MAGA and Our Lost Social Contract

Claudia Stack

It was a contract that was never extended to all Americans

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In Fall 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and before my breast cancer diagnosis, my husband and I were dealing with a different sad chapter of family life. My mother-in-law passed away after a long decline.

As often happens at these times, her death meant that core rituals of family life were unraveled. She saw that coming, and she fretted endlessly about who would take the massive, 1960s era dining room table around which we had often gathered.

I understood her worry to mean: Who would take the helm of family gatherings now? Without knowing that for sure, I still tried to comfort my mother-in-law by assuring her that the table would stay in the family.

She also told me that there was so much stored in the house that she didn’t even know what was there. Despite two moves since they had had retired, ultimately moving to be nearer to my family in southeastern North Carolina, the house still held enormous amounts of stuff.

Some of it had real family significance — the photos from the early 1900s, the china decorations made by an aunt — but much of it was the result of the Depression era generation’s impulse to save everything that might be useful at some future time.

While sorting, I found artifacts that marked developments, not just in their family life, but also in our country’s economic and social evolution. WW II ration books. Political buttons. VA paperwork.

Both of my in-laws were born during the Depression, and grew up during WW II. My mother-in-law’s parents were Italian immigrants, and she worked her way through college to become a nurse. Early in her career, she met a charismatic young man who had been badly injured in a motorcycle accident. As she nursed him back to health, their relationship grew, and they were married in 1960.

My father-in-law was slightly younger than his bride, and his Irish family had been established for a few more generations than hers. He grew up in relative comfort on Long Island. Meanwhile she, herself a child in 1942, was babysitting for her neighbor who worked in a munitions factory. She would care for the neighbor’s baby, and then come home and give all the money to her parents.

After a stint in the Army, my father-in-law went to work as a mechanic for Pan American World Airways. Founded in 1927 to fly mail between Florida and Cuba, in the decades that followed Pan Am dominated the era of American romance with world travel.

The couple moved to Valley Stream, Long Island. As their family grew, my mother-in-law worked night shifts at a small private hospital. She used to tell us about the strict uniform rules — high heels, starched cap — and expectations of that time. Nurses, not CNAs, bathed patients daily, fed them, and mixed hydrogen peroxide for wound cleaning.

The only time she defied an order was when her supervisor told her to stop walking home with an African American nurse who lived across the train tracks from my mother-in-law’s family. Troubled, she spoke to her father about the situation. Her father counseled her that the other nurse was also a child of God. They continued to walk home together.

My in-laws embodied a quintessential American story. Born of immigrant families, they worked hard, served in the military, raised their family, and belonged to church and civic organizations. They also believed in the social contract that their employers offered at that time. Pan Am and the hospital each offered benefits and a pension program.

The corporate American social contract was born of labor shortages during WW II and advances made by unions. However, the dream of a stable job with good benefits and a pension was often out of reach for African Americans and other people of color. Even for college educated African American workers today, a job with benefits remains elusive.

Systemic racial discrimination, including government-sanctioned redlining, have severely impacted the prospects and wealth of African American families. Even the largest wealth-building program in American history, the GI bill, was made unavailable to many African American GIs.

The bias continued into the private sector, where workers of European descent were more likely to obtain jobs with benefits. Rick Wartzman’s 2017 book The End of Loyalty explains that in the post WW II economy:

“Big businesses …took responsibility for providing their workers and retirees with an array of social benefits. At the height of the post-World War II economy, these companies also believed that worker pay needed to be kept high in order to preserve morale and keep the economy humming. Productivity boomed.”

These benefits added up to more than just healthcare and vacation time. They represented an ethos of a social contract, an underlying belief that caring for employees of at least the dominant social group was good for the whole enterprise.

For my in-laws, that mutual commitment would ultimately break down over the decades. After working in a high-stress position of crew chief, my father-in-law suffered heart attacks. Eventually, he required a heart transplant.

Forced into retirement for health reasons, my father-in-law and other Pan Am retirees learned that leading up to its bankruptcy in 1991, Pan Am had been underfunding its pension program for years. In 1991, Pan Am went bankrupt, the victim of shrinking international travel, key management errors, and the tragic 1988 bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Had it not been for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which was “created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to encourage the continuation and maintenance of private-sector defined benefit pension plans,” my father-in-law would have received nothing from his Pan Am pension. As it was, he got a fraction of what he was promised.

My mother-in-law fared even worse, as the corporate American social contract was broken down by 1980s deregulation and the ever-increasing focus on benefits to shareholders. She left nursing to care for her husband. Like his, her own work years had taken a toll, as she had sustained back injuries from lifting patients.

The small hospital where she had worked for decades was then sold several times in a series of acquisitions by larger hospitals. In the new corporate ethos that prized shareholder value above everything else, the old triangulation that had placed equal value on employee well-being and customer satisfaction collapsed.

In 2009, Jack Welch, "who in his tenure as CEO of GE from 1981 to 2001 was seen as the uber-hero of maximizing shareholder value… famously declared that shareholder value is “the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

The fate of my mother-in-law’s pension contributions became increasingly obscured with each acquisition, with one company always telling her that a different company was responsible for the pension obligations. She consulted advocacy groups, nursing groups, and lawyers, all to no avail.

While cleaning out her bureau, I found an accordion file. It was stuffed with years of her paystubs, and page upon page of notes written in her beautiful cursive. All testimony to her futile quest for the pension she had been promised.

To say this broken promise hurt my mother-in-law’s finances is obvious, but it also hurt her heart. She was of a generation that believed promises would be kept, that her hard work would be recognized. As the first person in her family to graduate college, it was an affront that her nursing pension could just melt away in the era of Enron-style accounting.

My father-in-law’s story was checkered with his health struggles, and would have been far worse without the intervention of key programs. I am thankful that the VA provided his healthcare. They kept their promise to him, but the VA has also been a bastion of institutional racism over the years.

Without Social Security, Medicare, and the VA, my in-laws would have been far worse off. Not homeless, perhaps, but lacking in medical care and income in retirement. It is notable that they paid into these systems for years and, unlike their private pensions, these programs kept their promise. Impressed by Trump’s 2016 promise to protect Social Security and Medicare, my mother-in-law supported him then.

Fast forward to 2020, and Trump campaigned on a promise to end the payroll tax, which would effectively bankrupt Social Security by 2023. Since it is apparent that Trump was willing to repudiate his promises to seniors who worked hard all of their lives, it is worth asking, what does the “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) slogan really mean?

My in-laws were robbed of their pensions by an American economy that evolved away from the idea of long-term commitment to workers. The biggest problem with the idea of a robust MAGA industrial economy, which few economists think could be re-created anyway, is that American business abandoned its commitment to the long term well-being of its workers.

Even if industrial jobs return, the 1950's era social contract would not return.

At first, the MAGA catchphrase may seem only to convey a nostalgia for the 1950s industrial jobs and social order that provided a ladder into the middle class. On closer examination, though, MAGA nostalgia is very problematic. The three most salient social features of that era were 1) universal public high school education (making the United States the most educated nation at the time), 2) the influence of unions, and 3) racial segregation.

Yet, looking at MAGA's leader, one can easily see that Trump is hostile to organized labor and laws that protect workers, so it is evident that he does not value the role that unions played in American economic growth. With regard to education, Trump has often voiced hostility to public schools, and his administration has worked to divert funding from public schools into private and religious schools.

What part then, exactly, is left to MAGA nostalgia? Only systemic racial injustice. That was confirmed when Trump told white supremacists to “stand by” during the first presidential debate of 2020.

My in-laws were dismayed by the betrayals that cost them their pensions, but they never lost their commitment to family and neighbors. My father-in-law passed away fifteen years ago, remembered for his generosity and sense of humor.

After his death, my mother-in-law continued to give to her community. She tutored at an historic African American school, so I saw my interest in documenting African American education heritage converge with her Christian actions. She also made meals for homebound neighbors, and taught Sunday school classes.

My mother-in-law was increasingly distressed by the racial division that Trump sows. Over the past four years it has become crystal clear that Trump, MAGA's hero, is hostile to worker protections and public education. The only principle from the 1950s that MAGA leaves intact is racial discrimination. Yet, as my mother-in-law said, our African American neighbors are also children of God.

We need a new social contract, one that truly extends opportunity and healthcare to all.

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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