We live in a public discourse awash in emotional manipulation. For whatever cause – commercial, charitable, political – we are subjected to words and imagery that seek to provoke a response of sentimentality, anger, even (a word we rarely use) pity. Too often, rhetoric is simply used to justify some stance. I heard a NPR report on Friday, on the second anniversary of Francis’s papacy, in which Benedict’s era was summed up with the phrase “fur stoles and shiny red slippers.” Whatever one thinks of the stances of the Pope emeritus, even on liturgy, this is the imagery of a cartoon, and not a helpful one for understanding the Church. What it did do in the report is cement the Benedict/Francis contrast – Francis, the report went on to say, favors simple garments and lives in a common apartment. I praise all these things. But these types of manipulative contrasts do not really help us understand the Church, its mission, and its problems.
And so it is with the poor and the problem of inequality. We get images designed to manipulate us one way or another. Apparently, someone at the Washington Post realized that Senator Joni Ernst’s image of her working at Hardee’s to get through college was one such manipulative image. And so they set out to visit a Hardee’s in rural Iowa, to see what it’s like in 2015. The result appeared in yesterday’s paper, and it is greatly to be praised. For it is unsentimental to its core. It is not a story designed to manipulate. It is designed to tell it like it is, and in so doing, it renders the complexity of the lives of the working poor in a way that is honest and respects their dignity.
I’ll leave you to read the story yourself, with its outstanding photo portraits of the main “characters” that, like the story itself, are unsentimental but dignified (you’ll miss the joy of the layout in the print edition, which is also very admirably done). What struck me most about the story is that it is not a story about victims, and there is precious little complaining in it. Now, in fact, there is plenty of material here to ask about unfairness. For example, the Hardee’s owners might do more for Brandi, who appears to be an exemplary shift manager (and more):
Saturday is Brandi’s day off. She was out running errands when she started worrying that the crew at work might be getting slammed. She had six kids in the car — her four and her husband Luke’s two — but decided to stop at Hardee’s anyway, saying she wouldn’t be long. A half-hour later, Luke and the kids are still waiting in the parking lot when Brandi dashes out to say that Mommy might be a while.
Mommy earns around $20,000 a year as a full-time shift leader at Hardee’s. She has a low tolerance for laziness and tardiness — and employees calling in with lame excuses. Menstrual cycles, a broken truck, general fatigue, a lack of transportation, Brandi can detect malingerers. Lately, the “I don’t have a ride to work” excuse has cut down since Brandi started responding with, “I’ll be there in five minutes.”
Stunning for $20,000 a year. Elsewhere, one of the other employees, Trina, says her mom “makes good bank” in her job cleaning out hog pens – “good bank” being $28,000 a year. Of course, Trina and her boyfriend pay $250 a month for their rental, and Brandi’s five-bedroom house for her, her husband, and four kids, is $675 a month. Life in Cresson, Iowa, is a little different. You might start to realize a bit why rural folks are none too fond of well-funded pensions for city workers, for example.
The common denominator in the story is not victimization, but struggle. Trina and her boyfriend struggle in one way. They want to get out of Creston, above all else. But it’s not clear for what, and they are never able to collect the resources to make their move:
One morning, Trina sits on the mattress watching Jeff get ready for his shift. He’s 19 and dark-eyed. She’s wearing a T-shirt and basketball shorts, sipping through the straw of a Hardee’s cup on the nightstand. A plug-in Scentsy pot has tipped over on the rug, drenching every molecule of air with Aussie Plum. Jeff goes to the chair for his uniform, giving it a shake. Buttoning it on, he sits back down on the mattress next to Trina, who nuzzles him.
Working part time at Hardee’s, they each earn between $140 and $170 a week. The plan is always to save money, and within five days the money is always gone. DVDs, cigarettes, HDMI cables, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, cherry Pepsi — Wal-Mart and Casey’s convenience store get most of their paycheck, while $250 goes for rent each month.
It seems from the story that she’s not the best employee: forgetting uniform items, not showing up. But she’s trying, and she’s overcome some drug problems: a vignette depicts her serving her eighth-grade teacher, admitting her struggles and receiving encouragement.
Brandi and her husband have a different problem: he has no job, and (apparently) watches too much TV, as his latest scheme for money-making is starting a diet supplement business which requires $1,000 in start-up costs. He used to work at Hardee’s (that’s where they met), but now, “it’s hard to find a decent job in a small town.”
In the story, Hardee’s itself functions as a strangely ambiguous backdrop. Its bacon and Velveeta sandwiches and corporately-monitored order clocks are present, but so is an employee commenting on a “penny fund” being run for someone by noting that “we’re family here.” Customers are often greeted with familiarity, even as they are plied with the corporate script to upsell the combo meals.
This story is exemplary for two reasons. One is: our national debate about inequality is going to be played out in places like Creston, Iowa. The marginalized working poor in swing states – a population that often seems far from the minds of those on the Coasts – are at the center of the knot. Understanding and addressing the real problems in Creston will not happen through sentiment, whether through plucky speeches about hard work or prophetic denunciations of the 1%. What’s going on in Creston isn’t just about the hourly pay of Hardee’s workers, but about a larger web of work, culture, and incentives that require more prudence and less sentiment. Let’s look closely, rather than trade in the endless binary of market and state: both are needed, both have potential problems, let’s look more carefully.
Less sentiment is also needed for a second reason: respecting the dignity and agency of the working poor. In a recent dotcommonweal discussion thread, some conflict broke out over our response to poverty when one commenter noted:
…let me draw a lesson from Vanier. Willy-nilly, the poor (however they are handicapped) are prophets to us. They tell us of God’s love for them, whatever we may be inclined to think of them. I would suggest that in the spirit of Vanier and Pope Francis what we well-off people most need to do is to take the trouble to listen to the poor and their needs. They will almost certainly not talk in big terms like libertarianism, solidarity, frugality, etc. They will talk about sick kids, gangs, lack of jobs, etc. To them talk of the difference between liberal individualism and communitarianism will sound like, in the immortal words of Huey Long, the difference between highpopalorum and lowpopahiram. (Apologies for misspelling these insightful terms). For all of us who are reasonably comfortable, the call to smell the sheep can only be heeded if we hear their bleats.
This intention here is certainly noble, but I was struck by the same thing another commenter noted: dump the sheep metaphor. Let’s face it: Francis’s smell of the sheep metaphor cuts two ways. On the one hand, it (rightly) suggests the need to avoid being “sacristry Christians,” locked up in pure, sterile situations for fear of uncleanness. On the other hand, it unfortunately also suggests a kind of patronizing “tenderness from above,” especially when the voices of the poor are considered “bleats.” Just because Francis is awesome doesn’t mean his images are without difficulty. I find the presumptions of the passivity of the poor, and the apparent obviousness of “what they will say,” to be very troubling. My parents both grew up poor, didn’t go to college, and to this day, live out the virtue of frugality. That virtue sent my sister and I to good schools and gave us a stable home. The working poor know frugality matters, and indeed they know solidarity matters, too. The people in Creston know that. What is clear from the article – and I would add, from living for my entire professional career in places that are more like Creston than like elite university enclaves – is that the situation of the working poor is complex, and they know it is complex. Pricey tattooes and get-rich-quick schemes jostle with hard work and systemic dismantling of opportunities for those “in the middle.” But they maintain dignity amidst the struggles, both internal and external. Presenting the flaws and pitfalls is a part of respecting the dignity, and thus the agency.
Presenting the working poor not as a parable, but as an honest journalist, is so important. The best of the turn-of-the-century journalists who spearheaded progressive reform knew this: they weren’t presenting sentiment and manipulation. They were presenting reality. If we want change, we should take lessons from them. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent history of the synergy of this era, The Bully Pulpit, she quotes a description of the pioneering work of McClure’s magazine. This work, it is said, is distinctive and powerful because it sought “to describe realities with absolute frankness, to avoid preaching, and to let the facts produce their own impression on the public conscience.” Alongside Adam Davidson’s equally-elegant “Making It in America,” we should praise Anne Hull’s piece for showing us the heart of the challenges we face in real terms, not sugar-coated ones. And doing it in a way that show real human dignity, not sheep. If we do that, we might solve problems, instead of just contesting elections.