"You're gonna hate me," Pete said. He was waiting for me at a corner table in a Dunkin' Donuts in western Massachusetts in late May, 2005.
Pete was one of hundreds of managers I had interviewed about ways they interact with the low-wage workers they supervise. He had given me a particularly clear, detailed account of the ways in which he subverts the rules of the large food-store chain he works for. He does this to tilt the imbalance back just a little, provide a little more to workers he supervises who aren't paid a living wage. Pete had an impressive list of secret ways to add some free groceries, like a modest wage supplement, to the pay of full-time workers who earn less than half of what their families need to get by. He did it because, as he put it in the interview months before, "they can't feed their kids on what they make."
Peter's informal food subsidy didn't add up to all that much; still, it was a help for hardworking families who can't afford enough nutrition on poverty pay. Peter knows this because he supervises dozens of low-wage parents and he's the kind of guy who asks how things are going. So he hears about softball games, constant childcare crises, family barbeques, frightening medical bills, and high school graduations. He hears the kind of good and bad news that we tend to share with friendly coworkers and even the guy who hands out the paycheck, like Peter. He knows how much these parents have in their pockets to take home to all those families, going through everyday ups and downs. That's what led to Pete's sending some under-the-radar groceries home with them.
I wasn't all that surprised by Peter's actions. By the time I'd interviewed him, I had already met a whole legion of people who devise ingenious ways to duck around rules and regulations in order to boost paltry paychecks or help working families qualify for various kinds of help on the education and health fronts, even though they may not technically be eligible. I had learned from ordinary people what decades of national polls have pointed out: Lots of Americans hold onto the idea that doing the necessary jobs of the country should mean that you earn a living.
Nonetheless, wages have gone the other way. Today millions of jobs in the U.S. don't come close to providing a family livelihood. In fact, by 2008 over 40 million jobs in this country paid less than $12 per hour — 25 million of these paid less than $10 an hour — imagine trying to keep a family fed and clothed on that. Beyond policy debates about wages and profits, these numbers mean that tens of millions of hardworking families are raising a large part of the next generation in conditions of chronic hardship. And this was all happening in the boom years, even before the economy started to tumble.
But I also heard an expansive backstage story that doesn't tend to make it into public policy or mainstream media talk. I found out that sometimes — in grocery stores, big-box chain stores, in hospitals, schools, offices, and restaurants — resources are diverted from abundant business gain and passed on to people who have made those gains possible, but aren't rewarded — or even fairly compensated, many managers would privately say to me — under the current system. This tendency to want to rectify injustice is a core part of the American character that we seem to have forgotten. Or maybe we just dutifully accept the talk-show image of who we are.
You know what I'm talking about — that image of Joe Everyman — explained to us by Fox TV, Sarah Palin, and a legion of radio talk-show hosts. According to them, you'd think that the only things Americans care about are owning guns, banning gay marriage, keeping teachers mute about the facts of life, and paying lower taxes. You'd assume that so long as we — just our families — are doing well, who cares about millions of neighbors who have no healthcare, lost their pensions, lost their homes, and now are supposed to be happy taking any job that comes along, jobs that pay less than half of what they need to get by? Above all, you'd think that we all agree the worst crime that can be committed is interfering with the "free" market: people are paid what they deserve, we are all rewarded relative to our contribution to productivity, America is not about "hand-outs" (unless, of course, we're handing out bail-outs to big banks and insurance companies…). Listening to this popular version you'd think we are a passive, petty people.
But Peter's story — and many more like it — tells another account of our character. These modest tales dispute the selfish, consuming American image that a market-led culture has established as the nation's true identity. Peter's quiet tale of diverting some resources to the people doing the jobs of the country is played out at lunch counters, lumber yards, nursing homes, and retail malls — wherever our people are doing the work that runs the nation and receiving less than they need to take care of their children.
Yes, I know that we have to raise the question. Is it right to break rules, even to help people who are doing all they can to help themselves but can't because of the economy?
Whatever your answer might be, it is time to talk about it. Moreover, I can tell you it's a conversation already going on in the small corners of a profoundly stratified country. And I've learned this much: There are some who consider themselves pretty ordinary folks who think that breaking rules is wrong. But they also think that there are some much bigger wrongs allowed to go unchecked when hardworking families remain locked in poverty and CEOs just keep raising their paychecks.
Back to Pete, who says I'm going to hate him.
"After I read it over, you know, I can't let you use this," he concluded, shaking his head, and pointing to the transcript of his interview. It's not that Peter is afraid for himself. He knows that I'm going to disguise him so well that his own mother couldn't pick him out. Still, the interview is nixed. There's just too much information, too much strategy on how a manager at a grocery store can help his workers out. There's too much of the "moral underground" in it, he stated, using the term I'd come up with to recall an earlier time when people like Pete built an Underground Railroad on the back of bad laws and broken rules. But right now he thinks that including the interview in my book could jeopardize strategies that let him share a little of the nation's enormous wealth.
I didn't hate Peter. But I did wish that his account could push into the national talk, speaking back to those media shows and marketeers who think they have a monopoly on the American character. I've met many others like Peter, weighing what's right and what's rotten and coming up with a different version of who we are. But it was neither the first nor the last time I had to give up on recounting a little piece of what turns out to be a potent history, the version that you won't hear in mainstream media.
Of course it's not really new at all. There have been other times when we as a people have decided that fairness has been so trashed by the rich and powerful that some of us have to step out of line. In fact, Peter was sympathetic to the goal of my book and how I wanted to reveal a new chapter in a proud history of people who believe in fairness. But to Peter, right now, it is more important for a fragile underground to be preserved because it guides eggs, milk, and bread to hardworking, underpaid families. After all, he reasoned, they should come first. And of course he's right.