Declining fortunes (WUIS Radio)

By Muareen Foertsch McKinney

When Jorge Chapa was a student at the University of Chicago, he had a lab job collecting brain samples from a meatpacking plant. That’s how, in 1974, he became familiar with the industry and its bloody and backbreaking disassembly line. He revisited meatpacking 30 years later, as a sociologist. This time he analyzed it for a study showing how the once high-paying job had slid from providing a middle-class living into one paying minimum wage.

Fast forward another decade, and meet Gloria Davis, a Chicago meatpacker who testified on minimum wage before a state Senate committee in November. Her job, which pays $8.25 an hour, doesn’t even provide enough income for her to have a home. By the time she pays for transportation and other essentials, she told senators, there is no money left for rent, and certainly not savings. She has bounced from shelter to shelter. Of other low-income workers, she told the senators, “We’re out here, and we are drowning.”

In stark contrast, when Chapa, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor, was first exposed to meatpackers, he says, they earned good benefits and $17 an hour. “They went home to a nice house, two cars and could afford to send their kids to college.” In 2004 terms, when Chapa did his study, that translated to about $65-$70 an hour, about 10 times what they actually earned in 2004.

What’s happened to salaries in meatpacking is analogous to the state of the middle class: It is shrinking. Middle-class status is harder to achieve because pay — especially for jobs that don’t require higher education — has declined, and college costs have soared. While employment is up in the aftermath of the Great Recession, experts like Chapa say salaries have not returned to 2007 levels. And the whole dreary picture is especially bleak for racial minority groups.

“I would certainly say the folks in the middle are shrinking, and what we are seeing is a larger gathering of low-income or very low-income individual workers and then those at the top,’’ says the Woodstock Institute’s policy director Courtney Eccles. “We really tend to focus on not just the different income but the difference in wealth, which is one thing that contributes to the shrinking of the middle class, this idea that wealth inequality is growing and becoming a really serious problem,” says Eccles, whose Chicago-based organization homes in on economic issues affecting lower income Illinoisans, particularly those in the Chicago metropolitan region.

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