The term “underground economy” typically suggests something irregular, perhaps even shady or illegal.
But in a piece for Yes! magazine (link here) drawn from her recent book The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy (2010), Boston College sociologist Lisa Dodson writes of everyday Americans who are bending or breaking the rules, fueling a “moral underground economy” to help others in need.
Class bonding, not class warfare
In researching her book, Dodson realized that she had stumbled onto an interesting phenomenon, that of middle-class people — such as mid-level managers at retail shops and local businesses — empathizing with their lower-paid co-workers and finding ways to help them out:
They found a little opening, a little chink in the system, and used it to treat working people better. Even if they had to break company rules, they were determined to treat people as though their survival mattered in a business environment that valued nothing but bottom-line profitability.
She heard stories such as these:
- “Bea” is a big-box chain store manager who somehow ordered an “extra” prom dress for an employee who couldn’t afford to buy her daughter a prom dress.
- “Andrew” is a manager for a food company who finds ways to pad the modest paychecks of his workers and gives them food to take home.
- “Ned” is a grocery store worker who “detours some of the ‘product’ that doesn’t quite pass muster—dented cans, not-quite-fresh produce—to his low-wage employees.”
Going underground to survive
Of course, the very term underground economy often obscures the real motivation for working off the books or bending the rules to help people who are struggling to make ends meet: Good jobs at decent wages are in terribly short supply, and available public assistance doesn’t bridge the gaps.
The upshot of Dodson’s examination is that in a nation where minimum wage laws do not mandate a living wage, where public assistance is inadequate, and where the gap between the most and least fortunate continues to grow wider and deeper, practicing simple morality becomes a form of humanitarian civil disobedience.
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