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“EXPLOITATION OF THE MANY BY THE FEW”

By Estelle Slootmaker

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The Montréal Review, April 2022

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LIVING ON THE EDGE: WHEN HARD TIMES BECOME A WAY OF LIFE

By Celine-Marie Pascale

(Polity, 2021)

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Celine-Marie Pascale’s Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Way of Life (Polity, 2021) exposes the systems of power and wealth that are squeezing the life out of the United States’ working class, demoting them to “The Struggling Class,” as chapter two of the book is titled. In chapter two, Pascale introduces six of the twenty-seven hard-working members of the struggling class whom she features in the following pages: Rose Taylor and Michael Chase from Appalachia; Ellison Thompson and Erika Brooks from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation; and Vanessa Torres and Puppy Love from Oakland, California.

While nonprofits seek corporate funded grants to address societal symptoms and federal agencies collect data on social determinants of health, Pascale exhumes the ugly root of today’s growing poverty crisis: too many hard-working Americans can barely survive on the wages they are currently paid. Living on the Edge reveals that poor health, both mental and physical, is only one of many struggles these Americans endure. While educators, politicians, and pundits promise “The American Dream”  to those who work hard enough, Pascale talks directly to real people who are working too hard but cannot escape their own nightmare — some working two and three jobs, some with college degrees — people who have to choose between accessing needed healthcare or paying the rent.

As Pascale guides the reader on this bleak cross-country tour, she not only shares the personal circumstances of those she interviews but also introduces hard data on cost-of-living for the regions they live in. For example, Rose Taylor , a white woman in her thirties, worked 66 hours a week on two different jobs when Pascale initially interviewed her. Her total income, $23,000 before taxes ($17,000 after) exceeds the poverty line. Though her income excludes her from receiving food or medical assistance by federal guidelines, she earns far less than the $34, 545 that the Economic Policy Institute calculates as self-sufficiency income for her Appalachian county.  

“Like millions of others, they are caught in economic quicksand,” Pascale writes. “For low wage workers, it is impossible to work your way out of poverty. Without paid sick leave, just a bad case of the flu will throw their ability to keep a roof over their heads into question.”

Pascale also relates the political and environmental histories that sent her interviewees’ regions into economic distress. While downturns in the mining industry wrought economic hardship throughout Appalachia, large coal burning plants continue to pollute the air where struggling citizens live, increasing their risks for ill health and disease. Meanwhile, politically finagled predatory lending runs rampant as do dollar stores, which, Pascale notes, are strategically placed to force local markets out of business, discourage big box stores from coming on the scene, and charge exorbitant prices for food staples (if you do the price-per-ounce math).

Pascale painstakingly documents how the US economic system wildly improves corporate bottom lines while throwing people into inescapable poverty – and then profits upon their distress. She takes Naomi Klein’s work on disaster capitalism a step further, showing how the various mechanisms of the US economic system – federal, state, and local government, corporations as employers and retailers, even the healthcare system – collude to create the disasters to be capitalized on. Her easy-to-read style and logical formatting of information further make her point.

Throughout the book, Pascale does more than tug on heartstrings. Her research reaches far beyond interviews with members of the struggling class. She backs every word up with hard data, as is evidenced by fifty-three pages of appendices and references listed in the back of the volume. Yes, Pascale does the math. And she proposes the solution, “The Future We Want,” in her final chapter.

“The problem is not just capitalism – it is what the corporate takeover of government has done to the ability of a democracy to function … What corporations and politicians  have opposed is spending money on people: on health care, public education, housing, labor and environmental protections, and social safety nets … Regaining a democracy will mean ending the exploitation of the many by the few.”

Living on the Edge would be well added to the “must read” list of every activist, political leader, human services professional, and college student in the US. Those trapped in the struggling class could also find relief in these pages as they come to understand that they themselves are not to blame for the circumstances they find themselves in.

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A professor of sociology at American University, Washington DC, Dr. Pascale's research concerns language, culture, knowledge and power. Her previous books include Making Sense of Race, Gender and Class: Commonsense, Power and Privilege in the United States (Routledge, 2007), Cartographies of Knowledge: Exploring Qualitative Epistemologies (Sage 2011) and Social Inequalities & The Politics of Representation: A Global Landscape (2013).

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Based near Grand Rapids, Michigan, Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism (Second Wave Michigan), book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

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