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Poverty and Powerlessness: One Woman’s Journey Amid the “Struggling Class”

Sociologist Celine-Marie Pascale reported from some of the poorest regions of the US where low pay, coupled with the high cost of housing and health care, have propelled millions of workers into a bleak economic corner that few can escape.

Eleanor J. Bader Nov 5

In her Preface to Living on the Edge, sociologist Celine-Marie Pascale writes that her intention was not only to make the lives of “ordinary people” visible, but also to highlight the ways that “business practices and government policies create, normalize and entrench economic struggles for many in order to produce extreme wealth for a few.” 

She calls Living on the Edge a “book about power.” 

And while this is true, the book focuses on the abuses of power and the many covert and overt ways that racism, sexism, xenophobia and economic and environmental exploitation collude to keep capitalism afloat. Not surprisingly, the book is by turns sad, enraging and hopeful. Furthermore, it offers a clearly-explained dollop of democratic socialism as a potent antidote to a system that has allowed the richest one percent to collect nearly as much wealth as the bottom ninety. 

Pascale’s research involved a year-long journey through the US. She conducted in-depth interviews on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, in the coal fields of Kentucky and in southeastern Ohio. She also spent time on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas, on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and with residents of low-income neighborhoods in Oakland, California. While this is not an all-encompassing sample of the US poor — Pascale calls them “the struggling class” — it offers a perceptive glimpse into the day-to-day lives of people on the dole or working low-pay jobs.

These are folks, Pascale writes, who “know that a single unexpected event could force them deeper into financial troubles from which they might never emerge.”

There are, of course, multiple reasons for this, but low pay coupled with the high cost of housing and health care have propelled millions of workers into a bleak economic corner that few can escape. 

The most shocking revelation in Living on the Edge is a chapter that zeroes in on sex trafficking which has become a ubiquitous threat to Native women and children.

Culprits include the country’s largest employer, Walmart, with 2.3 million workers. According to Pascale, “Full-time Walmart employees earn between $20,738 and $21,632, less than the Walton’s [Walmart’s owners] earn in dividends in a single minute … The fact that Walmart pays its full-time workers an annual wage that places them at or below the federal poverty line is not an accident or an oversight. It’s a business plan.”

In fact, as has been widely reported, Walmart’s wages are so low that many workers have no choice but to accept food assistance — food stamps or groceries from local pantries — to feed themselves and their kin.

Pascale’s exploration of Athens County, Ohio elucidates this situation. The Appalachian Regional Commission considers the area “distressed” and even before the pandemic, “the poverty rate in Athens County hovered at 33 percent,” she writes. “In towns throughout the county, economic hardships are evident in the number of cars that are falling apart, the number of shuttered businesses, as well as the kinds of businesses that remain open … Ramshackle trailers and dilapidated houses rise precariously in the hollers and hillsides.” As recently as 2014, she continues, 1,000 homes in the county lacked indoor plumbing; that same year, another 400 homes in neighboring Meig County, 1.7%  of the population, had no running water. 

Athens-area resident Rose Taylor told Pascale that she works two jobs — 36 hours a week as a certified nursing assistant and 30 hours a week in a body-piercing salon — and earns a combined annual salary of $23,000, before taxes. Although Taylor says that she “gets by,” a calamity — in this case a dental emergency— upended Taylor’s life, causing her to visit a payday lender so that she could pay for the care she needed.

Taylor is hardly alone. Pascale notes that, “every year, people using payday loans pay about $9 billion in interest and fees. Predatory loan practices target struggling communities, where people have few options.”

Indeed. And when added to racism, sexism and xenophobia, the result can be lethal. Lead poisoning is endemic in many low-income communities, Pascale writes. Likewise, polluted water, often the result of careless resource extraction in areas where mining was once common. This reality has had a disproportionate impact on the health of Native populations and other communities of color. 

But as horrifying as these conditions are, the most shocking revelation in Living on the Edge is not about corporate malfeasance, workplace exploitation, or poverty. In a chapter called “The Burdens Women Face,” Pascale zeroes in on sex trafficking which has become a ubiquitous threat to Native women and children. “Traffickers are known to target girls attending Powwows as well as to use social media to catfish Native girls by pretending to be a peer interested in dating,” she writes. The number of missing and murdered women, girls and two-spirit people — 6,000 in 2016 alone — is a national crisis and one that has had a dire economic and social impact on Native communities. 

Add in the pandemic and it’s obvious that just about everything on the Reservation and beyond has gotten worse, from the economy to safety. Nonetheless, Pascale writes that even as precarity has increased, people have begun to grapple with what it means to be part of a community, something that may bode well for organizing. “To fight inequality means fighting to change the system,” Pascale writes. “It’s not just that wages are insufficient, housing is unaffordable, and healthcare is out of reach, it is that we have a system that cares more for wealth accumulation than for the welfare of people, the government, the country itself.”

Changing this, she concludes, will require us to focus on collective well-being rather than individual achievement. As she writes, “Our fates are tied together, not only by economic struggle but also by the pandemic and the climate crisis. The system cannot sustain itself. How it will change is up to us.”

Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Way of Life 
Celine-Marie Pascale, 
Polity Books; 25 October 2021
284 pages

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