There’s a lot of talk lately about the working class. In an ordinary year, I’d be ecstatic because this is something I care about. But this isn’t an ordinary year.
Lately, the term is often racialized, which is never a good sign. The Electoral College victory of the president elect is attributed to the white working class. While there are lots of ways of parsing the results, let’s assume that’s true and consider how working people are likely to fare now.
I guess we could start by saying that white working class people probably won’t have their names added to a registry, face mass deportations, or have travel restricted for reasons other than lack of money. There’s that anyway, although I kind of doubt this would have happened in any case.
But a number of policies now on the agenda could be harmful to working people.
Let’s start with the Affordable Care Act. Around 30 million Americans could lose coverage if it is fully repealed without being replaced. Of these, over half are white, most of whom work for a living.
In WV, Medicaid expansion alone covers nearly 180,000 people, about one out of ten. That doesn’t include people with disabilities or the tiny TANF or welfare population. Around 37,000 working West Virginians got covered through the exchange. Around 18,000 young people up to age 26 are now covered on their parent’s insurance. These people are overwhelmingly in working families. White ones too.
Losing expansion funding would be a devastating blow to hospitals and health care providers here and would result in job losses in one of the few growing industries.
The new administration could breathe new life into House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Medicare is a health care program for people age 65 and older who have worked and paid into the system. It provides coverage to over 55 million Americans and around 400,000 here, over 1/5 of the population. We’re tied with Maine in having the highest percentage of beneficiaries.
Ryan has also proposed block granting—and effectively cutting--programs such as SNAP and traditional Medicaid, both of which benefit working families. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the data shows that “The overwhelming majority of SNAP recipients who can work do so.” SNAP benefits go straight to local businesses and help support thousands of retail and agriculture jobs.
Traditional Medicaid covers 70 million, including long term care for the elderly and people with disabilities. Many seniors who worked all their lives run out of savings when they need long term care. Medicaid picks up the slack. With block granting, some would have to quit jobs to care for elderly family members, even though they may be unequipped to do this. More seniors who worked all their lives will be in danger of abuse or neglect.
This would also mean losing federal matching funds, again with job impact. More than 10 years ago the WV Bureau of Business and Economic Research found that Medicaid spending supported economic activity that generated nearly 33,000 jobs. That number has only gone up since.
Medicaid and CHIP provide health care to children in many working families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level—and most workers want their kids to live and be healthy. The programs also bring millions of dollars to local communities and sustain jobs.
The latest round of proposed tax cuts—a remedy that has yet to produce impressive results--would likely benefit the very wealthy, increase inequality, and reduce the ability of the federal government to respond to the needs of working families—for example by making vocational and post-secondary education more affordable.
From the earliest days of the republic, working people fought for a free public education for their children, which is likely to be undermined by a secretary of education committed to undermining it with a system of vouchers and privatization schemes. Speaking of labor history, another key demand of the past was the abolition of child labor, which has been praised by a group the newly appointed education chief has supported.
Then there’s trade, a major issue for working people. I’m not mourning the death of the Trans Pacific Partnership and I support revisiting trade deals to ensure workers’ rights and save American jobs. But a heavy handed approach could set off a trade war which the conservative Peterson Institute described as “horribly destructive.” Peterson estimated that this could cost between 1.3 and 4 million jobs. Progressive groups that ordinarily oppose Peterson on trade issues, such as the Economic Policy Institute, share similar concerns.
If the US ignores the dangers of climate change, working people will be hit the hardest by extreme weather events, like those that hit much of the state this summer. Scientific models project more droughts, floods, food shortages, wildfires, disease epidemics, etc. While we’re at it, if the US goes to war with the known universe over perceived slights on Twitter, it’s a pretty safe bet that working people would pay the highest price.
Then there’s the pick for secretary of labor, a fast food baron who opposes the minimum wage and talks about replacing workers with robots, saying that the latter are ““always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case”
Sorry, but If this is a case of sticking it to the man, I’d have to ask, which man would that be? From where I’m sitting, it seems to be the one who is living paycheck to paycheck.
I think a real pro-working class program would be based on solidarity, not scapegoating. It would include such things as full employment and trade policies to strengthen the middle class; patching the holes in our pension and health care system, ensuring paid sick days and family leave; making debt-free post high-school job training and education a reality; strengthening K-12 public education; investing in things like early childhood programs and infrastructure; and guaranteeing the right of workers to organize. And, since widespread poverty exerts a downward pressure on everyone’s wages, it would support an increase in the minimum wage indexed to inflation.
It would recognize that an injury to one is the concern of all, just as the labor movement of the 1800s came to recognize that free labor could never prosper while slavery persisted. And it would promote international policies that would guarantee fair trade, a sustainable future, and what Lincoln called “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
I haven’t heard a lot of that.