Jim Tankersley: ‘The Untold, True Story of America’s Middle Class’
The new book by Jim Tankersley, a tax and economics reporter for the New York Times, explores one of the central issues on his beat for decades: what happened to the American middle class? In The Riches of This Land: The Untold, True Story of America’s Middle Class, Tankersley looks at the policy changes in the 1970s that began the unraveling of the middle class and punctures the media stereotype that the socio-economic group is primarily “angry white men” in the middle of the country. Tankersley spoke with Spotlight about his book; the transcript has been lightly edited for length and content.
This book is incredibly timely; what prompted you to write it now?
Depending on how I frame the process, it’s either a book three years in the making or most of my career in the making. Really, it grows out of a very personal experience that I had that has driven through my entire journalistic career. When I was in high school and middle school in western Oregon, I watched the timber industry collapse around me, and it knocked the ladder of opportunity out from under the kids I went to high school with. These are kids who have a particular type of skill – they worked with their hands, they worked hard, their dads worked hard, and their dads and moms had been able to build a middle-class life. But that didn’t seem necessarily in reach for them anymore. And I wondered when the economy was going to start working again for people like them. Fast forward, and after I had started my career as a reporter and I was traveling around the country writing about politics and economics, that question has broadened, and it has become, when is the economy going to start working for everyone in America who works hard? Along the way, I found that a very narrow question about very white group of students that I went to school with has gotten wrapped up in a much larger question of how the economy works for people of color and women of all races. And I found an answer that I wanted to share with the whole world.
Another more immediate factor was when Donald Trump was elected in 2016, including on a very strong appeal to working class white people in the Midwest and how to get the economy working for them. A big part of that appeal was very antagonistic; there were a bunch of people out there stealing your prosperity and he was going to wrench it back. And so, I wanted to write a book examining, in the short-term, whether Trump’s strategy had worked, and in the long run of history, what did the actual lessons of economics and history show us about what policies can make the economy actually work again?
Were you surprised about how much the book ended up focusing on the impact of these policies on communities of color?
I wasn’t surprised because it was a very conscious choice to do that. I spent a lot of time in the immediate aftermath of the election really examining my own coverage and thinking really hard about how reporters present the working class in America to American readers and viewers. And it was pretty obvious that I had written disproportionately about white workers and that my peers had written disproportionately about white workers in 2016. And so, I felt a strong connection to the story that had not been told and that dovetailed really nicely with the bigger picture story that I wanted to tell. I also knew that I had this fantastic protagonist for the story in Ed Green, who is a Black worker who works two jobs in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I knew he was a great story but not until I actually started the earnest process of reporting and writing the book did I really spend a lot more time with him to talk about his family story and realize just how much this multi-generational Black family personified a larger theme. As a reporter, you get lucky sometimes and someone turns out to be an even more perfect example of a trend than you realized. And that definitely drove the direction of the book and the degree to which it was focused on his family.
I want to come back to him, but first let’s set the larger scene. Let’s start with a hopeful moment, the Civil Rights Act in 1964, when things start to get better for communities of color. And then what happens?
You’re exactly right. In 1960, you had this very segregated economy that was also bifurcated by gender, an economy that by and large worked best for elite white men. And then here comes civil rights and the struggle for gender and racial equality and the Civil Rights Act passing really does open this window, a crack in the door, to more opportunity for black men and women of all races and other workers of color. We get about 10 good years out of that; it’s nowhere near equality but it does seem to have made a huge difference. And then, as I put it in the book, the white men who ran the country decided it was time to stop that work. Starting in the early 80s in particular, the Reagan administration took several actions that are widely considered by scholars to have blunted or rolled back progress made on civil rights including challenging affirmative action in court and launching the war on drugs which incarcerates disproportionately high numbers of black men and denies them economic opportunity. The work of civil rights is left unfinished and, in some cases. peeled back and that has huge and long-lasting consequences.
The second thing is that the economy changes – it shifts out from underneath the feet of a lot of workers and policy doesn’t keep up. In particular, the automation and out-sourcing and service-driven trends that favor high-end, college graduates don’t come coupled with the kind of policy changes, particularly on childcare, that you would need to see women fully access and benefit from those changes. They get left behind because of the way society and policy force them to break off career advancement to deal with what is still essentially a broken childcare system in this country. All those forces combine to what I call new barriers and reformed barriers to progress for women and communities of color.
And getting back to Ed Green, how does he exemplify those trends?
Ed’s parents are this marvelous story of the great migration. His mom was born in Winston-Salem, she was one of 16 kids and her parents worked at a tobacco factory that was one of the very few decent paying jobs for Black people in the area. She grows up, she gets a high school and an associate degree, which was really remarkable for a Black woman at that time, and she sets off for New York City. She and her husband build a middle-class life in Queens for their children and help create the Black middle class that grows up in New York at that time. Ed grows up, he goes to college but doesn’t get a college degree and for a while has a good paying job driving a bus in New York City. But then his mom gets sick, and he moves back to North Carolina about the time these economic shifts are happening. In an earlier generation, Ed would have had a real chance of walking in to a good-paying factory job that would have allowed him to provide a middle-class life for his family. But instead, he finds he can’t get anything that pays close to what he was making in his previous job. So, to be able to put his kids through college and give them the middle-class life that he wants to give them, he has to work two jobs. He gets up every morning at 6 and lays tar on the highways for the state of North Carolina and at the end of the day, changes his clothes and goes to work as a custodian at the minor league baseball park at night in the summer and as an usher at Wake Forest sports events in the winter. Now, his second job is as a clerk at a liquor store near his house. That’s an incredible testament to his work ethic but it’s also indicative of what has happened to the American economy. American families are having to work harder just to stay even.
One of the trends you focus on that contributes to that is the loss of power of labor unions
I think that’s a big deal. I think in general diminution of bargaining power has been a big part of the story over the last 40 years and some of that is absolutely related to labor unions. We’ve had policies that have explicitly sought to weaken labor unions. We’ve had this shift away from the manufacturing sector which now represents just one out of 10 of every private worker in America, which is the lowest number since statistics have been recorded. That was a heavily unionized sector and those workers have now shifted into service sectors that traditionally have not been heavily unionized. And the other thing that happened, even workers who weren’t in unions in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s benefited from the mass bargaining power that was in the economy for workers that came with a really tight labor market. Just having low unemployment with strong economic growth meant that workers could demand wage increases, and they did, and they got them. During the last 40 years, we just haven’t had that. By denying talented women of all races, people of color and immigrants jobs that represent doing what they are best at, we have made the economy less productive. And the last few decades, what we have seen are longer stretches of unemployment, longer periods of below-average economic growth, and that has disempowered workers.
And immigration policy is something else that you highlight.
This is an area where I’ve gotten most pushback from the excerpts that have run in the New York Times and other places. The argument is that people say no, immigrants take jobs and wages away from native-born workers. There’s two responses to that. The first is that’s not actually true; in the data, there are only modest, negative wage effects for workers with less than a high school degree who are native born and there are positive effects for other workers. And perhaps more importantly, at the high end, high-skilled immigrants have dramatically improved the American economy. They’ve made it more innovative, more entrepreneurial and they help create jobs.
Let’s talk about the journalism side of this story. If we’ve failed to tell this story accurately, is the answer as simple as diversifying newsrooms much more or is the problem deeper than that?
I think that’s a big part of the problem. By the time I entered post-college, daily journalism, which was right at the turn of the century, newsrooms were thinking about this a lot. That has been a 20-plus-years struggle for a lot of newsrooms who still haven’t reached the goal of having their newsrooms reflect the communities they cover. And what we’ve really learned in the last six months is that we need to be listening more to the reporters of color who often haven’t risen to leadership positions or been allowed to write stories that are reflective of where they come from. I actually think the LA Times is a wonderful example of a paper that’s making a real commitment to this. Their coverage of their own Hispanic/Latino communities with their reporters has been marvelous. I hope we all can be better. I think a lot about it with regards to journalism because it’s my industry, but I also think it’s a broader American problem. It’s not just, oh we didn’t write enough about working class Black voters in 2016, which we didn’t. It’s that by making our focus so singularly on white voters we fed a narrative that white working class workers were struggling in isolation. And if you look at the polling of how those voters reacted in the post-2008 economy, they really felt like they were uniquely pessimistic. They felt minorities had an easier time getting ahead. And there’s just no empirical evidence that that’s true.
Do you see signs for hope at this moment, that the pandemic may spur policy action on these issues that previously might not have been possible?
This is in many ways a very hopeful book, but I do have some reporter’s cynicism and I’m always cynical about big policy breakthroughs until they happen. But that said, both parties have been paying much closer attention to the supply and demand problems of childcare, for example, right now, and there’s much more focus on struggling families. There’s a whole strain of Republican senators who are interested in trying to help them more, and a whole strain of Democrats who are interested in policies that do that as well. But I think the thing that gives me the most hope is outside the policy realm. I think the effects that the protests over the Floyd murder have had on white perceptions of discrimination in the economy and on the country are really important and shouldn’t be discounted. There’s been just a big shift among white Americans about how seriously they take the issue and I take real hope from that. If we could have an awakening like that from a very tumultuous summer of protests, that could translate into real action, just as it did in the civil rights era. I think there’s a huge opportunity, no matter where you are on the political spectrum, for politicians to run with this.