The recent brouhaha about Barack Obama calling small-town Americans “bitter” brings up an issue Americans rarely talk about: class. Unlike Britain, America does not have an inherited aristocracy, and we like to think we are economically mobile, so we don’t think about class.
Certainly, we use terms like upper class, middle class, and lower class, but these are strictly economically defined, and since (we tell ourselves) we are economically mobile, the labels do not permanently stamp anyone as one thing or another.
But there is another term we sometimes use: working class. Perhaps because of my egalitarian American upbringing, this term puzzled me when I first encountered it. Most families have at least one worker, so how is the working class distinguished from any other class? Are working-class incomes higher or lower than middle-class incomes?
There is a good reason for my puzzlement. Whereas working-class incomes were distinctly lower than middle-class incomes before, say, 1940, by the time I was growing up they were often pretty comparable. “Working class,” of course, refers to families of what are sometimes called blue-collar workers, while “middle class” refers to families of white collar workers. Other distinctions are that working-class workers earn wages while middle-class workers earn salaries and that working-class workers tend to have high school and technical school educations while nothing less than a college degree will do for the middle class.
Thanks to (depending on whose histories you believe) either unions, the increased worker productivities resulting from mass production, or both, by the 1970s many wage earners easily collected as much annual income as many salaried employees. What Obama was pointing out, and what Clinton and McCain pretend to ignore, is that the working class nevertheless has different values from the middle class. In many ways those values are so different that members of the two groups have a difficult time communicating.
Perhaps these value differences stem from the differences in education: for better or worse, college instills some broader, or at least different, outlook on life. Perhaps they are due to the differing job conditions: for the working class, working overtime means more money, while for the salary man it merely means the possibility of greater recognition within the organization. For the working class, a layoff may threaten permanent unemployment; for the middle class, it merely means putting the verbal and analytical skills that they learned in college to use in some other way.
In any case, the differences are real and they were closely observed by Herbert Gans when researching his great books, The Urban Villagers and The Levittowners. Gans lived for a year in a dense, working-class neighborhood in Boston and then for a year in a new Levitt-built suburb in New Jersey.
Gans put his observations to work in his brilliant review of Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities (published in Books in Review in 1961 and not available on line). Jacobs claimed that streets in dense areas like her Greenwich Village were “vibrant” because of the design of those neighborhoods. Gans, however, disagreed.
“The street life of these areas stems not so much from their physical characteristics as from the working-class structure of their inhabitants,” wrote Gans. “In this culture, the home is reserved for the family, so that much social life takes place outdoors. Also, children are not kept indoors as frequently as in the middle class, and since they are less closely supervised in their play, they too wind up in the streets.” These “vibrant streets” may attract “intellectuals, artists, and bohemian types” like Jane Jacobs, noted Gans, while other middle-class families may visit them as tourists.
But if members of the middle class liked to visit such neighborhoods, most did not want to live in them. “In middle-class neighborhoods, there is no street life, for all social activities take place inside the home, children play less often on the sidewalks, and the street is used only for transportation. Such neighborhoods look dull, notably to the visitor, and therefore they may seem to be less vital than their ethnic and bohemian counterparts. But visibility is not the only measure of vitality, and areas that are uninteresting to the visitor may be quite vital to the people who live in them.”
Gans expressed the fear that Jacobs’ book would lead planners to try to remake all cities into her urban villages, which is exactly what is now happening. “In proposing that cities be planned to stimulate an abundant street life, Mrs. Jacobs not only overestimates the power of planning in shaping behavior, but she in effect demands that middle-class people adopt working-class styles of family life, child rearing, and sociability,” continued Gans. “But middle-class people, especially those raising children, do not want working-class — or even bohemian — neighborhoods.”
Of course, even as Gans was writing, working-class families were rapidly moving to middle-class suburbs. According to planning historian Peter Hall, the resulting clash of cultures is at least partly responsible for the antisprawl movement.
Hall’s book, Cities of Tomorrow, shows that the first people to complain about the suburbs “were all upper-middle class and the offenders were mostly lower-middle class in a typical such suburb,” says Hall.
Hall quotes one critic complaining about “hordes of hikers cackling insanely in the woods, or singing raucous songs as they walk arm in arm at midnight down the quiet village street. There are people upon sea shores or upon river banks lying in every attitude of undress and inelegant squalor. . . . There are tents in meadows and girls in pyjamas dancing beside them to the strains of the gramophone, while stinking disorderly dumps of tins, bags, and cartons bear witness to the tide of invasion for weeks after it has ebbed.” This reminds me of Sierra Clubbers complaining about snowmobilers or off-road-vehicle users.
Hall’s critics were British, but Harvard historian John Stilgoe has traced similar roots to America’s antisprawl movement. In essence, the critics were saying, “We have enough esthetic taste to appreciate the countryside, while these newcomers do not.” The solution, according to one of the critics quoted by Hall, is “great new blocks of flats which will house a considerable part of the population” — a solution put into effect in Britain by the Town and Country Act of 1947, and which smart growth is attempting to put into effect in the U.S. today.
This raises an interesting conundrum. To keep working-class people out of the suburbs, today’s middle-class smart-growth advocates are designing the kind of neighborhoods that working-class families fled in the 1950s and ’60s. These New Urban neighborhoods are not attracting the working class but are proving attractive only to the bohemian (i.e., childless) middle class and people too poor to live anywhere else.
Which brings up a new class: the underclass families permanently stuck in the lower economic class. America is economically mobile, but mainly for people who have the education to earn a good income. That mobility is denied to many people, a high percentage of whom are black.
Forty years ago, black per-capita incomes were 57 percent of white incomes. Today it is still just 59 percent. The reasons for this relative immobility are beyond the scope of this column, but they aren’t going to be fixed by light-rail projects or mixed-use developments. Nor does it make more sense to put more barriers in the way of efforts by working-class or underclass families to join the middle class, which is exactly what smart growth does.
Smart growth can easily be interpreted as a white, middle-class program to keep its culture safe from working-class influences and black invasion. Make suburban housing too expensive for working-class and black families to live in. Build dense enclaves in the cities and people them with young whites not ready to settle down in the suburbs and blacks supported by the section 8 federal housing program. Force all but the wealthy out of their automobiles and onto rail transit lines that only go to selected areas during selected hours.
As writer Joseph Perkins said at the 2007 Preserving the American Dream conference (above), “smart growth is the new Jim Crow.” Whether intentionally or not, smart growth “is a way of insuring that the haves remain the haves and the have-nots remain the have-nots.” It reduces economic mobility and mobility between the working class and middle class and reduces the chances for blacks and other members of the underclass to get out of their cycles of poverty — all because of an exaggerated notion that urban design can shape behavior.
Planners, of course, are all pretty much in the middle class. They have middle-class values and are no less likely than other people to think that everyone thinks like them. Many of them are clueless about the impacts of their decisions on others, particularly people whose values are different from them. Since we don’t have open discussions about class, they end up oppressing other people without even realizing what they are doing. To the Antiplanner, this is just one more reason why government planning should be banned.