Financial Troubles: Are We All in This Together?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Mary Pattillo, a professor of sociology and African American studies at Northwestern, points to the decline in public-sector jobs and unions to help explain the financial distress Gabler chronicles:

“An injury to one is an injury to all.”  We have traveled so far away from that classic labor-movement slogan that the widespread inability to cover a $400 unexpected expense is suffered in silence and shame. Gabler narrates the story of stagnant wages and insecure employment but fails to name two important and related contributing factors to these realities: the assaults on public-sector employment and declines in unionization rates.

The share of workers in the public sector is at its lowest since 1966, and unionization rates have been on a relatively continuous decline since the 1950s, with current rates at 11 percent. There is strong evidence that public-sector employment offers greater job security and that unions beget higher wages.

The decline in both helps us understand why so many people are struggling and why the prevailing explanations are so individualistic: Credit cards are about us and our debt; we have only ourselves to blame.

This kind of thinking crowds out the more empathetic and collective ethos that sustains unions and a commitment to civil-service work. And, slowly, political and economic decisions that produce jobs that barely ensure subsistence become the personal burden of “financial impotence.”