Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Distinguished Lecture discusses economic class inequalities

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Distinguished Lecture discusses economic class inequalities

By Jenn Tyborski


Speaking on the socioeconomic status of classes in the United States, Dorian T. Warren, associate professor in the political science department at Columbia University, argued that not only as things get worse for the 99 percent, today’s economic status lies greatly in many historical labor laws.

The lecture was hosted by Roosevelt University’s Center for New Deal Studies, as this year marked the 20th annual Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Distinguished Lecture.

Margaret Rung, director of the Center of New Deal studies and chair of the history department, gave opening thanks to a large crowd that nearly filled Ganz Hall Thursday afternoon, followed by an opening statement from University President Charles Middleton.

“He has highlighted the need for workers to earn a living wage, a basic principle of fairness we all know” Middleton said of Warren. “His work also emphasizes a need for structural reform as a means of rebuilding working and middle class America.”

Warren divided his talk into three areas. The first, an in-depth look at the labor and American political economy. Within this section, he covered what he considered to be the three major political-economic regimes: feudal and pre-industrial (1619-1865); industrial (1865-1965); and post-industrial (1965-present).

Throughout his speech, Warren referenced the various laws put into place regarding labor rights, including various aspects of the New Deal. But before Franklin D. Roosevelt even took office, there were decades of American labor history that formed the basis for labor movements throughout the early-to-middle Industrial Era.

“Industrialization in America, like in other parts of the world, radically reorganized the process of production and work, changed the meaning of race in this country and shaped the possibilities for political action mobilization,” Warren said. “The national state was deeply intertwined in the rapid and vast industrialization of the American economy. … At the same time, the capaciousness of the Industrial Revolution led to the most bitter and bloody labor conflict among white workers in the developed world.”

As Warren pointed out, African-Americans were not the only group affected by lack of labor laws.

“[From] former slaves, [to] Chinese immigrants, to white workers, [to] all groups of workers … political institutions set the rules of the game of the economy and determined the opportunities for all groups of workers to organize and mobilize,” Warren said.

But as the industrial regime moved towards the mid-1960s, black workers quickly fell to the bottom once more. Although the New Deal legally created opportunities for all workers, Jim Crow laws and other compromises fought for by the South diminished the opportunities blacks had towards a job and a living wage, according to Warren.

“The New Deal social programs were a huge step forward for workers in this country,” Warren said. “But I need to point out that we know with the greatness of the New Deal, and New Deal policies, they were still racially exclusive, and racially discriminatory.”

Warren provided numerous charts showing the great economic discrepancies amongst poor, working class, middle class and wealthy Americans today. According to many of the charts, it was clear the top one percent’s income has greatly increased from the 1970s to today, whereas the middle and lower classes held steady incomes — incomes that did not grow with inflation.

According to Warren, “one in three Americans is essentially in poverty.”

“We [the U.S.] lead in poverty of children, where concentrated poverty means at least 30 percent of the neighborhood is impoverished,” Warren said.

Also, according to a chart created by Warren, after the last major recession, the U.S. lost more middle wage jobs overall, but the economy has only created low wage jobs since. Adding to this, Warren discussed the problem of Americans earning higher degrees compared to the number of jobs available to suit those higher levels.

“Sixteen of the top 20 fastest growing jobs right now require nothing more than a high school diploma,” Warren said. “We are creating an overeducated workforce.”

But Warren is hopeful for the future. Citing movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the group of young adults who voted for President Barack Obama twice, Warren believes today’s labor movements will grow and change the system.

“We have a great corpus of legislative and political victories of the last 20 years that I think have set the stage for an incredible breakthrough by the end of this decade for the labor movement at the national level,” Warren said. “That makes me very optimistic.”


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