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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our broken economy, growth that has stalled for all accept most affluent Americans, was recently the subject we took up with former Senate Counsel Ganesh Sitaraman, author of “The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution.” Today we examine an unhinged American culture, self-perpetuating inequality with Alissa Quart, editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which publishes writers from rural areas across the United States, in collaboration with local newsrooms. Quart is also the author of a column “Outclassed” for The Guardian that examines a precarious work force teetering on the brink of poverty. “Middle-class used to denote comfort and security. Not anymore,” Quart writes, of a new unstable American economic condition. In partnership with local freelancers and publications, Quart and her colleagues are embarking on a new series of reporting projects that chronical the plight of American workers.
From lawyers and small business owners, to farmers and miners, to nail artists and barbers, from the rust belt to the prairies to the inner cities of America. Welcome, Alissa.
QUART: Oh thank you I’m so happy to be here, Alexander.
HEFFNER: And congratulations on this work, which is inspiring.
QUART: Oh well thank you. Yeah, we’ve been doing this 2012. Barbara Ehrenreich founded it and I took over and we’ve been finding writers, a third of our writers are low-income, to write about their own experiences.
HEFFNER: Rather than outsourcing writers from the coasts, you embed in the experience people who are from these communities, natives.
QUART: Exactly so the idea of the series, which is “On the Ground,” we’re doing with the Guardian, is to go to places that- Ohio, Montana, Kansas, and get local writers to write about, report on their communities. They- they know things that we don’t know. They know that Oklahoma has a four-day school week because they can’t afford five days of school for their school kids. I didn’t know that. And they then report on it, runs in the Guardian, and hopefully will also run in a local publication. So the idea’s to grow journalistic ecosystems in places that have been left behind.
HEFFNER: And you note in an interview with the Neimann Foundation, that your goal is to transcend a red- red-blue, left-right dichotomy through which we seem to understand. And you and your co-founder point out that the largest swath of Trump voters was affluent, it was not…
HEFFNER: The miner, or the nail salon worker. That’s an enormous challenge to take prejudice and transcend it through your reporting. How are you finding that today you’re able to do that or not yet able to do that?
QUART: Well I mean there’s different things, like we have uh- low-income or economically-struggling writers in blue states who are- you know overcoming their own prejudice. They’re overcoming the ways that the- low- lower-income person is demonized you know and they’re reporting on being under-banked as a recent journalist did. But you know when we’re trying to get writers in places like Kansas and Ohio, you know it’s easy for them to- to report for us, the tricky part is how to place it locally. Whether local papers want to get reporting of this kind on their pages. So that, that’s been our challenge.
HEFFNER: And do they?
QUART: It’s been up and down. Some of them have been incredibly receptive and some of the papers have been less so. Yeah.
HEFFNER: As a function of economics, as a function of what.
QUART: Who knows. I mean, you know some of it’s probably you know they didn’t generate the stories, maybe you know the writers did, we did, and that’s not usually the way that traditional, local news rooms worked. But potentially it’s also you know they don’t, they still think that we’re importing uh- writers even though we’re getting local writers. But for the most part it’s worked out wonderfully and we’re getting these people in places that are uh- at this point, 73 percent of the journalism is on the coasts, on the west coast and on the east coast, and that leaves you know, 27 percent for the rest of this country. And so our hope now with Economic Hardship Reporting Project is to try to place writers, get writers, you know coming up in places that are now news deserts.
HEFFNER: How do you define economic hardship.
QUART: That’s interesting because, I mean, one of the things is that more than three out of four Americans are sometimes living from pay check to pay check. So that’s one stat. Another is middle-class life is thirty-percent more expensive than it was 20-years ago and that also means that the middle-class is suffering and working class people are suffering. The upper-middle class may have it a little easier as Richard Reeves recently pointed out, but they also have their own gap between the extremely wealthy. So what you’re seeing is, you’re seeing wage stagnation, you’re seeing a top one-percent that averages 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. And that to me it’s not only about poverty, it’s about economic instability and kind of a troubled financial state.
HEFFNER: The New York Times reported on this, our broken economy, and showed how there’s been astronomical, disproportionately astronomical growth in the 90.999 percentile, whereas since 1980, growth and mobility have sunk.
HEFFNER: For everybody else. So when you report in these communities, so far, do you testify to the inequality, how is the inequality being explained to employees who are working three jobs and not cutting it.
QUART: Well sometimes it’s not being explained, like one of the pieces I wrote was on teachers who have to moonlight as Uber drivers, so these are unionized teachers in, you know I mean this is in blue states, in places like, you know outside San Francisco, et cetera, and then there, here they are on their weekends, after school, grading papers at stop signs and stop lights. And I don’t think they’re, the fact that their wages are not keeping up with say the cost of rent or real estate in these places, is being explained at all. They’re just like allowed to sort of flounder. And that’s been, that was a story that was sort of shocking to me.
HEFFNER: In these communities when we see the stock market gains actually have an inverse relationship with wage growth, in other words, as the wealthier or as the wealthy get wealthier, the middle-class or what was the middle-class, lose out. There wasn’t an acknowledgment in this presidency so far there hasn’t been an acknowledgment that that is the relationship between stock market gains and main street. Is there that realization now on the ground or to what extent have you felt that from your reporters and editing some of these pieces.
QUART: I mean we’re not seeing it as much as we’d like, I mean we ran a piece by a Montana reporter who was talking to sustenance hunters and also ranchers, and some of these people were Trump supporters initially who now saw that you know national lands were being appropriated and they were gonna lose their ability to hunt or to ranch and they were having their livelihoods challenged. And that was a realization for that population and that was a really interesting story. But by in large I think, I think people have, they’re oriented towards status so they see, some of these voters in some of these places see Donald Trump and his minions as having status and they, they kind of want that status for themselves and they don’t really make the connection necessarily between their own, you know difficulties economically and his, you know particular mantra.
HEFFNER: How are folks able to overcome the hardship. You know you see communities that are deprived of wealth in this country, an opioid epidemic that has stung suburban and even some rural Americans. What are the responses to this hardship, how are folks attempting to cope?
QUART: So in my reporting I found a lot of really bespoke solutions, which were small-bore solutions, I mean to me the big solutions have to be things like universal pre-K that’s worked really well in New York City. It has to be you know a more sustainable daycare system so people are not, you know paying 30 to 50 percent of their wages on daycare, more affordable housing, et cetera. But in lieu of that we have people who are, I’ve interviewed who are kind of cobbling together solutions, they are parentings collectively when they’re not romantic partners because they can’t afford rent or daycare unless they band together.
They’re creating things like co-ops, cooperatives, if they’re uh- domestic workers. There’s one called Coopify that just started in Sunset Park where domestic workers are organizing and that’s how they’re able to sustain themselves. I think some corporations have taken the lead, there’s something like 200 corporations that have now have nurseries on site because they understand their workers are struggling with daycare and the lack of maternity leave. And so a company like Zutano did that. So these are smaller solutions. And I think more deeply people have to have conversations that are really open about their economic struggles and that’s something, that’s the one thing that we can do for ourselves. If our government is failing us we can start to have conversations among ourselves with our children and with our friends and with our colleagues about our obstacles economically.
HEFFNER: An example might be a collective of Uber drivers, I had the same experience recently where I met a behavioral scientist, a behavioral counselor of some two decades. During the day he’s in that job, in the evening he’s driving an Uber. There’s been a movement towards more grassroots, unionization…
QUART: That is true.
HEFFNER: You know, labor force how is that evolving so far in response to what has been the enactment, or the promise of more deregulation from the executive branch.
QUART: So you’re already talking about the gig economy, the rise of the gig economy and, I mean one thing that’s really interesting I just wrote about was, there’s a non-profit that uh- that’s been trying to organize Lyft and Uber drivers and they’re all on their blue teeth, Bluetooths on while they’re on riding, and they’re trying to organize against automation. And I thought that was really fascinating, so they’ll have twenty people on a conference call doing that, and that seems like one side, you know automation of driverless cars and trucks, and that seemed like a kind of fresh and unusual way to bring workers together. There are the things like the cooperatives that I was discussing before. And I think then there’s also just an awareness that so many of us are moonlighting. Something like multiple job holders, or moonlighters in 2016 were completely on the rise, and I think we just need to know that that’s happening.
And you know kind of protect ourselves a little.
HEFFNER: What states and localities have made measures to improve the situation.
QUART: Well, one of the things that I’m not exactly sure what’s going on right now with the gig economy I mean I’ve been one of the issues I’ve personally been following has been just-in-time labor which was you know people working at odd hours for companies like Abercrombie and Home Depot where people were working at 10:30 at night when they had kids at home ’til 2:30 or midnight because they were, they were trying to please the corporate behemoth. And there’s been a lot of local legislation around the country trying to reign in those kind of hours, so that’s been to me an improvement in terms of labor practices. In terms of gig economy, I’ve seen some interesting movements pushing back on that. There’s something called Platform Cooperativism, and I don’t know if you’ve done a program on it, Alexander, but it’s really interesting and they’re just kind of questioning the ownership models for TaskRabbit and the like. And that has led to things like Coopify or these app co-ops that are run by, excuse me, by domestic workers.
HEFFNER: Do you find that the laborers and what we believe to be the American engine, do you find that they have investments, that their companies have, or their small businesses have enabled them to succeed financially on a, on a level outside of their day-to-day income. Because the gig economy notoriously does not offer the same benefits as, you know, long-standing jobs and I’m wondering when you do your reporting and encounter people who are facing this hardship, is there some salvation in some kind of long-term protection whether it’s insurance or benefits or stock-options. Because the perception is that in a, in a conservative regime, in a conservative outlook there is faith that these workers are going to make it one day.
QUART: Yeah. They’re not gonna. I mean they’re, they’re struggling, they’re not gonna make it in at least the way things are right now. I mean…
HEFFNER: So do you find that they have investments.
QUART: I haven’t really been following that and we haven’t looked at that personally, but uh, yeah.
HEFFNER: It would be interesting to see…
HEFFNER: Because there is the playing field in which someone is employed, and then there is this idea of investment and potentially lucrative investment, sometimes through benefits, but sometimes independent of their profession. You point out in the project that a lot of Trump supporters are very wealthy, wealthier than the average American.
HEFFNER: And the response to the Democratic platform was, this past cycle unconvinced, most Americans were unconvinced that there was an authentic populist message that would champion reforms for workers.
QUART: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: Do you see the blueprint for some populist-led revolt against the system that these workers are going to actually run for office and kind of take charge of these issues and…
QUART: I would, I would so love for there to be alternative candidates to the ones we have now. Especially people who are familiar with what it is like to have economic struggle, and I think that’s one of the problems that makes, you know Democrats a little alienating be, to the a lot of the kinds of people we write about because they’re just not, they have not known, as James Baldwin wrote, anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor. And I think it’s really important to, for us to be developing, you know, political candidates who have actually known that experience. Part of actually what we’re doing with EHRP is we’re trying to actually develop writers who know that experience, which is in itself a novelty because most of the people who write journalism about inequality are wealthy.
And so, what does that look like then, what are they missing?
HEFFNER: What are they missing?
QUART: I think they’re missing certain kinds of empathy, they’re, they’re missing details uh- about what it’s like to live lives of struggle, not just poverty but struggle. And I think also if you’re not, if you’re just a middle-class person writing about lower-income people you have to immerse yourself and the media economy right now is not supporting people spending weeks or years with sources. And I think for great journalism about inequality you really need that, you need to be able to at least spend a couple days plus with an individual to see, to walk in their shoes as it were.
HEFFNER: It seems like the focus might have, might be more, should be more holistic than the minimum wage. The- the folks who are most concerned about economic inequality have at least politically banded together on that single issue. Is that, but that can be insulting to some workers who do come from a more conservative persuasion, is there too much emphasis on minimum wage? Too little? How do you see the politics of that issue evolving?
QUART: I’ve actually really liked to see the Fight for Fifteen partially because of the issue but also partially to see the effects of a grassroots campaign. To me that itself was inspiring and you know comforting almost, that we could start out with a concept or a slogan and it could really take off like that. So, so for me it was a very positive thing, the Fight for Fifteen. I’m, I mean I think one of the things that we need more of actually are slogans for inequality, around inequality, and of course we have, you know all the slogans that came out of Occupy, the one-percent, the 99 percent.
But I think Fight for Fifteen is something that a lot of people can kind of wrap their hands around, arms around, and understand oh yeah this is what it takes to have an ordinary family in many cities and towns in America.
HEFFNER: From what you’ve studied and reported on, what would be most effective as those mantras, those-
QUART: Those slogans, those mantras. Um-
HEFFNER: Or you know beneath them is policy so…
QUART: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: What do you see as not, there’s no magic bullet, but reconstituting the politics of economic inequality in a way that the Occupy movement was unable to harness and Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate was not able to make his appeal more expansive in, really in the South he had a great opportunity to reach lower-income minority voters, and he didn’t.
QUART: Right, so …
HEFFNER: I’m just wondering what- what you think viscerally sticks in the politics of…
QUART: Well I those Times slogans- you must have seen that the- you know people are trying to come up with new slogans for the Democrats…
QUART: And I definitely think it should not be- I’m, you know I’m with her it should be you know, very inclusive I think this is, that’s one thing that’s missing. And also I don’t know …
HEFFNER: Because the expansion of minimum wage- minimum wage is viewed as something of an artifice or kind of an artificial issue if you really engage public works opportunities from the government and private sector and you hear a lot about public-private partnerships. But that doesn’t yield the level of income or salary that allows people to have what used to be middle-class lives.
QUART: Mm-hmm. Yeah I…
HEFFNER: Where does the public-private partnership fit into this because I think that that…
QUART: Well there’s something that I, there’s the concept I’ve been sort of pushing…
QUART: Which is critical human infrastructure. So instead of talking about infrastructure all the time, we should be talking about humans’ jobs. And I mean that’s just in line with things like automation. Like let’s just start seeing our human workers as our rivers and our, you know our nuclear power plants and our fiber optic cables, they’re just as important. So that was- that’s one, one slogan that I’ve come up with personally but I’m sure there’s, there’s probably, we should probably get some ad people out there coming up with some more.
HEFFNER: You’re working on a book due to be released in 2018.
HEFFNER: Squeezed. When you reflect on the project in 2017, what do you hope it will have accomplished through your relationships at the local level and the reception that it’s received in these communities? What do you hope is the ultimate takeaway.
QUART: Well the ultimate takeaway would be to seed, seed more writers, develop lots of relationships with local papers, in places like, like, Native American papers as well, and with struggling African-American local newspapers, not just- straight-up local newspapers. And really try to- give, create a network of people who want to be covering inequality deeply in their community and support these journalists who otherwise are basically unable to be journalists in other parts of the country besides DC and LA. I mean we’re very lucky right now, we’re- we’re in New York City you know- there’s a lot of- lot of media work, comparatively. So um- it’s- we would need to kind of- give more spaces and more chances also for a whole generation of journalists. So I would like to see that happen and in places that you wouldn’t expect.
HEFFNER: Alissa, What is the mechanism people can support these local writers through?
QUART: Oh well, you can donate to Economic Hardship Reporting Project, you can go on our site, you can read our work, you can tweet it, and post it. You can also just start thinking about people you know who might have stories to tell, they might want to contribute, write for us, or they might just have local stories that are really about inequity in a community that we don’t know about. And you can communicate that to us through our email.
HEFFNER: And what component of citizen journalism can you integrate into the project if you are going to solicit some feedback as you just suggested.
QUART: Oh yes.
HEFFNER: What is your hope that people who might not be able to support you, but believe that there are under-represented voices in the media, and rather than calling one voice fake, how can they themselves contribute as either sources or independently reporting on economic hardship themselves.
QUART: Well I mean think one of the ways is for people, place- to come to places like EHRP, but also for other non-profits to get engaged in this process. And I think it’s starting to happen. There are other publications and non-profits that are reaching out to these voices, but I think we should be all, all really trying to hear what they’re, they need to say.
HEFFNER: Tell me what the most riveting story is…
QUART: Oh yes.
HEFFNER: That you’ve reported or one of your colleagues reported. What is the most riveting economic hardship?
QUART: Well, for- so one of the most riveting stories that I reported was about um, the hyper-educated poor, which was a group of adjuncts and lawyers who, former lawyers who are unable to support themselves. And it was… it was more than riveting, it was incredibly moving. These are people with PhDs and masters who taught, who should’ve been given the American dream, but instead they were making 36 thousand dollars, they were driving from place to place, they were on food stamps. So I would go shopping with them at the supermarket and watch as they would try to find the oldest pack of meat for their kid who happened to be disabled as well.
And to me, personally, because my parents were college professors, initially community college professors, I felt like, that could so have easily been me, or them. And for me that was incredibly moving and powerful. And I call those people the hyper-educated poor.
HEFFNER: And, and a lot of folks would not concede or admit that dirt-poor can be across the ladder of educational experience.
QUART: Absolutely. And the most riveting story that our project has supported was about, by a writer who was low-income, who had to sell his own plasma to survive. And it was a kind of harrowing story of going to, of him going to the plasma um, center and being… you know rolling up his sleeve and almost…
HEFFNER: You don’t mean plasma TV just, for our viewers.
QUART: I don’t mean plasma TV, I mean plasma you know from your blood. Um, and you know that was somebody who had, again, been a professional journalist. And I can’t emphasize enough how many of our writers are professional journalists who are really on the edge.
HEFFNER: Alissa, stay strong.
QUART: Oh, thanks so much, Alexander.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.