Sunday, December 19, 2004

# Posted 7:36 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HOLDING AUDITIONS FOR THE MAN IN THE STREET: What do a second-rate action movie and a long-term research project by the Washington Post have in common? More than you'd expect.

On yesterday's front page, the Post ran the fifth article in its ongoing look at how hard it is for Americans to make ends meet even when their income matches the national median of around $35,000 a year. Correspondent Alec Klein recounts the story of a women named Kayasa Cobb in order to make a larger point about the experiences of the black middle class.

A Florida resident, Cobb is married and has two children. She doesn't just have a bachelor's degree, but also a masters. She has a full time job and earns $39,000. Her husband earns just over $20,000 as a librarian. He puts in extra hours at a move theater for just a shade over the minimum wage.

And still the Cobbs are barely getting by. They have $80,000 in debt. Day care for their infant daughter costs $520 a month. Health insurance adds another $400.

Cobb and her family still live in a dangerous neighborhood where gunshots are often heard. "Earlier this year, Cobb applied for a local government grant to help buy a home in a safer neighborhood. She was denied, she says, because her family made too much money."

Klein's article never exactly makes clear why the Cobbs are having such a hard time making ends meet despite having a household income of $60,000. I'm not exactly one to criticize, since I don't have any children to support and my parents were never strapped for cash.

But I am curious: How did this family come to be chosen as the representative of an entire social class? Shouldn't Klein tell us how he met the Cobbs and whether their situation is common among those with similar levels of income and education?

In Klein's article, the implicit answer to why the Cobbs are facing an uphill battle in life is that the system is rigged against them:
Even as African Americans and other minorities have made economic progress in the last 40 years, many of those reaching the middle-income rung, like Cobb, are finding it a hollow promise. In earlier decades, a union-protected factory worker or government employee earning such a wage could expect a comfortable life with company-provided health and retirement benefits, and perhaps enough money for indulgences such as the occasional new car...

Beneficiaries of the post-World War II boom in manufacturing, [African-Americans] have lost a disproportionate number of jobs as the factory workforce declined in recent years...

"Even for blacks who are following the model of the American middle class, going to college, getting a white-collar job, blacks have taken it on the chin," says labor economist William Spriggs, former executive director of the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality, which analyzes African-American issues.

That's how Cobb feels.
Now here's what you've all been waiting for: the part of this post about a B-grade action flick. Yesterday, I watched Walking Tall, starring The Rock. Walking Tall is both the remake of an earlier film by the same name as well as fictionalized version of the life of Buford Pusser, a legendary Tennessee sheriff in the 1960s.

The basic storyline of the 2004 version of the film is that Special Forces vet Chris Vaughn (The Rock) returns to his home town only to discover that the local lumber mill has closed down and his father is out of a job. The new game in town is a casino owned by one of Vaughn's high school friends, who has bought off the cops and uses the casino as a front for his drug-dealing operation. No one in the town wants to do anything about this because they all depend on the casino for jobs.

Long story short, The Rock becomes sherriff, beats up a whole lot of people, beds a reformed stripper and busts the drug operation. Then, in the final scence, you learn that the lumber mill has reopened and the elder Vaughn has a good job again.

Unsurprisingly, the film never explains this magical reversal of our nation's transition from an industrial to a service economy. But Hollywood's job is to give us happy endings, so you can't really blame the film for that.

Still, I think that the fantasy on which the happy-ending is based has a lot in common with yesterday's story in the WaPo. Both are animated by a powerful nostalgia for the good old days of solid union jobs with comprehensive benefits.

Perhaps because I am a historian, I tend to doubt whether such good old days ever existed. I'm not suggesting that the "good factory job" is a myth. But even if there were millions of them, did they really represent the typical life of America's middle class? Or does nostalgia for the good old days just lead us to misdiagnose the cause of our probelms today?

I am doubly suspicious of those who suggest that African Americans benefited from the old order as much as their Caucasian counterparts. America's unions have a long history of racism and America's factories had a long tradition of making blacks into second class citizens on the factory floor.

One striking statistic briefly mentioned in the WaPo is that "The unemployment rate for those with a bachelor's degree or greater in the United States is 2.5 percent, far below the national average." Wow. I'm willing to guess that the median income for college graduates is also significantly above average. Perhaps the real question we should be asking is not what happened to the good union jobs, but how we can put more Americans through college.

If I had more time on my hands, I could write a research paper comparing the opportunities that white and black Americans have to attend college. I could compare the living standards of college-educated African-Americans with their white counterparts. I could find out what percentage of the black middle class is college educated. I could find out how often college educated African-Americans wind up on welfare -- a fate of which Kayasa Cobb is quite wary.

In other words, I could find out whether the Washington Post's poster child for the failure of the marketplace was chosen because she had the right story to tell or because she really represents a subset of the American workforce that is struggling to leave a decent life despite working as hard as it can.

UPDATE: Kaus is blasting the WaPo for this half-baked article with far more gusto than I can summon. (Hat tip: MD)
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Interesting....I learn something all the time.

Thx......Steve @
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