New York Times Sunday Review • Dec. 18, 2016
Seven years ago, I joined the night shift at a Walmart in rural Michigan. For $8.10 an hour, I spent four or five nights a week filling shelves with the flour and sugar and marshmallow fluff that residents of the local county, which in 2008 voted for Barack Obama, needed to get through the holidays. Four years ago, the county went with President Obama a second time, though by a thinner margin. But this past November, the county, like the state, turned red.
A few shifts into my time on Walmart’s sales floor, I spent a smoke break outside in the damp November air with a co-worker, a white single mother of four. We squatted on a concrete curb in the gray cast of parking-lot lights and surveyed what lay before us. Walmart’s expanse of asphalt, dotted with worn-out pickups and domestic sedans, gave way to a road lined with strip malls and dollar stores. Beyond it, a sign for Meijer, a regional competitor to Walmart, glowed red against a black sky.
I know people talk about working over there and they say it’s better because it’s got a union, I remember my co-worker telling me as she gestured at Meijer. But I’d rather have those dues in my paycheck. Besides, she told me, Walmart wasn’t as bad as everyone said. The night shift came with a 50-cents-per-hour premium, she got raises and after seven years, she said, she was up to $11 an hour.
If she made it to 15 years at Walmart, which was common among workers on our shift, she said she’d even get to keep her employee discount card — which offered 10 percent off produce and other items — for life. As I talked to other co-workers, nearly all of whom were white, I got the impression that Walmart wasn’t necessarily considered a good job, but it was one of the best jobs in town. At least it wasn’t going to up and move to Mexico, the way factories had.
I was on that night shift at Walmart for a couple months undercover, chronicling my work for a book on America’s food system. But while I was there I also got a good look at how things had changed for folks in Michigan. I don’t remember my single-mom co-worker saying anything about that directly, but the way she talked about that discount card made me think about it a lot.
I’d grown up in Michigan, in a town of 10,000 people sprawled out on dirt roads and two-lane highways, attending a public school with the children of factory workers and farmers, and plenty of kids who were just plain poor. My dad sold lawn mowers, and my grandfather had worked at Ford for decades. That union job had helped put two kids through college and given my grandparents a decent enough retirement. They’d had, as much as anyone else, the American dream. It was hard to see how my co-workers would get there.
From my reporter’s perspective, I could see similarities between the lives of the people I spent the night shift with and those of folks I’d met covering poverty in New York City: Unpredictable work schedules damaging health and home life; no dependable child care wreaking havoc on work; transportation and health care so tenuous that basic household functions like grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments fell by the wayside; wages that almost never matched expenses.
For all the variations that race and geography produced, there was a sameness to the tone of life for everyone I met who was working class, which usually meant they worked but were still poor.
Still, there was a bitterness among my Walmart colleagues and, if I was honest, I heard echoes of it in myself that I never encountered reporting on New York’s working class and poor, who were mostly black and brown.
Much of it seemed to come from feeling they had been promised an easy path to the American dream, and had found only a dead end. They weren’t wrong. More than 90 percent of Americans born in 1940 earned more than their parents, but only 50 percent of those born in 1980 will, according to the Equality of Opportunity Project.
And while the loss of wealth after the Great Recession was steepest for minority families, it was steep for whites, too. A report by the Social Science Research Council estimates that black families will have 40 percent less wealth by 2031 because of the Great Recession. It also estimates that white families will have 31 percent less. That is better. It is still bad.
Nobody I worked with had the luxury of my aerial view. They had high school diplomas and uncertain futures, and no easy explanation for why the dream didn’t work out for them.
If being white made life so much easier, the thinking seemed to go, why was it still so hard? The ready-made answers that are front and center in our culture — a rigged system, new workers taking jobs, corrupt politicians — are a big part of what put Donald J. Trump in office.
But the anxiety over economic competition is easier to answer. Working-class whites aren’t losing out because other groups are taking limited resources. They, along with the minority workers who the Economic Policy Institute says constitute about 40 percent of the working class, are facing uncertainty because of structural economic change.
That ranges from the decline of unions and manufacturing to the rise of an urban service economy. Collectively, this translates to lower wages for working people, while the fruits of economic growth accrue at the top.
Last year, Walmart’s chief executive earned about $19.8 million. Even with the $10 an hour starting wage after completing a training program that Walmart announced in January — a wage just short of the $10.10 that Andrew Puzder, Mr. Trump’s pick for labor secretary, has declared too high — that’s nearly 1,000 times what a new worker would earn.
I have no idea how or whether my co-workers from Walmart voted. But the county I worked in saw an increase in voter turnout of about 2,500 this year. If that all went to Mr. Trump, it accounts for a little more than one-fifth of his margin of victory in Michigan.
During one of my training days, a tall, red-mustachioed loss-prevention manager addressed our group of trainees. He informed us we were being watched closely for theft on the job, and then took stock of what our future options might be. There were, he said, many career paths available at Walmart: store management, corporate lawyer, bomb-sniffing-dog handler. Then he reminded us of the biggest benefit our new employer offered: “You can be with Walmart forever.