Subverting the system to help others

Marketplace Staff Jan 29, 2010

Subverting the system to help others

Marketplace Staff Jan 29, 2010


TESS VIGELAND: Are you a teacher who’s bought school supplies — or maybe even lunch — for a needy student? Or maybe you’re a home health care assistant who fudged a line or two on an insurance form for a patient with little money. If you’ve done something like that in your workplace for a struggling employee, you’re part of what Lisa Dodson calls the “Moral Underground.” Dodson is a sociologist at Boston College. And she’s written a new book about people who defy the policies of their employers, and, often, the “system,” to help low-wage workers, their families, and others who have trouble making ends meet.

Lisa, thanks for joining us.

Lisa Dodson: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

Vigeland: Who is the “moral underground”? What kind of people are we talking about here?

Dodson: Well, the moral underground is really a response to an economy that’s just become so unfair that people, not only low-income people, but also middle-income people face these moments, when they just feel they have to make decisions and some of those mean that you just have to break the rules. And in a sense, you’re joining an underground.

Vigeland: Let’s give folks a couple of examples of people who are in this moral underground that you describe. An early example in the book is Andrew. Tell us what he did and how that could apply to others.

Dodson: Well, Andrew worked in the food industry, and he recognized that some of the people working for him work very hard, and yet, they go home at the end of the week, and they don’t have enough money to feed their own children. He began to see his role in that — not only because he handed out a check that was so small, but he also was supposed to punish parents if they weren’t fulfilling all of their obligations as workers. And he told me that he padded paychecks; he would use overtime rates. So he quite literally was making a little, I think of it as a little market adjustment of his own, because they were people who weren’t getting by on what they’re being paid.

Vigeland: All right Let’s give another example, I remember Bea. Tell us what happened there.

Dodson: Well, Bea was a manager in a large, big box business. She had a number of people working for her for quite some time and one was a woman named Nancy. She knew that Nancy had a daughter, Edy, who was planning to go to the prom. And she realized that Nancy was not going to be able to buy a prom dress for her daughter. She couldn’t, because they simply didn’t have enough money in the family — based on the wages as Bea saw it, that she was handing out to them, not wages she set, but she felt she was very much part of that chain. And so she hesitated at first and then she told me that prom dresses often get over-ordered, some of them are returned. And she said that one managed to find its way into Nancy’s hands, and Edy wore it on the prom night, and she told me that Edy knocked them dead.

Vigeland: Now one thing that she says to you is, “I couldn’t help but feeling I was almost to blame, or partly.” But as you noted, she doesn’t own the store, she doesn’t set the wages, she is not responsible for what’s happening to this employee. But I suppose here is where you get to the argument of morality.

Dodson: There are some people who look beyond the rule or the standard or the work schedule, and they consider it their responsibility to recognize the humanity in this person, who isn’t making enough money to get by and see themselves as, in some way, implicated, unless they do take a stand.

Vigeland: You also encountered plenty of bosses, administrators who didn’t see any of this as a necessity. If their employees were absent to take care of their kids, or they didn’t have transportation, that was pretty much put on the employee as having a bad work ethic. What do you think of that argument that it’s personal responsibility?

Dodson: Well, I found in talking to people who were working hard at low-wage jobs, personal responsibility was an issue of great concern to them. And in fact, they were doing what they were supposed to do; they were doing the jobs of the nation. And in fact, a number of employers that I interviewed said that they really didn’t see what else these working families could do; they were doing everything right. The issue really becomes, not only a work ethic, but also a wage ethic. Is it an ethical structure of our wages when people are doing jobs of the nation and raising their families, and they literally can’t make ends meet every month.

Vigeland: Isn’t there a risk, though, that they perpetuate the current system by kind of patching things up at the individual level?

Dodson: I want to really emphasize that the acts that I recorded could not possibly make up for the gap between what we pay millions of our families, working families and what they need.

Vigeland: Sure.

Dodson: I also know that these acts, in it of themselves, are just not going to make the difference. They need to be part of a much larger force, much bigger change. I think one of my main motivations for writing this book was when I came upon this and I came upon it in so many different places, I thought that it was a story that has not been told about the American character. And you know, it really recalls our very best American history, when people look at what’s going on around them — and in this case, issues of economic justice and make the decision that they are going to step up in their own way. In order to make change, there has to be much more than that, but we really need these people for that to every happen.

Vigeland: Lisa Dodson is author of “The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy.” Thank you so much.

Dodson: Thank you very much, Tess. I enjoyed it.

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