Notes from the Moral Underground

How and why Americans are subverting their economy.

Andrew Oxford

Sociologist Lisa Dodson studies how the poorest among us survive.

Persistent high unemployment, rising poverty and shrinking state budgets have made insecurity the norm for America’s working class. Sociologist Lisa Dodson, who teaches at Boston College, has spent years studying the struggles of the growing ranks of underpaid and overworked Americans desperately trying to make ends meet. To understand how fair-minded people survive in an unfair economy, Dodson interviewed hundreds of low-wage workers and their employers across the country, examining what she terms the economic disobedience” now pervasive in the low-wage sector. From a supervisor padding paychecks to a grocer sending food home with his employees, these acts of disobedience form the subject of her latest book, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.

Economic subversion is in the news regularly, whether it’s piracy in various forms or increasing interest in fair trade and consumer empowerment. Will we see more of this as people’s struggles lengthen and intensify?

Economic disobedience very much resonates with civil disobedience as part of American history. The forefront of that today is the issue of inequality. Where people feel provoked, they break a rule, bend a rule. It’s taking sides in a very private way. It’s not a mobilized effort yet, but it is a way people are confronting the incredible economic disparity in America today. 

We may all have the right to vote now, and we may have laws that are supposed to protect workers, but the truth is that tens of millions of people are not being paid enough to take care of themselves or their kids. So this creates a really sharp paradox for fair-minded people, many of whom are not particularly interested in being advocates or activists. They just think that things ought to be fair. They think that if people work hard and do their job, they should be able to take care of themselves. But because the inequality built into the economy is so profound and so pervasive, people are committing economic disobedience. 

People see their work as a duty, a responsibility, but it seems like a one-way street. Is the idea of the social safety net imperiled as economic realities change?

The corrosive effects of protracted poverty – even when you’re working as hard as you can work – have a very negative effect on a society. Most people recognize that community support, through welfare and childcare, has now been eroded. But people are looking for new ways to create community. People are searching for ways to recreate it. The social safety net may be imperiled, but it is imperiled in its own form. 

And that is one reason people don’t vote. The lack of interest in voting among low-income people reflects that our political and economic system is not meeting their needs. People want to be part of a community; they are willing to do more than their fair share if they see that it is building something that works. But they need to see that their efforts are going to take them somewhere.

How might elected leaders be forced to care about the unemployed and working poor, who vote at much lower rates than other Americans, since they aren’t beholden to them?

The impact of people working for unsustainable wages is so great – in terms of health, educational success, family life, children’s future, and so forth – that politicians should speak up and step up, even if in the short term that doesn’t translate into votes. Look around the world at the progress of other nations that invest in their people – and consider the ultimate loss of not investing in our families and people – and the significance goes beyond votes. 

Moreover, if politicians recognized lower-income people as potentially vital constituents who care about their communities and future, as do other voters, that could translate into votes. Ultimately, as the proportion of people who are unemployed and working for low-wages increases, social instability is inevitable if our leaders ignore this stratification. 

Government and business are often faulted for allowing the social safety net to collapse, but what about the responsibility of the family?

I don’t know what more families can do. Those of us who are fortunate enough to earn a decent income buy our way out of pain by paying for all these different services and we still find ourselves scrambling to take care of our elderly, our children. We have a tendency to always point the finger at personal responsibility, and at families. They’re somehow supposed to resolve everything – even if we don’t pay people a living wage. 

It is not that people or families shouldn’t be responsible. People are extraordinarily responsible. But what about these economic structures? It is projected that 50 percent of all U.S. children will be members of low-income households. What about these people who have all this power in the economy to determine wages, to determine working conditions – what’s their part?

You argue we have a responsibility to the people we’re economically connected to – the working poor, immigrants, etc. As the economy becomes more global, should we be expanding that idea of responsibility?

This is in contention right now. The lobbying machine of global corporations argues that we should feel no economic responsibility for each other. They think businesses should have absolute freedom to be unregulated and make as much money as they can, and that collateral human damage is not their responsibility. 

The people’s narrative is very different. We expect that when we do our jobs we can earn a livelihood and that we should not be sacrificing the next generation. The notions of economic responsibility and economic disobedience are really a source of tension right now.

You have studied people who quietly confront unfairness and injustice in their everyday lives. Do these people think of themselves as acting politically?

For the most part, no. We have not offered a political framework that people can fit these actions into. In fact, the framework that’s trying to mobilize popular culture is all about self, it’s about competing with people you are against. 

Most people, including working-class people trying to take care of their families, lack a context for viewing the alliances that happen in a spontaneous way as political. It’s possible it could develop, but it needs a framework that brings all of this together and talks about fairness across the board.

Do you fear this recession has further marginalized the working class, which was, of course, already suffering before 2008?

This discovery of all the pain that middle-class – even upper-middle-class – Americans are experiencing, indicates a certain privileging of the problems they have as opposed to the problems that about 35 percent of people – the working class – have. In the media and in policy circles there is now a preoccupation with the need to talk about the middle class, and worry about how people are sending their kids to college. And then you have this whole other group of people who couldn’t send their kids to college five years ago. 

Middle-class Americans and upper-middle-class Americans are losing a lot of the security they had – which lower-income people haven’t had in a long time. But they have a lot more in common than they’ve ever had before. What I hope is that they are not pitted against each other.

How have poor Americans dealt with widening income disparities during this crisis?

People are just working harder. They are more desperate to hold onto jobs. Even though the job losses in the service sector have been less than in some other sectors, in retail they have been considerable. The economic crunch felt by the middle class right now is much harder on the working class. I’ve seen despair and anger, but it’s a time of volatility. We are going to see some extremes. But if we listen to people and build alliances, we could mitigate this somewhat.

So do you see prospects for change coming out of this recession?

My hope comes from listening to people from all over the country, of all backgrounds and ages, of different ideological perspectives, who agree we should be fair. Now, how that gets mobilized is the important question, and it’s one that I cannot answer. What I can say is there are a lot of folks who are ready and who don’t have a Tea Party perspective. 

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Andrew Oxford, a native of San Antonio, Texas, was a fall 2010 In These Times editorial intern.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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