Talking class division on ‘Dig Deep’

Trump Tower in Chicago. (PHOTO: Richard Cox, Flickr CC)

When I was 24 and attending grad school, I watched every episode of Donald Trump’s first season of “The Apprentice.” The show was on during one of the few nights of the week that my wife and I could watch TV together. We watched every episode in real time, pre-DVR. The act wore thin in later seasons, but the first run was a marvelous spectacle.

In fact, I remember loving that dang show, from the thumping bass of “Money, Money, Money” as Trump got off the airplane in the opener to the firing at the end. I was just another American investing myself in the false reality of Trump and the contestants. Just like “Survivor” and “American Idol,” the early seasons of modern reality TV truly seemed like something new and exciting: the glory of a puppet show before you knew there were strings.

But I also specifically recall something the winner of that first season, Bill Rancic, said after Trump hired him to “oversee” the construction of the Trump Tower project in Chicago. Rancic referred to the experience as an opportunity to create “generational wealth” for his family.

After living in a world where the “American Dream” meant that maybe a poor kid could be prosperous, I was confronted with a new Dream. Maybe, just maybe, an upper middle class kid could get so rich that none of his descendants would have to do anything but maintain a fortune.

This was a dynamic I had already struggled with after I left home at age 18. I fled a world of Iron Range trailer houses, where my family screened calls to stave off debt collectors, for the opportunity to work my way through college with a job, federal grants, and the belief that merit mattered most.

But just a few weeks in the real world showed that merit was a top-five commodity, to be sure, but not always what ruled the day. What mattered most? In a word, “class.” As you start life, you are who you know, what you parents know, and what you can afford. All of that comes from your class.

I think I’ve done well for myself. But to say that everyone could do what I did just isn’t true. Nearly all the opportunities that propelled my path up the mountain are either gone or spread more thinly now. And even when I was making the trek, many others were laid low. Good communities can help individuals overcome class. I think the Iron Range was such a community when I was growing up. But that was when this region and many like it identified with class mobility, a hope that many have now lost.

We hear *about* social and economic class all the time. “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” Or, if you prefer, “the poor are living off the government, taking from people who work hard.”

But if you dive into what class is, where it came from and whether or not our current class system is fair — well, you’re submerging into dangerous waters. The United States of America was founded on a profound division of economic class, but managed to brand itself on the notion that these entrenched classes didn’t matter. Throw in the wickedness of slavery and its continuing racial division, how slavery was used to enrich the already rich white population and pacify the poor white population. Well, I can practically hear your hackles rising from here.

And the darnedest thing is how we still manage to lunge and lurch for the promised land, occasionally imaging a world where our economic class can be molded by work and education. It’s like watching waves crash into the rocks. The waves are going to win, but will we last long enough to see it? Will we live and share the benefits, or will we forever be the example of how idealism can fail?

The American Dream is __________ (fill in the blank).

On the Northern Community Radio podcast “Dig Deep,” my colleague Chuck Marohn and I dove into the topic of “Class” for this months series. The first part ran Monday, while the second runs Wednesday at 8:10 a.m. The conclusion airs Friday morning at 8:10. You can listen to the archives of these and all our past episodes here.

We start by talking about the history of class in America and here in Northern Minnesota. We then break into discussion about how class functions in our daily lives and what might be done about class division going forward. “Dig Deep,” produced by Heidi Holtan, labels me as the liberal commentator and Chuck as the conservative. Our goal in the show, however, isn’t to argue, but to hash out areas of potential collaboration and compromise. Perhaps you’ll enjoy this one.


  1. Not sure how I missed the Dig Deep podcast, but I’m definitely going to check it out!

  2. I’m intrigued by this and believe what you are saying about class in America. Guess I better dig into the archives.

  3. Aaron,
    Your article was very impressive and straight to the point. I related to all of your points.
    My family grew up on Lake Vermilion. We were poor but found numerous generous friends of my parents who were kind and generous. One of our family friends Beanie Zupanich was the grocer in Tower. I cannot imagine how many dollars in groceries he donated to my mother to feed six children. His kindness and generosity of the people I grew up with formed my life. My siblings and I have all lived productive lives away from the Iron Range, but every visit to my cabin makes me think of all the generous people I encountered during my life there.
    I have never forgotten the kindness, generosity and kindness of the people who formed my life- Lake Vermilion, Tower and the Iron Range Values.

  4. “I think I’ve done well for myself. But to say that everyone could do what I did just isn’t true. Nearly all the opportunities that propelled my path up the mountain are either gone or spread more thinly now.” – With this fatalistic attitude, no sense reading further. He lies, history alone proves him wrong.

    • Once again, the word “lie” used to describe a disagreement, rather than a matter of fact. Fact: the school I attended no longer offers advanced classes that I took then. Teachers have less time to counsel kids whose parents don’t know the ins and outs of being a good student, applying for scholarships or going to college. There are no guidance counselors in most cases. The job where I learned my trade in high school no longer exists for young people like me due to automation. The way I paid for college with grants and work is no longer viable due to budget cuts and rising costs. My first post-college job would not be available to me now because of changes in the industry, also automation. Fatalism would be resigning myself to this new reality becoming permanent. I do not.

      • One at a time Aaron:

        1) Advanced placement classes? There are all kinds of on-line and direct advance placement classes today. You obviously haven’t heard of Postsecondary Enrollment Option (PSEO). A wonderful program for senior high students that allows students to earn college credit while still in high school. PLUS, Postsecondary institutions are not allowed to charge PSEO students for tuition, textbooks or support services. Students may take PSEO courses on a full- or part-time basis.
        2) Automation? Automation has created far more jobs than it’s eliminated. In the 1800s it was the Luddites smashing weaving machines. These days retail staff worry about automatic checkouts. Sooner or later taxi drivers will be fretting over self-driving cars. The battle between man and machines goes back centuries. Are they taking our jobs? Or are they merely easing our workload? A study by economists at the consultancy Deloitte has shed new light on the relationship between jobs and the rise of technology by trawling through census data going back to 1871. Their conclusion is unremittingly cheerful: rather than destroying jobs, technology has been a “great job-creating machine”.
        3) Counseling? From time immemorial, parents and their kids have had differing levels of discussion on what the parents think their kids should do for a living. Just the way it should be. High schools (and high school teachers) first and foremost purpose is to teach the basics. If they’re any kind of educator at all, they inherently counsel kids as part of their daily job. Formal counselors are luxury/unnecessary.
        4) High college costs? Get the government out of the student loan business and watch college costs drop.

        Fact: Opportunities today are much greater than in the past.

  5. Bob, you do understand this is my field, right?
    I teach online community college classes and am well aware of several high school online options. And you know what, for certain students in certain situations they work great. But for low income families with less familiarity with the paperwork, the technology and lacking the economic means to get proper equipment it’s not a solution. Not at all. Heck, if you’re behind on reading, it’s not even remotely an option.
    PSEO — I could have done PSEO but didn’t. Had there not been college in the schools I might have. If college was as expensive then as it is now I certainly would have. But I had good grades. By design, not every student can take PSEO. Further, not everyone has an extra car and the ability to get to the college and the high school. PSEO is a good program (the numbers are growing constantly because of college costs and weakening high school curriculum) but as a solution to a class-based educational problem, no.
    Automation? Automation creates jobs? No. That’s so false I can only perceive this comment as an idiotic misfire of partisan dogma. Automation *improves productivity.* Which is different! Companies can profit from productivity, but what that does to workers is a secondary concern. Moving toward automated workforces might raise wages for the shrinking pool of more highly trained employees, but it leaves the rest in the massive pools of service workers and independent contractors that mark our modern economy. Wages stagnant. Fewer entry level jobs. Talk to ANYONE between the ages of 22-34 right now. Easier to break into fields? Not at all.
    Counseling — As I wrote, again to repeat, parents have different levels of knowledge about college preparation. Do teachers help? Absolutely! But the amount of expectations on teachers — regarding testing, social services, and curriculum timelines are so high. I know dozens of teachers and they all want more time with their students for stuff like this, but don’t have it. I had a counselor helping make sure my applications for scholarships and colleges were in order. I would have figured out how to go to college, perhaps, because I was highly motivated, but many others might not have. In any event, post-secondary counseling is thin to nonexistent in most rural schools now. It’s all social work.

    I’m not going to get into banking with you, but private student loans are ALWAYS more expensive to the student. Legacy debt is weighing down an entire generation going on two generations.

    I think we, as a people, are slightly better off than we were a generation ago — more money in the economy in general. But more opportunities? We have lower wages adjusted for inflation and it’s harder, much harder to CHANGE your social class. I could go on and on, but this is all I have to say for now. I’m off to work with students who are trying to do something with their lives.

    • Obviously, Aaron’s grasp of what is happening in education, including loans and opportunities, especially for kids who are not total self-starters (or being kick started by very involved parents with sophisticated ideas about what is happening) is pretty much spot on, since as he says he works with that every day.

      Automation is an interesting issue. It has certainly had a strongly negative affect on entry level jobs. It has replaced 4 to 5 million jobs in manufacturing alone, accounting for a considerably larger part of loss of manufacturing jobs than loss of jobs overseas (which in and of itself is often related to automation in overseas plants.) However, at the same time, as Aaron says, it has allowed the US to increase manufacturing output — now at an all time high — while shedding 7 to 8 million jobs.

      For people who have higher level skills, R-47 is right. There are more technical jobs than ever, and they pay better than ever.

      However, the magic door to those jobs is math skills that allow pursuit of higher level skills, and there we are having significant trouble. Math performance by US high school grads is among the worst in the developed world, and here in Northeastern MN we are certainly seeing that trend. Pass rates on high school math competency tests in this area are regularly in the 50% or lower range. More than half our students are being left behind. That is not to say that good students cannot get a good math education in our schools, so that people like Aaron, R-47, and me, and our children and grandchildren, are going to do fine. It is others who are left behind, some of them children of color, but up here mostly white kids.

      All this leads to the persistent demand by management in many tech heavy industries for opening the gates for more immigration, especially from East and Southwest Asia.

      It is interesting to note that the exact same thing is happening in mining. Mining jobs have been and are being rapidly replaced by automation and technical advances, with job losses even greater than that being seen in manufacturing. The drop from mid five figures to low four figures in the number of mining jobs at peak employment on the Range is due partly to decreased demand for the local product, but mostly to automation.

      Because of issues related go education (and to some extent substance abuse,) it is hard for many companies to fill their needs for technically trained workers from available native born workers in many parts of the country. During the peak of employment in the mines during the boom in demand in the early part of this decade the mines simply could not find enough qualified workers among Range inhabitants to fill all the jobs, and people came in from elsewhere. Many of them have returned to where they came from during the downturn.

      If we do get the new non-ferrous mines up, this will be more pronounced even still, since they will use the most sophisticated and advanced new technology. It is highly likely that the long term number of employees will be much lower than the estimates the industry is touting, mostly calculated nearly ten years ago.

      If course, In Aaron’s field (journalism) the problem is even greater, since tech changes have hit the industry particularly hard in the income (advertising) end while decreasing the amount of work needed to edit and compose output. There is actually some uptick in the demand for skilled journalists, but many of the jobs are freelance, with low pay, no benefits, and demand for very long hours to keep on top of trending news. The days when a journalist working full time could raise a daughter and put her through school and law school on her way to becoming a US Senator are behind us.

      • You are spot on.

        In my opinion, the issues with jobs, class, and education feed on themselves. I have family that are teachers and they see many parents who can’t handle the new curriculum and take the attitude that they didn’t need it so their kids don’t either. Or parents that are not around enough to push their kids to do what is needed to succeed because they are either working lots to pay the bills or they are busy not being parents.

        I hope that my children will continue to be successful, but I know that part of it is because of the advantages in resources, time, and advice on what is happening in job trends that I am able to give them now.

    • Aaron, I am sure we can learn a great deal from Ranger about PSOE since this became an open and free option when we were in high school if I recall correctly. And we don’t know anything about the education systems.

      Like you, I owe a great deal to our guidance counselor. He had us do prep work for ACT/SAT testing that teachers didn’t have the time to encourage us to do. And he was the one that recommended my alma mater after I had been looking at and considering a number of colleges.

      • One thing I should add to my previous comments is that the well-paying jobs in technical fields do not exist everywhere. In particular, they don’t exist in most areas like the Range, which lacks much of a base in technical fields. People from this area looking for that sort of work need to move to the Twin Cities or further. Aaron’s consistent complaints about poor internet access in the area relate to one attempt to address that problem, but mostly we are stuck. The combination of he disappearance of non-technical jobs in all fields other than low wage service jobs, the inevitable disappearance of extraction industries as resources are exhausted and the high volatility of jobs in extraction in the meantime, and the lack of opportunity in technical fields makes Northeastern Minnesota an area headed toward gradual and inevitable decline, badly in need of some important change, but with that change not visible a this time. That makes Aaron’s glum picture realistic.

  6. Great discussion. Thank you.

  7. Mike Worcester says

    Wow am I late to this ball but here it goes — Recently read White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Excellent work even it if gets a bit centered on the states of the former Confederacy. Class is one of those issues that definitely gets ignored in most high school, and college, history courses. Am just finishing Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else In The Dust. (Why do I read books with such long titles?) The latter was written by a native Brit who addresses the contrast between how his original and adoptive homes approach the issue of class.

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