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University of California Press
Pub. Date:
University of California Press
Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy / Edition 1

Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy / Edition 1

by Victor Tan Chen Victor Tan Chen


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Years after the Great Recession, the economy is still weak, and an unprecedented number of workers have sunk into long spells of unemployment. Cut Loose provides a vivid and moving account of the experiences of some of these men and women, through the example of a historically important group: autoworkers. Their well-paid jobs on the assembly lines built a strong middle class in the decades after World War II. But today, they find themselves beleaguered in a changed economy of greater inequality and risk, one that favors the well-educated-or well-connected.

Their declining fortunes in recent decades tell us something about what the white-collar workforce should expect to see in the years ahead, as job-killing technologies and the shipping of work overseas take away even more good jobs. Cut Loose offers a poignant look at how the long-term unemployed struggle in today's unfair economy to support their families, rebuild their lives, and overcome the shame and self-blame they deal with on a daily basis. It is also a call to action-a blueprint for a new kind of politics, one that offers a measure of grace in a society of ruthless advancement.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283015
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 07/20/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 675,623
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Victor Tan Chen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the founding editor of In the Fray magazine. He is the coauthor, with Katherine S. Newman, of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America.


Read an Excerpt

Cut Loose

Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy

By Victor Tan Chen


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95885-2


They Had It Coming

"You all remember," said the Controller, in his strong deep voice, "you all remember, I suppose, that beautiful and inspired saying of Our Ford's: History is bunk. History," he repeated slowly, "is bunk."

—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

John Hope lost his job in 2009. For fourteen years he had worked at a car plant near Detroit, heaving truck bumpers onto the practiced balance of his lean, muscled arms and machine-polishing away the wounds in the rough steel, readying them for immersion in a chemical bath that would gild each piece with a thin layer of luminous chrome. It was a work of magic, conjured up in a foul, fume-drenched cavern, an industrial alchemy that transformed masses of cheap base metals into things of beauty and value.

John, fifty-five, excelled at the work. Every day on the job meant handling metal and machinery that could, with a moment's indecision, crush or maim him. He took pride in the strength required to hold the bumpers without tipping over, and the skill needed to buff each piece precisely, so that every hairline nick or abrasion disappeared, the chemical sheen wrapped perfectly across the smooth steel, and the bumpers arrived at the end of the line looking like lustrous silver jewelry. "If I ain't doing it good, you're going to lose the money," notes John in his Alabama drawl.

His Southern roots linger in that whirling, excitable, workingman's voice, but his job—and the pride, status, and paycheck that came with it—long ago separated him from a personal history of vicious rural poverty. Deserted by young parents when he was just a baby, raised by a grandmother who had to abandon him about a decade later when she went blind, John learned to fend for himself. For a time he and his older brother slept in vacant houses and cast-aside cars, on porches and forest floors.

As a teen John headed down to Florida and laid pipe. Then the lure of Detroit's auto plants, with their union-won wages, took hold of his imagination. John followed a cousin up there in the seventies, as the industry was marching unwittingly into the decade's oil shocks and a first brush with foreign-made, fuel-efficient cars.

After a stint doing construction, John worked in the chrome-plating industry. For a time John made good money doing piecework, but soon the factories started installing huge machines to polish their bumpers, relegating humans to the leftover work of burnishing imperfections. "A man might run one hundred bumpers a day, but this automatic did a thousand or so a day," John notes. "Automatic takes all the money out." At least for the workers, it did; the company slipped the money saved into its pockets—before competition drove those profits lower, too. That was the way the market worked.

John took a job at a plant in Highland Park, a small municipality surrounded on all sides by Detroit. The United Auto Workers, the feared union that Walter Reuther had built into a fortress of labor in the early half of the twentieth century, represented the workers there. For over a decade John saw his income rise steadily—to $50,000 a year, overtime included, for forty-five to fifty hours of work a week. It was enough to support his family of four, enough to buy a red-brick ranch house in the city, enough to give his daughter and son video games, clothes, and other trappings of a middle-class American childhood. It was enough for John to look back and feel pride in what he—an abandoned child, a once-homeless boy, son of the dirt-poor South—had accomplished.

Then the Great Recession hit. On Wall Street, years of heedless risk-taking wreaked collateral damage on industries and households suddenly cut off from credit and income. Governments bailed out banks and other financial giants. In Detroit, years of neglect of quality and product lines brought about a similar reckoning for General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. Sales of their gas-guzzling cars dropped to record lows, forcing two of the once–Big Three to come begging for government help, too, and all three to shed workers and plants. As America's automakers fell, the damage spread to the feeder plants that supplied them—and that, thanks to now well-developed processes of outsourcing, actually employed twice as many people.

The economic ripples sank many feeder plants, including John's. First, production stalled. John was laid off for the summer. His family's water heater died around then, too, so for a time they boiled water for baths, as John didn't have cash on hand for a replacement. Eventually he was called back. But shortly afterward, his company decided to ship all the work to one of its larger factories, to cut costs. More than a hundred workers were terminated, John included.

Perhaps he should have seen the end coming. For years now, the economy had moved away from chrome, away from factory jobs, away from the manual labor he knew. Polishing, too, had been dying the death of so many proud crafts, the victim of a mercurial consumer market that, for better or worse, fancied cheap, easy-to-replace plastic. But John knew he was a good worker. "By God, I never was a problem for nobody," he says. "I treat everybody nice and I work hard. I never had a criminal record. I never been in trouble. ... That makes me a better man." With his work ethic and skill, John thought there would be a place for him in a big company. He was wrong.

Now it is the middle of winter, and John is feeling the loss of income hard. He draws $774 every other week from unemployment, but his partner Christina is a stay-at-home mom, so those checks alone must support both of them and their two kids. Having already been sucker-punched by last year's layoff, they have used up their savings and are now three months behind on their mortgage. When I visit them on a frigid day in January, two stove burners have been left fired up, providing heat. The furnace is shut off because John doesn't have $1,000 to repair it.

But his family is not on food stamps or welfare, he points out. They have never gone bankrupt—yet. If he could just find a job, everything would turn out all right, John declares. All these problems would retreat like bad dreams. "You're used to working, and getting what you want," he says. "When you're not working, it's like being in jail, but you have to get your own food." He slaps his knee and shrieks with laughter. It is the way he deals with adversity—with a smile and a devil-may-care quip. Ask him how he copes, and he will flash a wide grin. "I feel good. I got a great sense of humor." Ask him about his job search and he'll say things will work out. "As long as you believe, you're going to be all right," John says, with his idiosyncratic penchant for referring to himself—whenever his frame of mind turns serious—in the second person. "You got to believe. You got to be happy."

To a point, this works for John. But as the conversation goes on, the certainty starts to unravel, the defensive smiles recede. "I'll be back to work soon," he insists—but then adds, after a pause: "It can be stressful." He scours the Sunday paper for job listings. He calls around and visits factories but has yet to find a promising lead.

John starts to talk about the last vacation he took, seven years ago. He went down to Birmingham to see his mother for the first time since he was eleven months old. John stayed with her for a week. He has not seen her since. "I ain't used to her," he says. As for the grandmother who raised him, she died a decade ago. His father died five years ago. All his good friends worked at the plant—and now that job is gone, too. "When you work fourteen years, them are all the friends you got. A bunch of guys with nowhere else to go."

The job was more than a job. "To me it's real bad," he says slowly, forcing out each syllable, "because the thing about my job—man, it makes me think—my job was like my mother and father to me." Quietly, John starts to sob. He wipes the tears on the denim collar of his button-down shirt, rubs his eyes gently with his fingers. "It's all I had, you know," he goes on. "I worked hard because I had no mother and father. I was cut loose. I hate to think about them. ... When you growing up young, your mother and father, they take care of you. And I ain't never had that. ... All my life I depended on my job as my mother and father. If I could only make it every day, I know I'm all right."

As hard as he worked, as loyal as he was to his corporate parent, John was still let go. "When you used to working at a place, you thinking you got you a job," he says. But times have changed. For workers like him, there is no more security, no more loyalty—no more forgiveness of error. "You can't make no mistakes," he says. "You got to do everything perfect. You can't get into trouble. You can't do nothing. You got nobody to run to."

His employer's betrayal has wounded him, though John tries not to show it. He blames himself for not working harder. He blames the union for not caring enough for merit and diligence. But he never really blames the company. They were just doing what made business sense, and what would be the use of anger or regret? "You move from that day on to the next day. I can't look back at how much money I made, or what I did, or what jobs I had. I got to thank God I'm alive." After all, he did well, for a time. He supported a family and bought a home on those factory wages. Now he needs to look to the next destination, holding fast to the commonsense creed that has kept him going all these years: Stay happy. Keep a smile on your face. Keep your head up. The words are his Hail Mary, a Panglossian prayer to push down deep the motley anxieties and stresses of his new, uncertain life. "That's just the thing that makes to kill you inside—the worry. I had fun, I made money, and like I say I'm going to look for me another good job."

He pauses, lost in thought. "I'm an old man now," he adds, softly.

* * *

When the world's financial markets collapsed in 2008, millions of workers lost their jobs. In the months that followed, the unemployment rate hit peaks of 10 percent in the United States and 8.7 percent in Canada. In Michigan, the rustiest link of America's long-battered Rust Belt, unemployment rose to over 13 percent, the highest in the country. At the height of the economic crisis, fifteen million Americans and 1.5 million Canadians were out of work. Four in ten Americans experienced long-term unemployment—a spell of joblessness longer than six months. That figure was double the share in previous modern U.S. recessions. So many people were out of work for so long that government bureaucrats had to bump up the maximum length of unemployment that job seekers could disclose on surveys—from two years to five.

As devastating as it was, the recession only accelerated long-standing trends. The past four decades have seen the erosion of key institutions—ranging from labor unions to the two-parent family—that have historically helped many households prosper, especially the less than well-todo. While ordinary families have struggled, inequality has climbed—in America, to heights not seen at least since the early part of the last century, with the top 10 percent of earners taking in half the country's income, and the wealthiest 10 percent owning three-quarters of its wealth. Even though the economy has grown, middle-class households still have less income than they did at the turn of the century. Though significantly lower, income inequality in Canada has also increased. The gap between the pay of CEOs and their workers narrowed temporarily during the recession, but it has steadily risen in both countries over the years—in the United States, from a 20-to-1 ratio in 1965 to just shy of a 300-to-1 ratio in 2013.

At the same time, the job market has become more uncertain, for office workers as well as factory workers. Just as they have invested incessantly in manufacturing plants, office machines, and other forms of physical capital, companies have increasingly sought out workers with the kinds of human capital—skill, intelligence, flexibility, creativity, initiative—that contribute noticeably to the firm's bottom line. Less fortunate workers now scramble to get hours on the clock or to turn their temp jobs into permanent ones. Technological progress and cross-border competition have wiped out many of the good jobs they once held. Expectations have, in turn, changed profoundly: from how long employees stay with one firm, to how much their retirement depends on rolling the dice in the stock market. These changes have rewarded those able to deal gracefully with greater risk. Yet, they have also opened wide the divide that already existed between more and less advantaged workers.

When the economy was doing well, the consequences of these trends were not obvious. The last recession, in 2001, was mild and short. Then came the worst economic dislocation since the Great Depression. Families suddenly found themselves vulnerable, cut off from the credit that had masked their feeble growth of income. Workers who lost good jobs struggled to find new ones, lacking the skills and experience now in demand in a trimmed-down economy that had quickly learned to do more with less.

Years after the recession officially ended, the American economy continues its slow-burn recovery. While GM and Chrysler have paid back their government loans and started making money again, the auto industry and the broader manufacturing sector continue to employ hundreds of thousands fewer people than they did before the recession. Nationally, the unemployment rate has slid downward and the labor market has added jobs, but some of those laid off have simply stopped looking for work. Even though a third of the country's nine million unemployed have been out of work for six months or more, federal and state governments have already rolled back the time limits for unemployment benefits. In Canada as well, the amount of time that workers there are typically out of work remains high.

In this book, I argue that unemployment has become a more dangerous proposition for working families, thanks to rising inequality and uncertainty and a harsh culture of judgment. I study the long-term unemployed, the forgotten stepchildren of a market economy that has, over several decades, transformed the world in many ways for the better. I compare America and Canada, two sibling countries that help us understand the ways that small but significant differences in policies and culture matter for those out of work. I focus on well-off blue-collar workers, who today straddle the divide between a faltering middle class and an impoverished working class, exemplifying some of the trends that affect them both. And I profile former autoworkers at plants in the heart of North America's auto industry, a group that perhaps more than any other symbolized the economic might and egalitarian prosperity of the world's postwar industrial workshop.

Major studies written about the changing character of the working class have drawn a rich portrait across the decades: their advances and setbacks, their pride and prejudices. My book sets itself apart in several ways. To put it simply, I focus on today's long-term unemployed, giving us a window into the lives of these luckless men and women amid a major economic crisis that led to massive layoffs and, at one point, faced the world with the possibility of utter market collapse. In a comprehensive and detailed fashion, this book also describes the impact of national policies and a host of other factors—institutions like the labor market and family, identities like gender and race—on the well-being and prospects of ordinary workers running to keep up with a quickly changing world.

More specifically, this book makes five contributions to our understanding of unemployment, inequality, and social policies. First, I argue that long-standing economic, political, and technological trends have transformed the labor market in ways that have devastated the job prospects and security of ordinary workers. For this group, getting a good job with decent pay, benefits, and working conditions increasingly requires education and other markers of human capital, as well as the cultivation of certain social skills that fall under the category of cultural capital. Amid rapid technological change and an accelerating capital race, hard work—the key to the American Dream—is no longer enough to secure a good job, as the struggles of my workers show. The expanding and tightening criteria for success demand both a strong work ethic and proven ability, making the job prospects of the long-term unemployed much worse. At the same time, today's labor market is not a true meritocracy—that is, a system in which people advance based solely on their ability and achievement. It is what I call a stunted meritocracy. At the labor market's topmost tiers, as other scholars have noted, elite workers continue to band together to block off their professions from competition, win tax breaks and favorable regulations, pass down advantages to their families, and find other ways to manipulate the market and thus keep themselves, and their children, employed and well compensated.


Excerpted from Cut Loose by Victor Tan Chen. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. They Had It Coming
2. All This Garbage from Life: Education and the Capital Speedup
3. Decline and Fall: Hardship, Race, and the Social Safety Net
4. Half a Man: Fragile Families and the Unmarriageable Unemployed
5. Vicious Circles: The Structure of Power and the Culture of Judgment
6. Loser: The Failures of the American Dream
7. There Go I

Appendix: Research Methods and Policy Details

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