25 February 2012
Steady Eddy worked for Joe Money. Joe wasn’t a great guy but he paid good and proper on Thursdays. And, for all that Eddy griped, he was on shift at Joe’s Fishtown plant the day it closed.
Business gone to China was all the bosses said. True, false, who knew?
Years later, weeds grew round the place Eddy thought his son would end up working. That is, if the boy didn’t look out, as Eddy used to say.
The trouble is, young Ed isn’t working at all, apart from odd jobs. He is 30, unmarried, and still living on and off at home or with various girlfriends. Eddy doesn’t really understand his son. Sure, he admits he himself played around a bit when he was young. But there came a time to just settle down. That time isn’t coming for increasing numbers of young Fishtowners.
In recent posts, I’ve been looking at sociologist Charles Murray’s iconic American neighborhoods, working class Fishtown and nearby fashionable Belmont. Murray discovered a surprising and little publicized fact: Working class communities in the United States are not clinging bitterly to guns and religion; quite the opposite. They are losing “religion and family values” far more decisively than middle class communities are. Including the value of work as a route to the good life.
One outcome is that many fewer Fishtown men work full time. In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray explains it like this,
in 1960, 81 percent of Fishtown households had someone working at least forty hours a week, with Belmont at 90 percent. By 2008, Belmont had barely changed at all, at 87 percent, while Fishtown had dropped to 60 percent. And that was before the 2008 recession began. As of March 2010, Belmont was still at 87 percent. Fishtown was down to 53 percent. (p. 188)
In other words, many of young Ed’s friends aren’t working either.
As an older person who has lived in working-class neighborhoods most of my life, I would say that, in general, the men who lived there a generation ago defined themselves by how they worked. Perhaps they went down the mine or up the high steel. Or into the factories. They did dirty, dangerous, or backbreaking jobs, but in general they were proud of themselves and their work. Heartfelt folk ballads celebrate them. Many claimed to envy the “King of the Road,” but few chose his lifestyle.
Work and education have been intimately linked in Fishtown, but not in quite the way they are in Belmont. In Belmont, education means learning a profession that keeps one in the middle class. In Fishtown, high school was a test of character. You hung around and got that diploma so you could go to, for example, trade school. Trade school teaches you how to earn a living, and gives you the papers.
There is a close link between the decline of work and the decline of marriage in Fishtown. (See “When marriage died in Fishtown.”) A young man can support himself there without working very hard. His troubles begin if he gets married and his wife presents him with several children, who need money for everything from dental work to baseball camp. That’s when the 9nine-to-five. forty-hour week looks —well, not attractive, necessarily—but like a solution to a problem. A problem he agreed to take on when he tied the knot.
Actually, young Ed has a child, a three-year-old girl who lives with her mother and another man. Ed doesn’t visit very often because he and the other man don’t get on well and his financial support is sporadic. His parents would do more to help, but are just not certain how.
Ed’s father thinks he should learn a trade because there is an area-wide labor shortage in the skilled trades. Ed is unsure because the standards—for crane operator for example—can be demanding. He has his eye on a job as a counselor in a government program to fight addiction, targeting Fishtown. A friend who is currently earning a decent wage in that program says that the course work is mostly BS, and the main thing is not to have a criminal record. Ed does not have a criminal record. He does, however, have a decision to make, one that may be more important than he thinks it is.
Next: When Fishtown’s do-gooders just stopped doing good
When marriage died in Fishtown …