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The US Needs To Talk About Class, But Politicians Don’t Have The Vocabulary


The 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh to Uniontown winds and dips through rural western Pennsylvania, flanked by bare trees waiting to be clothed by a late spring, and drops you at the Appalachians. Historically at least, Uniontown (population 12,500) is an all-American town. Like the country, it was founded on July 4 1776. Thanks to its mills and coal mines it boasted more millionaires per capita than any other town in the US at the opening of the last century. The town centre is littered with tributes to its favourite son – George Marshall, the architect of the Marshall Plan that distributed American aid after the second world war to rebuild the European economy and stem the advance of communism. The Big Mac was invented and test-marketed here.

The imposing stone architecture and grand theatre in its small downtown are testament to the town’s former grandeur. But the down-at-heel stores and empty streets lay bare its current desperate state. Uniontown could do with a Marshall Plan of its own. More than one in five families here live below the poverty line; the household median income is less than half the national level; over the past 70 years the town’s population has shrunk by almost half. The food banks in Fayette county, the poorest county in the state outside of Philadelphia and home to Uniontown, keep adding new clients and opening new pantries.

"Back in the 50s and 60s there were people, people, people all over town," explains mayor Ed Fike. "We had stores like Sears, Roebuck, Murphy’s, Kaufman’s. Now all of those stores have gone and so have the mines and mills. If you can find work it’s in Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target – minimum wage jobs in retail. People are struggling."

With little more than a week to go before the Pennsylvania primaries, the economy is the biggest priority for voters and, barring a deterioration in Iraq, that is where it will stay until the presidential elections in November. The issue for the Democrats is not whether Hillary Clinton will win here, but by how much.

The race is tightening. Barack Obama stemmed his decline over comments of his pastor with a landmark speech on race, sparking a national conversation. But America doesn’t need another national conversation on race – it already has too many and most of them are asinine. It needs a dialogue that could lead to a better conversation. Obama’s speech contributed to that.

But as repossessions rise, jobs are shed and the price of fuel and basic foodstuffs rocket, one waits in vain for the candidates to deliver a keynote speech on class of a similar standard.

White working-class Americans are justified in their resentment about the way in which their needs and concerns are airbrushed from the national conversation or discussed in ways that bear little relevance to the root of their plight. Politicians too often cast the issue in populist terms of rich and poor, explains Michael Zweig, the director of the centre for study of working-class life at the State University of New York’s Stonybrook campus. "Most people want to be rich and most of them don’t know what rich is. A poll in 2000 showed that 19% of Americans thought they were in the richest 1% and a further 21% said they expected to be in the richest 1% in the next 10 years."

Couch the conversation in more meaningful ways, and people might engage, argues Zweig, enabling them to make better sense of other core issues such as immigration, the outsourcing of jobs, healthcare and, indeed, race itself. "If you put class in terms of power you can start to get to the source of the problem," Zweig suggests. "Is it workers who are taking our jobs in Thailand? Who is running public policy of the country? Who’s got power over whom? What do we have to do to challenge them?"

For the time being enlightened conversation on the issue seems unlikely. Obama, who unlike Clinton does not have an office in Uniontown, has proved himself to have a tin ear when it comes to addressing these voters, which is why he has struggled to win them over.

Their scepticism towards him is not primarily racial but cultural. Last week at a private fundraiser in San Francisco, Obama was asked why he wasn’t doing better among working-class voters in places such as Uniontown, which is 84% white. "You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them," he said. "And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Clinton immediately seized on his remarks, handing out "I’m not bitter" stickers in North Carolina and casting Obama as a cultural elitist. "As I travel around Pennsylvania," she said. "I meet people who are resilient, who are optimistic, who are positive …" The Republican nominee John McCain branded him "out of touch". But their capacity to feel these people’s pain is matched only by their ability to inflict it. Clinton supported the North American Free Trade Agreement that led to outsourcing to Mexico; McCain offers nothing but more of the same market fundamentalism.

That does not make such a conversation about class any less vital. It would carry the dual benefit of being both timely and strategically savvy. Timely, because the economic problems of many Americans are particularly acute right now. One in 10 of those with mortgages is in negative equity; one in 16 is behind on their payments. Consumer confidence is at the lowest level on record; unemployment is climbing at a steady pace. All of this will get worse before it gets better.

Moreover, most people are heading into this bust without having enjoyed any of the benefits of a boom. Since the last recession the median wage has declined slightly. A Pew survey to be released on Wednesday reveals that most people feel they have been stuck in place or fallen backward over the past five years – the most gloomy short-term appraisal of personal advancement in almost 50 years. Thanks to the credit crunch, the days when people softened the blow by borrowing massively on their homes and credit cards are over. Americans are heading for a huge slump in their standard of living.

Savvy, because the biggest increases in unemployment or slumps in house prices (and in some instances both) are occurring in many of the swing states – namely Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan.

Walk around Uniontown for a day and you will find little in the way of bitterness or optimism. But you will find many who are despondent and even more who are desperate. "They can put a man on the moon but all they can do for poor people is give out blocks of cheese?" asked Cindy Digga, resources consultant at the Fayette county community action agency. "Don’t you think America should be able to do better than that? The American dream’s still possible. It just depends in what part of America. Here in Fayette county, it feels like we’ve been forgotten."

g.younge@guardian.co.uk

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