance between these two poles. He has been a steadfast critic of not just the party’s rightward drift but of its inability to ever serve as a genuine vehicle for working-class interests. He only joined the party in order to have access to a mass audience, and even then, he continued to make many such criticisms.

But he also has long caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate, and works closely with many in the party. After Hillary Clinton’s campaign criticized Sanders’ stance on health care reform during the primary, the Sanders campaign released a photo of the then-representative in a meeting with the paragon of centrist, pragmatic deal-making herself, Hillary Clinton, in 1993, with a handwritten note from the then-First Lady thanking Sanders for his role in pushing health reform.[14]

No one else in recent American political history has walked this line as deftly as Sanders has. That he has managed to do so is perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of his political career. It is also what defines him and is most responsible for his campaign’s success. Any other established, longstanding Democratic politician attempting to capture the current populist mood would likely have failed because of the compromises being a member of that party requires of its members.

At a time when most of the Democratic Party was pushing welfare reform, Sanders was denouncing it; when Bill Clinton led his party into passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sanders spoke out in vehement opposition. Even the most progressive members of the party have been compromised in important ways. Keith Ellison, for example, receives large amounts of campaign contributions from large corporations like TCF Financial—companies Sanders has spent his whole career opposing.

Over the span of Sanders’ career, a fair number of Democrats have joined him in breaking with certain aspects of the party’s rightward drift, and many have decried the pernicious influence of corporate money in politics. But no one has held as consistent of a left-wing governing record and as complete a rejection of corporate cash as Sanders has. Part of this surely has to do with Sanders’ personality. But it also has to do with his consistent independence from the Democratic Party.

Our Revolution has played a key role in amplifying some of the leftmost voices within the Democratic Party; it may help launch the careers of some talented young progressive politicians, and it may even help steer the Democrats away from the disastrous neoliberal course it has been on the better part of the last half-century.

But will it help inculcate the level of hostility toward not just the right wing of the party but also the party itself? At a moment when the first instinct of many in response to the nonstop depravity of a Trump administration will be to forego a necessary confrontation with the Democrats, will Our Revolution buck the tide? Will it produce any future Bernie Sanderses—not just broadly defined progressives but bone-deep leftists whose politics include a commitment to do battle with the Democrats from a place of independence, even when it is often forced to work within and around the party? The organization is in its infancy, and its path it still wide open. But it will soon have to make a choice about how close its relationship to the Democratic Party will be. 

 

Notes

[1] Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman, Outsider in the White House. Verso Books, 2015. Katherine Q. Seelye, “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist.” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2015.

[2] Our Revolution, “Platform.” Ourrevolution.com/issues.

[3] Kate Aronoff and Ethan Corey, “Welcome to the Next Incarnation of the Bernie Sanders Campaign.” In These Times, September 12, 2016.

[4] Ed O’Keefe and David Weigel, “Democrats bracing for town hall protests directed at them ask Bernie Sanders for help.” Washington Post, February 14, 2017.

[5] Daniel Marans, “Bernie Sanders Has a Massive Email List. But He Has Good Reason to Think Twice About Sharing It.” Huffington Post, February 9, 2017.

[6] Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten). “What happened to the new deputy chair?” February 26, 2017, 12:26 am. Tweet. The Democratic Party (@TheDemocrats). “There’s a tough fight ahead of us, and our newly elected DNC officers are here for it. Let’s do this. #DNCFuture.” February 25, 2017, 8:34 pm. Tweet. Later tweets from the party’s account included Ellison.

[7] Alex Seitz-Wald, “Democrat Tulsi Gabbard Defends ‘Frank and Positive’ Trump Meeting.” NBC News, November 21, 2016. Ivy Ashe, “Gabbard Supports GOP Bill on Syrian Refugees.” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, November 21, 2015. Aditya Chakrabortty “Narendra Modi, a man with a massacre on his hands, is not the reasonable choice for India.” The Guardian, April 7, 2014. Krishnadev Calamur, “The GOP’s Favorite Democrat Goes to Syria.” The Atlantic, January 18, 2017.

[8] David Weigel and John Wagner, “Bernie Sanders launches ‘Our Revolution’ with electoral targets — and a few critics left behind.” Washington Post, August 24, 2016.

[9] Clare Foran, “How the Political Revolution Failed Tim Canova.” The Atlantic, August 30, 2016.

[10] Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook, Wall Street Journal. “Bernie Sanders Loyalists Are Taking Over the Democratic Party One County Office at a Time.” February 22, 2017.

[11] Reid Wilson, The Hill. “Sanders backers take over California Democratic Party.” January 19, 2017.

[12] Epstein and Hook, Wall Street Journal.

[13] Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party.” Jacobin, Issue 20: “Up From Liberalism.” Winter 2016.

[14] Peter Wade, “Hillary Questioned Bernie’s Record on Health Care and The Internet Made an Epic Correction.” Esquire, March 12, 2016.

Recognize, Reduce, Redistribute Unpaid Care Work: How to Close the Gender Gap

In September 2016, in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election, in which Hillary Clinton was expected to become the first woman U.S. president, the media announced that progress on a signature campaign of women’s rights advocates—closing the gender wage gap–had sputtered, if not actually stalled, in the U.S. as well as in many other countries. The annual earnings ratio between women and men in the U.S. was 79.6 percent in 2015, only marginally higher than it was 2007, when it hit 77.8 percent. At this rate, one study concluded, it will take 45 years, until 2059, for men and women to reach parity. Globally it was even worse. The U.N. 2015 Millennium Development Goal Gender Chart estimates that globally women earn 24 percent less than men and perform two and a half times more unpaid care and domestic work than men.

Since at least the early 1970s, women’s rights organizations have campaigned to improve the terms and conditions of women’s paid work, of which the wage gap is the most visible symbol. By the middle of the 1990s, this effort was embraced by trade unions in many countries and by 2005, working together or separately, they had secured the passage of laws forbidding discrimination against women in the workplace in most countries. The proportion of countries with equal pay legislation rose from around 33 percent in 1975 to 86 percent in 2005. The vast majority of firms no longer use different pay scales for women and men, and globally the gender wage gap narrowed by about half from 1991 to 2014, largely due to gains in women’s education. But progress has slowed steadily over this period, and in high income countries it has largely stalled. In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, after narrowing somewhat in the period 2000-2008, the average gap between the wages of men working full time and women working full time has remained at around 16 percent since 2009, meaning that women’s wages have remained on average around 86 percent of men’s.

One of the key reasons for stalled progress on the wage gap is that women continue to have greater responsibility than men for unpaid care and domestic work in families and communities, looking after people, providing for their daily needs, caring for children, frail elderly people, people who are ill, or living with disabilities. In all regions of the world, mothers with dependent children on average earn less than women without dependent children and less than fathers with similar household and employment characteristics. The gender pay gap is much larger among parents than between women and men who have no children. In the U.S. childless women (including married and unmarried) earn 93 cents on a childless man’s dollar, but among full-time workers, married mothers with at least one child under age 18 earn 76 cents on a married father’s dollar.

Unpaid work responsibilities also result in a gender gap in participation in paid work: Many women have to withdraw from paid work for long periods to care for family members. As a result the gender gap in lifetime earnings is even bigger than the pay gap between employed women and men, as many women have no earnings at all for substantial periods of time. Globally women’s labor force participation has stagnated, although there are important regional variations, with rises in Latin America but declines in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Socialist feminists have always argued that to achieve equality in paid work, women also need to achieve equality in unpaid work. The strategies that can help to achieve this can be summarized as: recognize, reduce, and redistribute women’s unpaid work. These strategies have been strongest in high-income countries with extensive welfare states and have begun to be adopted in a growing number of developing countries that have introduced some of the social protection policies advocated by the International Labour Organization (ILO). But political and economic changes emerging in 2016 put in question how far these strategies can be sustained, let alone extended to countries like the U.S., where they have been weak.

Recognizing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Recognizing unpaid care and domestic work means understanding how this work underpins all economies and valuing it accordingly. Right-wing commentators see these activities as a private matter, reducible to individual private choices, rather than shaped by social and economic structures, and having implications for wider society, not just the people providing and receiving care. If no one had children, and took care of families and friends, economies would come to a halt for lack of a labor force.

It is possible to calculate the economic value of unpaid care and domestic work, by finding out how much time is spent on this work, using a time-use survey, and then putting a price on the output produced or a wage on the time spent. Between 1966 and 2015 at least 85 countries in all regions of the world have conducted time-use surveys to find out how people spend their time over the twenty –four hours of a day or the seven days of a week. In the U.S .a time-use survey is conducted annually with a representative sample of people over the age of 15, under the auspices of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau. In 2014 it showed that the average time per day spent in paid work was 4.28 hours for men, and 2.93 hours for women, while the average time spent in unpaid work was 2.33 hours for men and 3.72 hours for women.

It is possible to put a monetary value on unpaid work by asking what it would cost to hire someone to do the work instead. Using this method, estimates were made of the monetary value of unpaid work for 27 OECD countries in 2008, and this was compared with the value of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For the U.S., it was found that the monetary value of unpaid work was 18 percent of U.S. GDP, while for Denmark it was 31percent of Danish GDP and for Sweden 25 percent of Swedish GDP. Differences reflect differences between countries in the amount of unpaid work done, and in the wages used to value this. If wages for paid domestic and care workers are particularly low, as they are in the U.S., then the monetary value of unpaid work will be low. The monetary value is, of course, not the same as the social value of the work, but calculating it highlights what the monetary costs would be if the work were not done for free.

The UK Office of National Statistics released data in November 2016 showing on average UK men do 16 hours unpaid work a week, while women do 26 hours weekly (60 percent more than men). People who have lower incomes do more unpaid work than those with higher incomes. Valuing the work at replacement cost (i.e., what you would have to pay someone to do the same work), men’s weekly unpaid work amounted to 166.63 pounds, while women’s amounted to 259.63 pounds.

Some feminists have argued that women should actually be paid a wage for the domestic and care work they do for their families and friends. The International Wages for Housework Campaign was launched in Italy in 1972 and spread to the UK. Committees calling for Wages for Housework were founded in several cities in U.S, including New York. Today one of the originators of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, London-based Selma James, coordinates Global Women’s Strike, an international network for recognition and payment for all household and care work. However, the demand for Wages for Housework has not become central to women’s struggles for equality, largely because it is perceived as likely to perpetuate the current division of labor, in which housework is seen as women’s work and which is a persistent obstacle to equality in paid work. Also, the proposal would be impossible to implement, as there would be no way to verify hours of work performed, and so in effect would amount to a kind of welfare benefit for housewives rather than a wage. In addition, it does not focus on the questions of how to reduce and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work, and so lacks transformative potential.

Instead, more women’s organizations have struggled for recognition of unpaid work in official national statistics (as in the examples above); and in publicly funded welfare state and social protection systems, such as through tax-funded paid maternity leave, and arrangements that ensure women do not face additional penalties in public pensions because of time spent out of the labor market caring for children.

However, even when statistics on the extent and monetary value of unpaid care and domestic work are produced, they are not used in the design of economic policies. For instance, despite the availability of time use data in the majority of European countries, the design of austerity policies these countries have adopted since 2010 have paid no attention to their impact on unpaid work. Research in a number of countries suggests that cuts to public expenditures have increased women’s unpaid work, especially for low income women, as these women produce caregiving services formerly provided by the public sector, particularly for the elderly and disabled.

Women’s unpaid work has been recognized and supported through cash payments linked to raising children in many countries with a welfare state or social protection system. For instance, in most high-income countries, women employees are entitled to paid maternity leave funded from tax revenue—the U.S. is an exception. However, leave benefits vary greatly across countries. The ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183),ratified by 32 countries as of August 2016, calls for at least 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, which most developed economies generally exceed. The average duration of paid parental leave in developed economies is 26 weeks.

Some feminists have expressed concern that long-term paid maternity leave, such as the three years available to mothers in Finland, encourages women to leave paid employment for too long, making it difficult for them to return to jobs comparable in terms of pay and conditions to the ones they have left. A more transformative option is paid parental leave, equally shared between both parents, which is discussed here as one of the strategies to redistribute unpaid work.

Women who take time out of paid employment to care for children and other family members also lose out in pension entitlements. In many countries that have a state- organized public pension based on payroll taxes paid by employers and employees, women have successfully campaigned for the government to reduce their loss by paying some contributions on their behalf when they are out of the labor market taking care of family members. Such payments, known as pension credits, are widely used in developed countries and have recently been introduced in some developing countries, primarily in Latin America, such as in Uruguay and Bolivia. They can be provided in relation to care of children, frail elderly people, and people who are ill or disabled, but in practice they are mainly awarded for care of children. Again there is an issue of whether pension credits are paid only for mothers (as is the case in Latin America) or to whomever is the main caregiver, independent of their sex (as is more the case in Europe). Pension credits for the main care-giver does more to promote the redistribution of unpaid care.

Of course, if there is a universal, non-contributory pension, funded from general tax revenue and available to all, pension credits may not be necessary. Such universal social pensions are available in a growing number of countries, including Bolivia, Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia, Thailand, and rural Brazil. While these have obvious advantages over work-related contributory pension schemes, which are found in OECD countries, the benefit levels are almost always considerably lower than those in contributory pension schemes.

Reducing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Women’s organizations and trade unions in many countries have advocated for reduction of unpaid care and domestic work through public investment in physical infrastructure, such as the provision of clean water and sanitation, clean energy and public transport; and in social infrastructure, such as care services and health services. Provision of such services is part of the social protection system advocated by the ILO.

In many developing countries, access to clean water and sanitation and clean energy cannot be taken for granted, especially in rural areas; and women and girls spend a lot of time collecting water and fuel. For instance, estimates for 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa indicate that women spend a combined total of 16 million hours per day collecting water. This unpaid work could be eliminated by investment in water and sanitation infrastructure, provided access is affordable. In South Africa each household is entitled to 6000 liters of free, safe water per month. Similarly, women and girls in rural areas spend a lot of time collecting wood and other fuels and grinding and pounding food grains by hand. Rural electrification in South Africa reduced the time women spent on such tasks, boosting their participation in paid work by 9 percent.

In high-income countries, clean water and electricity is widely available, but women spend many hours of unpaid time caring for their children and frail elderly relatives. This can be reduced by transferring production of care to paid workers. In OECD countries on average , only 33 percent of 0-2 year olds are enrolled in early childhood education and care services. This increases to more than 70 percent of 3-5 year olds , but in some countries , such as UK, this is because compulsory enrolment in school begins at age five. In the U.S. early childhood education and care services are not publically provided until age five in most places . Services for children under three, whether publically or privately provided, are only free of charge to the poorest children in any country, and costs vary widely, with fees in the U.S. among the highest in the OECD. Moreover, services are frequently not designed with the needs of working parents in mind, and may operate for only half the day. In the U.S., contributions to the child care costs of some low-income families are made through cash transfers of some kind, such as the low-income tax credit, and there is no comprehensive public provision of such services. By contrast in Denmark, child care provision is the responsibility of local government, and all children, from 26 weeks to 6 years, are entitled to a full-time place. Fees are related to the earnings of parents.

In countries with aging populations, a growing amount of unpaid care work is devoted by women to looking after frail elderly relatives. Public investment in non-medical services for frail elderly people is low, and in some countries, such as the UK, has gone to finance out-sourced services whose staff are badly paid, poorly trained and lack employment rights. In the U.S., there is some limited funding for non-medical care for frail elderly people through Medicaid, providing they first have exhausted all of their own savings. By contrast, in Denmark services are financed through taxation and provided by local councils to all legal residents, and for permanent long-term care needs, are free of charge.
The publically provided care for children and old people that is available in Denmark, as well as benefiting those who need care, also frees more of the time of working-age women to undertake full-time paid work and reduces gaps in their labor force participation. The gender wage gap in Denmark in 2012 was around seven percent, and had been falling since 2009, whereas in U.S. it was almost double this and stalled.

Awareness of the economic benefits of public investment in child care and elder care services is growing. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called for such investment to provide not only needed services but also millions of good quality new jobs, citing analysis by feminist economists at the UK Women’s Budget Group of the impact of investing two percent of GDP in public provision of child care and elder care services in seven OECD countries. In the U.S., according to this analysis, such investment would create nearly 13 million new jobs, much more than investing two percent of GDP in the construction sector, which would create around 7.5 million jobs. Some 67 percent of the new jobs created by investment in the care sector would go to women, compared to 35 percent of new jobs created by investment in the construction sector. Investment in the care sector would reduce the gender employment gap, while investment in the construction sector would increase the gender employment gap. It is vital to have investment in social infrastructure, such as care services, and not just in physical infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, if women are to benefit equally with men from such investment.

Redistributing Unpaid Care and Domestic Work

Neither feminists nor trade unionists are campaigning to eliminate unpaid care and domestic work altogether. Women—and in some countries at least, increasingly men—want both time free from caregiving responsibilities, and also time to care for loved ones. Gender equality requires that we redistribute the unpaid domestic and care work that remains after comprehensive investment in household-related infrastructure and public services, so that men and boys share this equally with women and girls. This can be encouraged by provision of tax-funded paid parental leave for fathers as well as mothers. In 1994, statutory paternity leave provisions existed in 40 of the 141 countries for which the ILO had data. By 2015, leave entitlements for fathers were provided in at least 94 countries of 170 with ILO data. But paid paternity leave has an average length of seven days against an average length of 106 days for mothers. Fathers’ use of parental leave seems to be highest when leave is not just paid but well paid—at least half of previous earnings, as in the four OECD countries with the most gender-equal distributions of parental leave—Iceland, Norway, Portugal, and Sweden . Also effective are requirements that fathers cannot transfer their entitlement to mothers. In Iceland and Sweden, which offer a non-transferable “use-it-or-lose-it” fathers’ quota of leave days, men’s uptake is much higher (90 percent) than in Denmark (24 percent) and Slovenia (6 percent), which do not.

Men are beginning to take some responsibility for trying to change social norms about men’s participation in unpaid care and domestic work. MenCare is a global fatherhood campaign in more than 40 countries in five continents. Largely funded by U.S. and European foundations and U.N. agencies, its mission is “to promote men’s involvement as equitable, nonviolent fathers and caregivers in order to achieve family well-being, gender equality, and better health for mothers, fathers, and children.” Activities vary by country, ranging from small social media initiatives to radio shows, to comprehensive programs of education and training, and campaigns for paid leave for fathers. For instance, in Brazil, Promundo, a MenCare partner, works alongside the government’s ‘bolsa familia’ cash transfer program (which is targeted to low-income mothers) to train staff administering the program to work with fathers as well as mothers. The aim is to encourage fathers, as well as mothers, to take responsibility for children’s education and health. In 2016 MenCare produced a report on fatherhood in the U.S., which in addition to calling for paid parental leave, calls for workplace policies that value what parents do as caregivers as much as they value their professional achievements. Such policies should include, in addition to parental leave: flexible work hours, sick leave, a living wage, and creation of workplace cultures that respect the caregiving responsibilities of all genders.

Changes in the way that paid work is organized are essential if unpaid domestic and care work are to be equally distributed between women and men. It is particularly important that such arrangements should not only focus on women: for instance, creating a ‘mommy track’ of part-time work just for women. It is often overlooked that the hourly gender wage gap tends to be greatest between women working part-time and men working full-time. For instance, as pointed out by women’s rights campaigners in Scotland, in 2014, the gap in Scotland between the hourly earnings of all men and women was 17.5 percent; in full-time work the gap was almost half this, at 9 percent; but the gap between the hourly earnings of men working full-time and women working part-time was 34.5 percent. A study with low-income mothers in heterosexual couples in England found strong support for a shorter full-time working week for both women and men, so that mothers and fathers could share equally in paid and unpaid work.

The gender wage gap will never be closed by measures that aim to make women’s working lives more like men’s. Now we need more radical measures, those that will transform men’s working lives to make them more like those of women, such as equalizing ‘normal’ hours of paid work at about 30 hours a week for both men and women, raising wages where necessary to ensure this brings in a living income.

Closing the Gap

The gender wage gap will persist, and women’s rights will not be fulfilled, unless the gender gap in unpaid care and domestic work is recognized and closed. Public investment is vital to reduce the amount of unpaid work that needs to be done, but we also need measures to redistribute the remaining work, so that it is equally shared by men and women. As well as raising the rate of women’s participation in paid work, we need to raise the rate of men’s participation in unpaid care and domestic work. This requires action from governments, businesses, trade unions, and women’s organizations to mobilize resources and change cultures. To date, the most effective action has been in developed countries with extensive welfare states and in developing countries that are creating social protection systems. But these achievements are jeopardized by austerity policies and the rise of populist politics that reinforce gender stereotypes and call only for public investment in construction projects not in public services. It will be important for labor organizations and women’s organizations to work together to address inequalities not only in paid work but also in unpaid work.

 

Notes

  1. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, The Gender Wage Gap: 2015, IWPR #446, Washington, D.C., September 2016.
  2. United Nations, MDG Gender Chart 2015, New York, 2015, p. 3; http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2016/2/gender-chart-2015
  3. UN Women, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 (New York: UN Women, 2015) 32-33.
  4. Ibid.
  5. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, Leave No One Behind: A Call to Action For Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment (New York: UN Secretariat, 2016), 33-35.
  6. https://www.oecd.org/gender/data/genderwagegap.htm
  7. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, 2016:34.
  8. Michelle Budig, The Fatherhood Bonus and the Motherhood Penalty: Parenthood and the Gender Gap in Pay,2014. http://www.thirdway.org/report/the-fatherhood-bonus-and-the-motherhood-penalty-parenthood-and-the-gender-gap-in-pay
  9. UN Women 2015, 75-76.
  10. For instance, Jean Gardiner, Gender, Care and Economics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997) shows how feminist in the UK-based Conference of Socialist Economists argued in the 1970s that unpaid domestic labour underpinned both the capitalist economy and the gender inequality women experienced in the public sphere and yet had been largely ignored by economists of the left and the right.
  11. I first suggested the three Rs framework for analyzing unpaid work in seminar organized by the United Nations Development Programme in New York in 2009. This framework was subsequently used by UNDP (see for instance Anna Falth and Mark Blackden, ‘Unpaid Care Work’, Gender Equality and Poverty Reduction Policy Brief No.1(New York: UNDP 2009). It has since then been used, albeit with some variations, by a wide range of international organizations – see for instance UN Women 2015 and UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (2016).
  12. ILO (International Labour Organization) World Social Protection Report 2014-15: Building Economic Recovery, Inclusive Development and Social Justice (Geneva 2014). Social protection encompasses provision of basic income security through minimum wages and cash transfers, and provision of basic social services such as education, care and health services.
  13. As eloquently explained by Nancy Folbre, Who Pays for the Kids: Gender and Structures of Constraint (London: Routledge, 1994) and Antonella Picchio, Social Reproduction ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  14. United Nations Statistics Division Time Use data portal. (unstats.un.org/unsd/gender/timeuse/
  15. Ibid. The time is averaged over the population over 15 years old, including some who do no paid work and some who do no unpaid work.
  16. Ahmad, N., and S. H. Koh. “Incorporating Estimates of Household Production of Non-Market Services into International Comparisons of Material Well-Being.” OECD Statistics Directorate Working Paper No. 42, 2011.
  17. For a discussion of the conceptual issues, see Nancy Folbre, Valuing Non-Market Work (New York:UNDP Human Development Report Office, 2015).
  18. Report in The Guardian,11 November 2016.
  19. See http://www.globalwomenstrike.net/content/global-womens-strike-demands
  20. There are also other problems, such as who pays the wages; how it is decided how big a wage a particular woman should get, given that there are no set hours of work; and whether married women with no children and well-off husbands should be paid for the housework they do.
  21. Hannah Bargawi, Giovanni Cozzi and Susan Himmelweit (eds.), Economics and Austerity in Europe: Gendered Impacts and Sustainable Alternatives (London, Routledge, 2016).
  22. Sharon Lerner, The Real War on Families: Why the US Need Paid Leave Now, In These Times, August 18, 2015 http://inthesetimes.com/article/18151/the-real-war-on-families
  23. UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment (2016) 68.
  24. UN Women (2015) 155. An ILO costing study of basic social protection provision in seven low-income countries in Africa and five in Asia estimated that the annual cost of universal basic old age and disability pensions would cost between 0.6 and 1.5% of annual GDP; K Hagemejer and C. Behrendt, “ Can Low-Income Countries Afford Basic Social Security?” Geneva, ILO, 2008; https://www.ilo.org/gimi/gess/RessourcePDF.action;jsessionid=v1LfY11PCGvGW4N9dqsKKrcxyWszDNnBNTtcqr2TQqzLfvhBD9gB!79209976?ressource.ressourceId=5951
  25. Ibid. 181.
  26. Ibid. 182.
  27. Ferrant, G., L. M. Pesando and K. Nowacka, .Unpaid Care Work: The Missing Link In The Analysis Of Gender Gaps In Labour Outcomes.(Paris: OECD, 2014) . https://www.oecd.org/dev/development-gender/Unpaid_care_work.pdf.
  28. Some US cities, such as New York City, have recently introduced publically funded education for 4 year olds.
  29. Although wages are generally low, these services are very labor intensive, in both for profit and non-profit facilities. Women’s Budget Group, Investing in the Care Economy: A gender analysis of employment stimulus in seven OECD countries (ITUC,2016,42). https://www.ituc-csi.org/CareJobs
  30. Ibid. 37,42. https://www.ituc-csi.org/CareJobs
  31. Ibid. 41. https://www.ituc-csi.org/CareJobs. There is also some limited funding through Medicare, but limited to three weeks, based on the assumption, which must be certified through a doctor, that the person is likely to improve during that time.
  32. Women’s Budget Group (2016)37. https://www.ituc-csi.org/CareJobs
  33. https://www.oecd.org/gender/data/genderwagegap.htm
  34. Women’s Budget Group (2016). https://www.ituc-csi.org/CareJobs
  35. Women’s Budget Group (2016, Tables 13,14 and 15). https://www.ituc-csi.org/CareJobs. While it can be argued that investment in the care sector would simply create additional low-wage jobs, it is likely that wages would increase with sufficient investment.
  36. OECD. Backgrounder on Father’s Leave and Its Use. Paris: OECD ,2016). https://www.oecd.org/els/
    family/Backgrounder-fathers-use-of-leave.pdf. These gender differences in how much parental leave is taken reflect the fact that the loss of earnings for men is much greater than the loss of earnings for women, who generally are paid less.
  37. MenCare, The MenCare Parental Leave Platform. (Washington, DC, 2016. http://men-care.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2016/03/Parental-Leave-Platform-web.pdf. MenCare is coordinated by Promundo and Sonke Gender Justice in collaboration with the MenEngage Alliance, Save the Children, and Rutgers University and is funded by the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Sida (Swiss Development Agency), Oak Foundation, Summit Foundation, United Nations Population Fund, and UN Women.
  38. http://men-care.org/about-mencare/
  39. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jan/02/brazils-men-helped-to-become-better-fathers-to-reduce-gender-violence
  40. MenCare, State of America’s Fathers, www.men-care.org/soaf/
  41. Close the Gap Working Paper No. 14, 2015. https://www.closethegap.org.uk
  42. Tracey Warren, Gillian Pascall, and Elizabeth Fox, ‘Gender Equality in Time: Low Paid Mothers’ Paid and Unpaid Work in the UK. Feminist Economics 16(3)193-220, 2010.