Being a female steelworker hadn’t been easy. But she’d learned to hold her own. If a man spread a false rumor that he’d slept with her, she spread a false rumor right back that he’d been terrible in bed. If a woman wanted to fight, she learned to say “this is a place of business” instead of brawling then and there.Of her first husband:
Shannon worked second shift — 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. — which made it difficult for her to get custody of her daughter or keep her son in check during his teenage years.
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Besides, Shannon hadn’t been raised to pay much attention to rules about what a woman should or shouldn’t do. Her own mother drank Wild Turkey and brawled with neighbors. Shannon’s parents married when they were teenagers. Her father got a union job at Wonder Bread. He expected his uniform ironed and his eggs cooked over easy every morning. Shannon’s mother, who kept breaking the yolks, once turned a plate over on his head.
Eventually, her parents divorced and her mother got a job cleaning hotel rooms. She made ends meet with food stamps, and drove a blue Ford Zephyr with no muffler or driver’s side window. She thought she got lucky when she married a truck driver who lived in a trailer near theirs. He moved them to a real house in a quiet town where Shannon became a cheerleader and got interested in school.
But then the truck driver started sneaking into Shannon’s bedroom at night. He went to prison. Without his paycheck, they lost the house.
But Dan was domineering and had a violent temper. Once, he grabbed her by the throat and banged her head against the floor, according to court records in a trial where he was found guilty of battery. Another time, he threw her car keys into a freezing ravine. After their daughter was born, Dan didn’t want Shannon working, especially at a factory full of men.Since we've been having good conversations about big, hard questions this week, how about this one: why is the modern working class like this? Why so little family stability, so much violence, so little religion, so much alcohol and drugs?
The first night Shannon came home from work, Dan threw her belongings into the yard. For years, they had a tumultuous relationship, accusing each other of battery, according to court records.
Her job became her liberator. She worked her way up from a janitor to a heat treat operator, earning $25 an hour. With money like that, she wasn’t going to let anybody drive her away from it.
The working class hasn't always been like that. Working class communities in Britain once (1890 to 1960 or so) had rates of violent crime that bordered on zero. In the US, factory communities once had higher marriage rates than either the middle class or farmers.
There is only one explanation I am aware of that gets attention from people of different political stripes: the intersection of 1960s personal liberation with the economic insecurity of working class life. That is, casting off all our inherited limits on behavior might work out ok for people with the money, brains and education to find their own paths, but many people always depended on rigid social rules to keep their lives going right. Without those rules, they flounder, or (like Shannon) find that their factory jobs become the only real source of stability in their lives; given the high instability of working class employment in most epochs, this is a recipe for repeated disasters.
One argument is favor of this view is that in the US, conversion to Mormonism is the most effective anti-poverty program sociologists have ever identified. What helps many struggling poor people most is a community that enforces rigid behavioral rules and sets high standards for decency. I have not seen comparable numbers, but I believe that Baptist church and the Black Muslims have played the same role in black communities. This probably explains the social success of factory communities in Edwardian Britain, where the Methodist Church and the Trade Union movement both provided lots of structure.
There is also a liberal solution, which amounts to moving everyone into the middle class through education. And it does work for people who can do it; it is your own level of education, not your parents', that has such a big influence on whether you marry or divorce or go to prison. But we are hitting limits on this approach; these days pushing more 18-year-olds into college mainly seems to increase the number who drop out, burdened with debts. I am personally not convinced that any amount of money spent on either high schools or colleges will do much to increase the level of real education in our society.
Since recommending that other people join churches I don't believe in seems hypocritical to me, I am left with no solution at all. It is very hard to help people whose lives and attitudes are fundamentally at odds with our highly regimented, tightly controlled work places – indeed our highly regimented, tightly controlled middle class world. And it is very hard to change people's basic attitudes and general approach to life.