The Long Hollowing Out of the American Middle Class
Jim Tankersley Visits One of the Hardest Working Men in
Minor League Baseball
Ed Green was ambling through the concourse on the last day of the season as the North Carolina sun dropped behind home plate. It was a warm night in what was once called tobacco and textile country, cooling off from the mid-80s high of a clear day. Ed was in short sleeves, a purple polo with a white T-shirt peeking out from underneath. It was the final breath of August, a Friday evening, and I had driven more than 300 miles to watch minor-league baseball with a boy who had just turned seven years old.
We were there for the game, but we were mostly there to see Ed. He made his way toward us, six-foot-four and slightly balding, twelve hours into his workday with a few still to go. He shook our hands. Within a few minutes he was telling my son why it’s so hard to scrub spilled Pepsi off concrete.
A few innings earlier, we had watched Ed walk from the grandstand at BB&T Stadium, the 5,500-seat home of the Winston-Salem Dash, to the green sweep of the playing field below. Ed ran the janitorial crew at the stadium. He had just finished sweeping peanut shells and was on his way up to the luxury boxes to empty the trash. Fans in the boxes paid as much as $42 each for a seat and all the hot dogs, nachos, and beer they could put away—for a game in which almost none of the players would find their way to the Major League.
On his way up, Ed had been diverted. A radio crackled from his utility belt, and the voice of his boss floated over it. It was the middle of the game, and Ed was needed down on the field. He didn’t hesitate or complain. He headed straight there. We watched him step onto the grass.
The team had a surprise waiting for him along the first-base line. As players warmed up for the bottom half of the fifth inning, one of the Dash executives presented Ed with an award: Employee of the Year. He was there every night, scrubbing soda from the concourse, picking up peanuts and hamburger wrappers—keeping the park, which had been open for only three years, shining like it was new. And as his reward at season’s end, Ed earned a brief ovation from the sellout crowd, a handshake from the team president, and a $50 dollar gift card from the bank that the ballpark was named for.
When I heard that from the stands—only $50!—I nearly spit up my microbrew. But Ed just thanked the man, and then he walked back upstairs. The game was tied 2–2. In the luxury boxes, the trash was still piling up.
Cleaning up for baseball fans wasn’t even Ed’s primary job—that was on a highway crew for the state of North Carolina. This was his second job. Actually, one of several second jobs, which rotated through the year as the sports seasons changed. Baseball janitor in the spring and summer. Wake Forest football usher in the fall, basketball usher in the winter. Church handyman all year round. That’s a lot of work, I said to him, when we shook hands on the concourse, after he’d won the award and dumped the luxury-suite garbage. His smile just grew. “Gotta pay the bills,” he said.Today, middle-class American families work harder but earn less money than they did in 1973.
Ed Green used to work a middle-class, union job in a big city. When I met him, he was hanging on to a middle-class life—by working two jobs, full-time, all week. Ed never slacked off or got himself fired; like millions of other American workers who share his plight, he never did anything wrong. He worked really hard. He played by the rules. He still does.It’s the American economy that broke the rules—or at least broke its compact with workers like Ed.
Ed told us his story on the walkway behind first base, between innings. He would fill it in later, in progressively longer conversations, but we could hear, even in the first summary, just how swiftly the American economy had stuck its knives in Ed. One day he was driving a bus for the public transit authority in New York City, earning nearly $70,000 a year, which would be six figures in today’s dollars. Then his mom got sick with cancer, and he moved back to her ancestral home, in North Carolina, where she had relocated years earlier, to care for her.
When he first moved, he looked for driving jobs. It was what he knew—what he was good at. He tried a bunch of different ones, none of which paid anything close to what he had left behind in New York. Finally, he caught on with the state, driving trucks and fixing roads. “I figured after 20 years driving a bus,” he told me, “I could try something new. I was young enough to try something new. It’s physically demanding, but, you know, I’m used to working hard. So it’s not that hard for me.”
In order to make ends meet and send his six children to college, Ed began logging nearly eighty hours a week on the job. He became a pronounced example of a decades-long trend in the United States. Today, middle-class American families work harder but earn less money than they did in 1973. Some politicians and economists—like Michael R. Strain of the American Enterprise Institute, the author of The American Dream Is Not Dead—will tell you that the crisis of the American worker is largely a myth.
That’s wrong from every possible angle, starting with this one: those folks, the ones who deny the struggles of the middle class, never tell you that families have to work longer and harder now just to earn less than their parents did.
Before meeting Ed, I had been talking to economists about trends for American workers—how much they earned, how much they worked—and honing a description of what I have come to see as the “devaluing” of millions of Americans over the course of the last quarter century. I had met a lot of workers who embodied that trend, but I was hoping to find one in the South, away from the familiar stories of the industrial Midwest. I made a connection that led me to the ball club in Winston-Salem. I’ve got a guy, the man at the Dash told me. I made plans to drive down and see Ed.
It was the summer of 2013, the early days of Barack Obama’s second term as president and several years into what remained an anemic recovery from the country’s worst recession since the breadlines and Hoovervilles of the Great Depression. The typical American worker was still earning less than she or he had in the late 1980s.
The brutality of the financial crisis and its aftermath has obscured, in retrospect, just how lousy the preceding decade was for American workers. Even before the crisis hit, the 2000s had produced the slowest job growth, in percentage terms, of any decade since the 1930s. From January 2000 through the eve of the crisis, in late 2007, the country shed a fifth of its manufacturing jobs—more than 3.5 million of them.
North Carolina lost nearly a third of its factory jobs in that time. The recession made it worse: by the summer of 2013, there were almost 400,000 fewer North Carolinians working in factories than there had been two decades before. The share of the state’s workers who held manufacturing jobs had been cut in half.
Factory jobs had long been a route to the middle class in North Carolina, as they were in Ohio, California, and across the country. They didn’t pay as well as the more heavily unionized manufacturing jobs of the industrial Midwest, but they still paid well above the state’s minimum wage. Their disappearance practically overnight eroded the state’s middle class. So did the loss of other middle-skill jobs—the ones the economist David Autor pinpointed in his research on the “hollowing out” of the American labor market—like clerical work and handling customer complaints in large call centers.
North Carolina’s median income, which is the amount that a typical household earns in a year, fell by 10 percent in the 2000s, after adjusting for inflation. In Forsyth County, which includes Winston-Salem, it fell by 20 percent.
The hollowing out was especially devastating for workers like Ed Green who never graduated from college. Autor unpacked that phenomenon in 2019, in a lecture to the largest and most prestigious annual gathering of economists in the United States, using somewhat technical terms that were nevertheless blunt for an economist.
“In broad strokes,” he wrote, in a copy of the speech that was published later that year, “the work performed by college adults has changed little over four decades. While they perform fewer middle-skill jobs than four decades earlier, this contraction has been modest, and it has been substantially offset by their upward movement in the occupational hierarchy. Among non-college workers, conversely, polarization has exerted pressure almost exclusively downward: Almost all occupational change among non-college workers reflects a movement from the middle toward the bottom of the occupational distribution.” (The italics are mine.)Ed knew that if no single job would pay him a middle-class wage, he would need to work extraordinary hours to compensate.
Autor concluded the thought by saying that changes in the economy have not just been transformational; they’ve been “deskilling,” which is to say devaluing. These changes have reduced the number and type of jobs that are the best fit for less-educated workers, which means those workers are now earning less than they would have.
Here is what that devaluing looked like for Ed Green. When he moved to North Carolina, he had a reasonable expectation of being able to find a job that made good use of his skills as a worker, whether that was driving or lifting heavy things or working with his hands. He arrived just as the state’s manufacturing sector was falling off a cliff. Every day, more laid-off factory workers competed for the few job openings left in the industry. He caught on in a battery plant, making $12 an hour, which was a little more than a third of what he made driving the New York City bus.
“It didn’t pay enough,” he explained in our first interview at the ballpark, which lasted no more than a full inning, because he had too much work to finish to chat for very long. So he moved on to the state transportation department, earning a slight raise to $13 an hour. And he started looking for more work. Soon, he was stacking extra jobs onto his day job. He knew that if no single job would pay him a middle-class wage, he would need to work extraordinary hours to compensate. “I feel comfortable working,” he said. “That’s the way my parents raised me—work hard.”
We had left Northern Virginia midmorning, in order to hit Winston-Salem in time for the evening game. By the time my son climbed into the car, Ed had been working almost half a typical workday on the highway crew, starting at 6:30 in the morning. When that shift ended, he changed uniforms in the transportation department locker room, then drove over to the ballpark. He wouldn’t finish until nearly midnight, well after my son had fallen asleep on the short drive to our motel.
Ed was born in Manhattan in 1960, at the tail end of the baby boom generation. Raised in Queens, a Mets fan. (“Somebody has to be,” he said.) His father always worked two jobs. Ed and his sister worked, too, from an early age. After high school he’d gone to a technical college for a couple of years, seeking a computer degree, but like so many men of his generation, he’d fallen out before he graduated. “My plan was to go back to school,” he said, “but then I started having kids.”
He had three of his own, marrying and divorcing twice in the process. His third wife, Kimberly, also had three children. He called all six of them his kids, and he helped to put them through college. When we first talked, he was still paying some of the tuition for his youngest, who was finishing up at a state university down the road. His wife worked full-time as a social worker, in a job that was relatively low paying. Between the two of them, he estimated, they probably worked 110 to 120 hours a week.
Ed works more than almost anyone I know; statistically, he works much more than the typical American. But his family’s experience, of picking up more hours just to tread water economically, mirrors what’s happened for families across the American workforce in recent decades.
Excerpt from The Riches of This Land. Used with the permission of the publisher, PublicAffairs. Copyright © 2020 by Jim Tankersley.