As we plunge into a second decade of economic and employment growth since the global financial crisis, I’ve noticed an interesting divide open between different methods of experiencing the present moment. It’s interesting because while the divide has political content, it isn’t intrinsically partisan, and the divide goes far beyond party politics.
You cannot describe the present moment without describing the US recovery from the depths of the global financial crisis: almost a decade of continuous monthly employment growth, record-low unemployment, and GDP growth.
Contrary to mainstream economists’ expectations, employers have been willing to dig deeper into the reserve army of labor and hire previously marginal applicants: those without a high school degree, with criminal convictions, or with a spotty work history.
This is what prosperity is supposed to look like: good-paying jobs for all who want them, rising wages, and rising living standards.
This has led the prophets of prosperity to ask a simple, obvious question: “What are you complaining about?” The system is working. Incomes are increasing. Don’t rock the boat — you may not like the water.
Precarity is a term usually used in reference to the “gig economy,” the bizarre 19th-century piecework labor popularly embodied by Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, and their many competitors. I don’t find this framework particularly useful, simply because virtually no one is employed in the gig economy. That may sound shocking, if you regularly order rides, food, liquor, or cannabis through an app, but it’s true: research suggests about 1% of workers participate in the gig economy. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not driving any important changes in American life (not least because none of the “gig economy” companies have ever managed to turn a profit, and will inevitably be washed out with the next tide).
To me, precarity describes a different phenomenon: the fact that even the beneficiaries of prosperity understand that their well-being is delicate, fragile, contingent, or in a word, precarious.
This manifests itself in a thousand different ways: how willing is a newly-employed diabetic to reject her boss’s sexual advances, knowing that losing her job means losing her access to insulin? How willing is a new father to take time off to bond with his child? How willing is a barista to refuse to clock out before she finishes cleaning the Starbucks?
This does not mean these people aren’t beneficiaries of prosperity, low unemployment, and rising wages. It means they are conflicted. They know a new job, more hours, or a raise will increase their gross income. But does a raise that increases a worker’s income out of Medicaid eligibility increase or decrease their well-being? Will a new job make a worker ineligible for SNAP, the earned income credit, or housing assistance?
Just like prosperity, precarity is a real, material way people experience the world. Most importantly, it isn’t “subjective.” It isn’t just some worker’s “opinion” that they’ll lose their health insurance if they lose their job. That’s actually how the system works: they will lose their health insurance if they lose their job. Maybe they’ll qualify for Medicaid, maybe they’ll qualify for subsidies on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, but the one thing they definitely won’t qualify for is employer-based health insurance; they will lose their insurance, full stop.
Obviously precarity causes stress, anxiousness, pain, and suffering. But I want to precisely identify a different phenomenon. Anxiety is the experience of knowing you are not yet the target of state harassment, while knowing you could be at any time.
This has obviously been the principle experience of immigrant and immigrant-adjacent communities during the Trump administration. Iranian-Americans had not been targeted for border harassment until the current conflict began, but as soon as it did, they began being held for hours without cause at a Canadian border crossing.
Now, what is more true: that Iranian-Americans had no reason to worry about being targeted for harassment by the state, since they hadn’t yet been harassed by the state, or that a nationwide regime of racist harassment is a threat to all minority communities, whether or not they have yet been targeted?
The prophets of prosperity say, “what are you complaining about? You’ve got a job, and you haven’t personally been targeted for racist harassment.” The anxious, regardless of their prosperity, say “what makes me different from the people you’re already arresting and throwing into cages?”
Solidarity poses a fourth and final question: how should people who know (or think they know) they won’t be affected by economic changes, health insurance reforms, or a racist police state relate to these issues? I want to isolate this group because it is the obvious target of the “why should you care?” appeals. After all, the unemployed care about employment because they’re unemployed. The precariat cares about the welfare state because their livelihood is precarious. The oppressed care about justice because they’re the victims of injustice. They all, in short, have a reason to care.
But why should anyone else care? I think there are a few obvious, and a few not-so-obvious, reasons.
- To dispense with the obvious, if you have the influence or power to create a more just society, you should exercise that power whether or not it benefits you personally, and the less it benefits you personally, the more pressing your moral imperative is: the less vulnerable you are to the tides of political fortune, the more committed you should be to protecting those who live below sea level (not to stretch the metaphor too far).
- You aren’t as financially secure as you think you are. The primary mechanism for long-term care insurance in the United States is dual eligibility for Medicare and Medicaid; to trigger eligibility, you have to deplete the overwhelming majority of your assets. Most people, who have no savings, are dual-eligible almost immediately. A tiny minority have sufficient assets that they’ll never be dual-eligible. But there’s also a broad group of people who think their net worth makes them “financially independent,” but who will in fact have to spend down virtually their entire net worth before they become dual-eligible.
- You may not be as American as you think you are. We know that native-born Americans are having their citizenship questioned because their birth certificate was signed by a midwife. Do you know who signed your birth certificate?
- Your identity may not be as safe as you think it is. We know Iranian-Americans are being targeted for persecution by immigration authorities because of current events. But until a few weeks ago, Iranian-Americans seemed like some of our most loyal citizens. How sure are you that your ethnicity, your party affiliation, your sexual orientation, or your country of origin isn’t going to be the next reason we start harassing people at the border?
There will always be people saying, “you have citizenship,” “you have a job,” “you have health insurance,” “you have legal permanent residency,” so what do you have to worry about?
Those people are telling you to sit down and shut up. But I’m telling you to stand up and speak up. You don’t have to do it “for the vulnerable.” You are the vulnerable. Do it for yourself.