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SMALL BUSINESS NATION


By Mark Naison | Fordham University


Wednesday, April 13, 2011.

Before he moved away after a bitter divorce, I had many an interesting conversation about politics with my Long Island neighbor John, a union carpenter and life time “Bonacker” (resident of the East End of Long Island). A tough navy veteran with a crew cut who still, in his mid fifties, looked in fighting trim, John would stop by every time he saw I was in and hold forth on all his pet peeves--which were many--while we went through the beer in my refrigerator. Among his favorite targets were politicians, the government, his wife’s relatives, rich people in the Hamptons, and lawyers and insurance companies. John was still raging that he had never collected any money from an accident he had several when he fell off a roof during his home repair job, an accident that had left him with chronic back pain.

Nevertheless, John continued to do “side jobs” on the weekends, ranging from painting houses to repairing fences, because his salary at the lumber yard couldn’t pay for the “extras” in his life, ranging from fishing trips, to family vacations, to his daughters acting and dance classes. He was tired, angry, hard pressed, glad he had me he could vent with, a need that became even greater when he discovered his wife was cheating on him. Since he moved out just before the 2008 election, I never had chance to explore his attitudes about the Obama Presidency, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, like one of my other LI neighbors, a postal worker, he became a supporter of the Tea Party.

A glimpse at John’s life suggests why it is a perilous venture to look at Tea Party affiliation strictly as an example of false consciousness, of people voting against their own interests. While the Tea Party movement was funded and has been supported by powerful corporate interests, its popularity was not manufactured. It’s anti-government, anti-tax message has struck a powerful chord with millions of white middle class and working class people who feel embattled and pushed to the edge and whose identify with business, rather than labor, because small scale entrepreneurship is the only thing that stands between them and poverty.

To understand this, you have to get to know people in small town and suburban America and see how they patch together income. As real wages have stagnated during the last thirty years, more and more people have depended on performing “side jobs” as independent contractors to maintain a middle class standard of living. They drive cabs, paint houses, do child care, fix computers, teach golf, take people on fishing trips, exploring whatever “niche” in the local economy allows them to make extra income.

Some jobs they take –bartending, waitressing- involve working for others, but more and more people create their own one or two person businesses to bring in needed income.

This is the hidden side of the “Wal Martization” of America. We all know of how people have used credit card debt and second mortgages on their homes to finance middle class levels of consumption, but what is less known is how many people have developed small “side businesses” to supplement their main jobs. If John is any example, the stress and risk associated with this can be pretty high and the margin for error quite small.

Given this, is it any surprise that people who run small individual businesses see any tax increase as a threat to their livelihood, and are deeply resentful of government workers who have job security, pensions and an income that can support them, starting a business on the side?

How else do you explain the huge Republican votes in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, states whose economies once featured auto plants and steel mills and now have more jobs in Wall Mart, Auto Zone and McDonalds than factories. Small individual business, along with consumer credit, have been the only ways working people have maintained a decent standard of living, and they see government as more an enemy than an aid in that effort.

Beneath all the racism, and the voodoo economics in the Tea Party movement, there is genuine desperation, and a cry for help. Until we address the causes of economic insecurity in their lives, progressive politics in America may be stalled for a generation.

***
With thanks to New Black Man.

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book White Boy: A Memoir, published in the Spring of 2002.

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