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How and Why Working America Is Complicit in the Elite Assault on its Economic Well-Being

Sociologist Lisa Dodson examines what she terms the “economic disobedience” now pervasive in the low-wage sector.

Persistent high unemployment, rising poverty and shrinking state budgets have made insecurity the norm for America’s working class. Sociologist Lisa Dodson, who teaches at Boston College, has spent years studying the struggles of the growing ranks of underpaid and overworked Americans desperately trying to make ends meet. To understand how fair-minded people survive in an unfair economy, Dodson interviewed hundreds of low-wage workers and their employers across the country, examining what she terms the “economic disobedience” now pervasive in the low-wage sector. From a supervisor padding paychecks to a grocer sending food home with his employees, these acts of disobedience form the subject of her latest book, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.

Andrew Oxford: Economic subversion is in the news regularly, whether it’s piracy in various forms or increasing interest in fair trade and consumer empowerment. Will we see more of this as people’s struggles lengthen and intensify?

Lisa Dotson: Economic disobedience very much resonates with civil disobedience as part of American history. The forefront of that today is the issue of inequality. Where people feel provoked, they break a rule, bend a rule. It’s taking sides in a very private way. It’s not a mobilized effort yet, but it is a way people are confronting the incredible economic disparity in America today.

We may all have the right to vote now, and we may have laws that are supposed to protect workers, but the truth is that tens of millions of people are not being paid enough to take care of themselves or their kids. So this creates a really sharp paradox for fair-minded people, many of whom are not particularly interested in being advocates or activists. They just think that things ought to be fair. They think that if people work hard and do their job, they should be able to take care of themselves. But because the inequality built into the economy is so profound and so pervasive, people are committing economic disobedience.

AO: People see their work as a duty, a responsibility, but it seems like a one-way street. Is the idea of the social safety net imperiled as economic realities change?

LD: The corrosive effects of protracted poverty—even when you’re working as hard as you can work—have a very negative effect on a society. Most people recognize that community support, through welfare and childcare, has now been eroded. But people are looking for new ways to create community. People are searching for ways to recreate it. The social safety net may be imperiled, but it is imperiled in its own form.

And that is one reason people don’t vote. The lack of interest in voting among low-income people reflects that our political and economic system is not meeting their needs. People want to be part of a community; they are willing to do more than their fair share if they see that it is building something that works. But they need to see that their efforts are going to take them somewhere.

AO: How might elected leaders be forced to care about the unemployed and working poor, who vote at much lower rates than other Americans, since they aren’t beholden to them?

LD: The impact of people working for unsustainable wages is so great—in terms of health, educational success, family life, children’s future, and so forth—that politicians shouldspeak up and step up, even if in the short term that doesn’t translate into votes. Look around the world at the progress of other nationsthatinvest intheir people—and consider the ultimate loss of not investing in our families and people—and the significance goes beyond votes.

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