The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy

All around you are everyday heroes who refuse to be complicit in the economic mistreatment of other people.
Food workers by Janisch

Bea, a manager at a big-box chain store in Maine, likes to keep a professional atmosphere in the store. But with a staff struggling to get by on $6 to $8 an hour, sometimes things get messy. When one of her employees couldn’t afford to buy her daughter a prom dress, Bea couldn’t shake the feeling that she was implicated by the injustice. “Let’s just say ... we made some mistakes with our prom dress orders last year,” she told me. “Too many were ordered, some went back. It got pretty confusing.” And Edy? “She knocked them dead” at the prom.

Andrew, a manager in a large food business in the Midwest, told me about the moral dilemma of employing people who can’t take care of their families even though they are working hard. This was something that he couldn’t pretend was okay. He came to the decision to “do what [he] can” even at the risk of being accused of stealing. “I pad their paychecks because you can’t live on what they make. I punch them out after they have left for a doctor’s appointment or to take care of someone ... And I give them food to take home....”

He described how it changed his job, tainted it, to be supervising people who couldn’t get by on what he paid them.

Ned, who works in a chain grocery store, detours some of the “product” that doesn’t quite pass muster—dented cans, not-quite-fresh produce—to his low-wage employees. “I guess you could say I make the most of that,” he said. “I make the most of it. I don’t see it as a scam. It’s not for me, it’s for them. ... At the end of the month ... that’s all they have.”

Paycheck inequalities
Today, one in four U.S. workers earns less than $9 an hour—about $19,000 per year. Thirty-nine percent of the nation’s children live in low-income households. And African-American and Latino families are much more likely to be poor or low-income and are less likely to have assets or home equity to offset low wages.

Between 2001 and 2008, I spoke with hundreds of lower- and middle-income people about the economy, work, schools, health care, and what they saw happening around them. When this research began, I was focusing on parents in low-wage families, documenting their accounts of working, being poor, and trying to keep children safe. But that changed when I spoke with Jonathan, a middle-aged “top manager” in a chain of grocery stores in the Midwest. I was asking him about the stresses of running a business that employed lots of low-wage parents. He acknowledged there were plenty. I was getting toward the end of the interview and he seemed to sense that, so he stopped me and asked, “Don’t you want to know what this is doing to me, too?”

At first I thought he was going to tell me his own financial problems. But he wanted to talk about being someone who makes enough to live “fairly comfortably” while having authority over hardworking parents who do not. He spoke of parents whom he got to know pretty well, who headed home each week with less than they needed to feed their families. Yes, he said, it is the “going wage”—America’s “market wage”—that doesn’t cover the market cost of basic human needs. Still, it didn’t seem right to Jonathan. He described how it changed his job, tainted it, to be supervising people who couldn’t get by on what he paid them.

In the tradition of civil disobedience that marks the nation’s history, often unassuming but morally clear-eyed people refuse, every day, to go along with the economic mistreatment of other people.

Like Andrew and many others, Jonathan looked beyond the fact that it was legal for the market to set wages below what families need to survive. Does that make it right? Yes, of course it is lawful and “good for business,” and thus enthusiastically endorsed by a government increasingly run by corporate interests and their lobbyists. But when you look into the faces of people who are doing their work and trying to take care of their families, is it decent? And if not, who do you have to become to obediently go along with impoverishing workers and their families? Very different people from across the country told me that when you ignore injustice embedded in your society, you become part of it, complicit with what you consider immoral. And for some, this changed how they saw their role in the world and the work that they did.

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Work is a core class intersection in American life because, every day, millions of low-wage and middle-income people come together to do their jobs. They often get to know each other, their family concerns, hopes, and plans. Some of the people I interviewed said they had no interest in low-wage workers and others said that low-wage people have only themselves to blame for being poor. But most employers thought that working people should get a fair day’s pay and be able to keep their families fed and housed.

A few went beyond concern. They found a little opening, a little chink in the system, and used it to treat working people better. Even if they had to break company rules, they were determined to treat people as though their survival mattered in a business environment that valued nothing but bottom-line profitability.

I spoke to many people who, like other regular Americans in the past, decided that when you see people being treated unfairly and, worse still, you realize you play a direct role in that unfairness, the right thing to do is to act against it. In the tradition of civil disobedience that marks the nation’s history, often unassuming but morally clear-eyed people refuse, every day, to go along with the economic mistreatment of other people. Andrew, Ned, and Bea were some of the people who showed me how profound unfairness will give rise to a people’s moral underground, but they were certainly not alone.

The Moral Underground book cover

The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy

By Lisa Dodson
The New Press, 2009, 240 pages, $24.95.

Support YES! when you buy here from an independent bookstore.

The talk about the economy is now very different from when I began this research years ago. The malignant effects of unregulated market rule are being exposed as economic damage spreads beyond millions of working poor families. But I found that long before the press and politicians became riveted by an economic “meltdown,” plenty of ordinary people had been grappling with an unjust economy. Far away from debates about Wall Street and Main Street, in the side streets, byways, and common corners of the nation, where most Americans live, some have been staking out different moral terrain.

There is a tale that has always emerged in America when business has free rein, can freely undermine the public good, and can freely buy and sell political will. Today’s is a contemporary version, but it is one that recalls a history when market rule could justify almost anything—buying and selling human beings, sending children into coal mines, denying people the right to organize, gutting whole communities to take jobs to a cheaper elsewhere, or leaving people who have labored their long lives without a pension or a home.

But there is also a parallel story, the one about resistance. It is a new chapter in the proud history of how people will refuse to go along with economic abuse—and not just the few heroes we recall. Heroes alone don’t shift the ground. Deep change comes only when regular people start naming what is happening, talking to one another, and, inevitably, some of them decide that they can’t accept such injustice. Occasionally, they move a nation.

Copyright © 2009 by Lisa Dodson, published by The New Press, Inc. and reprinted here with permission.