On becoming the working poor or How I robbed Peter to pay Paul

February 9, 2017

There is a Blazak tradition whenever I’m at a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with my conservative family members in Chattanooga, Tennessee. While the dessert is being passed around my aunt, out of the blue, will just say, “All these people on welfare need to get a job.” All eyes turn to me and then I have give my lecture about how most welfare payments go to children, the elderly, and the disabled and the “able-bodied” adults who receive welfare are, for most part, working at low-wage jobs. (Fully one third of those working at Wal-Mart receive government subsidies.) They nod and go back to their pie and complaining about “aliens.”

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I’ve had a comfortable middle-class life. As a kid, I got pretty much everything I asked for Christmas. Went to a posh private university for college and grad school. Got the first tenure-track job I applied for (with an competing offer from one I applied to second). Paid off my student loans fairly quickly. Bought a house in my mid-thirties. Fattened my retirement fund. Started a family.

And then the shit hit the fan.

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When I was studying the rise of the racist skinhead culture, I developed an explanation called the status frustration theory. It’s certainly frustrating to have nothing in this land of plenty which frames the “American Dream” as one of endless economic upward mobility. I argued it is even more strain inducing to have some economic status and then lose it. My skinheads were the victims of Reaganomics. They witnessed their parents being downsized and laid off as America became a “post-industrial” economy. They saw the American Dream ripped away from them and hate groups gave them convenient scapegoats: minorities, immigrants, and, wait for it, the Jews.

Twenty-five years later, after a bizarre collaboration between a psychotic skinhead inmate and a few union-busting university administrators, I was joining them in the ranks of the downwardly mobile. I resigned my tenured position to focus on raising our daughter and my fantasy of writing full-time, but the loss of the salary (and benefits) had a bigger impact than I expected. Suddenly I was the guy I had been talking about in my lectures on social stratification and poverty. Unemployment benefits (which ran out quickly), Medicare, and WIC were not bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation. They were my social safety net.

Fortunately, I married a Mexican and those folks know how to double down and work their asses off. So while I tried to figure out what our “next steps” were going to be, my new-mom wife worked at whatever job paid the best, while trying to nurture her art and family. Andrea told me not to worry too much about the financial situation. “You’re a white guy with a PhD.,” she said.

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Three years later, the pressure is on to get back to full-time work. The writing, consulting, and part-time teaching has been hugely fulfilling, but this 50-something needs a salary again. The whole experience has given me a window into the world of the working poor. Glimpses came at left angles. The first time I tried to use our WIC vouchers at the grocery store to “buy” my allotment of milk and bread the cashier helped me because she was also on WIC. Sitting in the free-dental clinic so Cozy could have her new teeth looked at and the social worker asking about my home life. There was a good chance he had been one of my students. Watching the debate over Obamacare and wondering if congress members, fully-insured by the taxpayers, we going to take away my own health insurance. Those glimpses became just looking in the mirror. I was them.

There’s a lot to consider here, but the main rude awakening was just the hustle. The hustle to get to the end of the month. Will the bills get paid? How much room is left on the credit card? Will I ever pay them off? Should I get another credit card? Can I make a payment for one credit card with another credit card? Where can I borrow some money? What can I sell? Can I combine errands to save gas? Do I have a coupon for that? Does anybody owe me money? Can I tap into my retirement account (again)? Can I qualify for a home equity loan without a full-time job? (No.) Can I find a gig that will pay enough to cover the cost of daycare while I’m at work?

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That last one is a big one. I could pick up a job while I wait for a real position to land in, but what do I do with my daughter? The average price of daycare in the United States is about $1000 a month. (We pay $510 a month to have Cozy in daycare two days a week, plus the occasional drop-in when I’m working, plus a baby sitter on Wednesdays to cover the period when Andrea is still at work but I have to commute to teach my night class.) It’s not surprising that the number of children living with a grandparent over the last 20 years rose 64 percent. I wish we had a grandmother handy. But that’s America now. Working families have less time with their children. And many, like some of my community college students, add school to their work and family responsibilities. It shouldn’t be surprising that most Americans owe more than they own. I have $13 in my savings account. If we have an emergency, I can buy half of a cheese pizza.

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On the lucky side, my parents taught me how to be frugal. (Hey kids, Google that word: FRUGAL). I learned to save my pennies. “Don’t throw that away, it might be worth something someday!” my mother would chant. So I’ve been “liquidating” some assets. It was hard to sell my first Spiderman comic book (autographed by Stan Lee). At age 13, I bought it for $200 and sold it 40 years later for $11,000. That could have been a much-needed kitchen remodel or a grand trip to Europe but it kept the roof over our heads, so thanks Spidey. The nest egg was for a rainy day, but it’s been a mild winter so I can’t help to (finally) feel optimistic about adding to it instead of all this subtracting.

Understanding the daily stress of this insanity (How many phone bills can you miss before AT&T disconnects you?) has helped me to understand how most Americans exist in this nation where the rich get (much) richer while the rest of the country counts the days until their (totally inadequate) payday. It justifies buying a few lottery tickets for the fantasy of paying off all the debts in one fell swoop. It justifies the anger at a neighbor putting in a hot tub while you wait another year to fix the roof. And it justifies daydreaming about putting a crew together for a jewelry heist to rip off people who will drop a couple of grand on shoes they will never even wear.

As a criminologist, that’s been one of the more fascinating psychological aspects of this experience. I get it. I get the temptation to commit the “perfect crime,” playing a self-serving Robin Hood. But also, as a criminologist, I know there is no such thing as a perfect crime and arrest only make poor people poorer. It’s a financial black hole. It might make a great book but one I imagine my daughter would rather I don’t have the opportunity to write. I’m just saying, I get it, and I’m guessing a lot of my not-private-school students do as well.

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The only human path that matters is the one that builds empathy for our fellow humans. I am on that path. And when I climb out of this financial hole (and I will), I will remember the daily stresses of the working poor. I will advocate for them. Don’t fall for the “trickle down” lie again. People need living wages that actually meet the cost of living in America. And I will tell my wife to feel free to quit her job. She’s been shouldering the economic weight of our family for three years. She deserves a break. As do most working Americans.

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Watching the Wheels Turns 3: Thanks and Resistance

November 23, 2017

As you get older, measuring years in a life seems more difficult. The difference between my year as a 15-year-old and Randy at 16 seem like distinct chapters of a very logical book. I couldn’t begin to tell you how 46 was different from 45. But having a child puts you back on the clock. We’re not giving Cozy’s age by weeks anymore. (It’s 170 weeks today, if you care to know.) But the transition from 2 1/4 to 3 1/4 has been pretty grounding.

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It seems like a moment ago I was starting this blog, fully employed as a full professor at Portland State University, while the baby slept and my wife returned to work at her job at Planned Parenthood. Now we have a kid who runs the board on Candyland and likes to tell me what things really mean. Her sense of humor is as warped as her father’s. She likes to complain about our car being “stinky.” Yesterday, from the backseat, she said, “Daddy, can I tell you something crazy? If there was a stinky man here he would say, ‘I really like your car!’” I laughed so hard I almost ended up on the sidewalk.

Another year watching this child evolve as I’ve watch my country devolve. A year ago, I still was hoping that the election was just a bad dream. Now were racing towards either a version of The Handmaid’s Tale or Idiocracy. I can’t tell which is coming first. Last November, I was in New Orleans at the annual convention of the American Society of Criminology. One of my esteemed colleagues who also studies hate grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “This election might be bad for the country, but it’s going to be good for us.” Who knew how right he’d be? From the dramatic rise in bias crimes, Muslim bans, the rise of the alt-right fascists, Charlottesville, and Trump cultist who say they trust their pussy-grabbing leader more than they trust Jesus, it’s been one quick death slide of a once great country. But anybody who says the emperor has no clothes on is branded “fake news” by the MAGA police.

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It’s certainly kept me busy. I’ve done more interviews on hate crimes, the alt right, and mass shootings this year than I can count. CNN, NPR, Al Jazeera, flying to New York for CBS News (Yes, I saw Charlie Rose). I think the most surreal moment was doing an interview in a Portland hotel room with a former racist skinhead for a Canadian film crew doing a documentary on Trump-era hate and having to take a break to do an interview on Trump-era hate, via Skype, for live TV in Turkey. The world wants to know what the hell is happening in Trump America. I’ve been researching this issue for 30 years, so I guess it’s my time to join the global conversation. Hopefully, my words will help sound the alarm.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for a few things. I’m thankful that the resistance to this swing to the moronic and hateful is being countered by a growing number of Americans, including traditional Republicans. The opposition to this thing that looks more and more like fascism is sometimes noisy and annoying and might veer off message or attract its own knuckleheads, but it is vital to the salvation of the core American values. Let’s be clear, Trump and his alt-right thugs want to destroy America and remake it in their hateful image. There would be no antifa (anti-fascists) if there weren’t fa (fascists). And there are fascists. I’m thankful that people are standing up to any form of authoritarianism, including those standing up to sexual harassers and abusive police. Maybe we needed the Trump nightmare to finally ignite the red blood cells of this country.

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Most of all I’m thankful that everyone in my family is safe and healthy. We are growing in spite of this assault. My wife has to keep her green card handy and we know that the GOP, under their dear orange leader, is hellbent on taking our daughter’s healthcare away from her. But so far we are holding strong. Cozy is doing great and we are thankful for her Obamacare-funded vitamins. Knock on wood, she seems perfect in every way and doesn’t even need diapers anymore. (Thank you, Frozen undies!) A friend recently had a stroke and I know how quickly all that can change, but we are strong and ready for the winter. Our little family is mighty.

In three years this blog has engaged in discussion in lot of issues, from baby brain development to football violence, and tried to keep the feminist lens in focus. A year ago, I was writing about the children of Aleppo (who are still being bombed, btw) and lord knows what I will be writing about a year from now. (2018, make America smart again?) But I am thankful to be able to share my family’s life and my random thoughts about the state of the world. And I’m thankful that you’re here as well. Unless you’re a troll.

4 Novembers

Preparing for the Great Leap Backwards: We call it “anomie”

Jan. 4, 2017

There was a wonderful moment of peace in our house on New Year’s Day. Andrea and I were sitting on the couch reading. I was reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water. My wife was reading Patti Smith’s first memoir, Just Kids, and Cozy was sitting in my old bean bag chair, reading Go, Train, Go! It’s one of a series of memoirs by Thomas the Tank Engine. The Best of Donny Hathaway was playing on the hi-fi, the coffee was brewed, and it was almost snowing outside. I took it all in, my beautiful family, and thought, “Can the rest of 2017 please just be like this.”

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But I know it’s not to be. This particular set of 365 days does not promise to be easy. After the rough start to 2016, I don’t doubt that some of the icons of our childhoods, those increasingly fragile baby boomers and older, will pass away and I’ll have to stop to pay tribute, dusting off their records, renting their movies, and maybe writing mournful odes. Stay with us, Chuck Berry. Don’t leave us, Betty Friedan. We still need you in this world. And there will be younger ones, even younger than me. “I just bought his new album! I just read her new book!” These passings will remind me that my parents are getting older and face their own health challenges that will inevitably put my own loyalty as their child to the test. Stay with us. Let me get back to work so I can help take care of you. I want Cozy to get to know you better.

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The country faces much bigger challenges than I do when Trump takes his “oath” on January 20th. (Look for crossed fingers behind his back.) When he and “his” congress repeal Obamacare, millions of the “angry white people” who voted for him will lose their health coverage. The record low uninsured rate will zoom back up and the first contact with a doctor these angry white people will “choose” will be an Emergency Room. And tax-payers will again get stuck with the bill. That looks more like socialism than Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Personal bankruptcies will sky-rocket as medical bills wipe out any savings or home equity these angry white people have. I hope that iron worker in Michigan has got a few hundred thousand dollars under his mattress for his kid’s first few leukemia treatments! But at least the Trump did what he said he was gonna do. I like a guy who says what he means. Now about that wall.

These folks are likely to see all kinds of bad news from the guy who modeled himself as their savior. Prices going up from his simple-minded protectionist trade policies as wages go down because of a new war on benefits, unions, and the minimum wage. “Competition” is great for the fat cats at the top and he knows this. The defunding of public schools will turn these kids to the streets. But hey, you might get a voucher! No worries, because the promise to renew the war on crime and drugs will give them three hots and a cot at the new private prison, all paid for, not by the rich, but you got it. You.

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I’m not sure how the cavalcade of changes that is coming from the arrival of the most incompetent plutocrat to ever golden parachute into Washington will affect me. I am just beginning my return back to work now that Cozy can successfully distinguish Plah-Doh from actual food. It could be great as the sane segment of the population was looking for experts in diversity, criminality, and what to do when a new generation of young, angry white people start spray-painting swastikas around town. Or it could be the exact opposite as the walls go up and Americans, fearful of the coming crash, just put all their money in Canadian dollars and wheels of parmesan cheese. Diversify! That’s me with a sign down on SW Broadway. “Will lecture about Late Capitalism for contributions to my minimum credit are payment.”

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Our first sociologist was a little French fellow named Emile Durkheim. The guy was supposed to become a rabbi but invented a scientific discipline instead. I’ll write more about him because his ideas are fused into my veins. He was, in many ways, inherently conservative, alerting the enlightened to the unintended consequences of the French Revolution. Revolutionary change itself is not bad, but when things happen too quickly and people start throwing the baby out with the bathwater, you’re gonna get some ugly version of anarchy. In 1789 France, it was the abolition of any institution associated with the monarchy. In 2017 America it may be the abolition of any program associated with that black guy. What was his name again? The result in France was the “reign of terror” and the invention of a political tool called the guillotine. What will be the equivalent in the reign of Trump?

Durkheim had a term for this – anomie, the sense of normlessness. When things change too quickly and institutions loose their ability to keep things relatively stable, people freak out. For Durkheim, it was high suicide rates associated with industrialization and the sweeping away of the old regime. Usually, we are happy when the old order goes bye bye. Slavery was a long tradition. So was legal sexual harassment and the unpunished murders of transgender people. As sociologists, we are often discussing anomie associated with change that moves society forward. How have men handled (or not handled) that radical idea that women are human beings invested in right to equal opportunity? Some dudes freaked out.

Get ready for the anomie of a society that suddenly lurches backwards, to AGAIN when AMERICA was GREAT. To a time when women, people of color, LGBTQ people, working people, and yes, a lot of angry white people regularly got screwed and were told to sit down and shut up or the goons would come for them in the night. How will America manage this rapid change to the good old boy days when generals and millionaire (now billionaire) men made the rules? Will we descend into chaos as our basic institutions are attacked by this con artist? He and his Legion of Doom represent the greatest threat to the idea of America we may have ever faced from within.

Hey, maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe nothing will really change after January 20th. That Trump will be our great entertainer and solve all our complex problems with a tweet. His seemingly pathological lies could be a brilliant secret plan to get Wall Street to hand back America’s wealth to Main Street. Or maybe Washington will be crippled with same deadlock as always and any change will be small and unnoticeable to anyone who doesn’t read wonky blogs. But honestly, I don’t think Donald could name the first ten amendments of the Constitution, let alone FDR’s Four Freedoms. The question is will the angry white people who voted for him see the con before the midterm elections in 2018? I imagine even his KKK supporters are gonna feel a bit like suckers by summer.

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Look, I just want enough “freedom from want” to be able to keep my house and sit on my couch with my family on cold winter’s days, reading memoirs, and not worry about guillotines for “libtards” and college professors. And know that Chuck Berry is still in the world.