The Roots of America’s Wealth Inequality in the Service Industry

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Class of 2023 Fellow Albert Samaha is an investigative journalist whose latest project focuses on service workers. In this extended Q&A from The Fifth Draft — the National Fellows Program’s newsletter featuring exclusive content about and from our Fellows — Samaha gave us insight into his forthcoming project examining the roots of wealth inequality, what inspired his work, and how he gains the trust of his subjects. Sign up for The Fifth Draft to hear how the world’s best storytellers find ideas that change the world.

Economic insecurity and labor rights have long been an issue in American society. What about this current moment makes this project especially pressing?

What inspired my initial interest in this project was the realization that a growing share of people in the world’s richest country work full-time jobs for some of the world’s richest companies and yet are still unable to pay for basic needs — even as corporate executive compensation continues to rise. For many of the service workers I’ve spoken to, the “American Dream” no longer represents upward mobility but merely the chance to make ends meet. Many of them, like me, grew up in the ’90s and came of age in the 2000s, a period of U.S. geopolitical dominance when it seemed like whatever disparities existed, the country was working toward more equality and paths toward upward mobility were expanding. But the economic crises of the last decade or so — from the housing crash to the pandemic contraction — disabused a lot of people of that notion by showing that our economic system is designed to protect wealth without offering sufficient support to those in the bottom half of the income spectrum. Disillusioned by a system rigged against them and abandoned by powerful institutions at every turn, they have had to find their own ways to survive, stretching thin the community support systems that emerged to patch the holes in the country’s tattered social safety net. I wanted to explore how people navigate a system that they have lost faith in but cannot escape.

You began your reporting for this book with coverage of Amazon warehouses beginning in early 2019, which preceded the start of the pandemic. How did the pandemic affect your reporting and your book’s direction? What changes have you seen in public opinion and policy regarding essential workers since that time?

The pandemic initially seemed to spark a paradigm shift. Service workers were deemed “essential,” recognized for the critical role they played in keeping our country running. Companies offered “hero pay” raises. The government bolstered unemployment benefits and provided rental assistance. Many people quit their jobs, preferring to opt out of working conditions that left them exposed to infection on the front lines, leaving the remaining workers with more negotiating leverage. Yet as the country reverted back to a sense of relative normalcy, it soon became clear that the fundamental labor and economic conditions weren’t changing anytime soon. What had changed, though, was that a growing population of service workers were no longer willing to put up with the old ways. Thousands of longtime service workers went on strike for the first time or joined organizing movements, radicalized by the realization that not even a cataclysm as severe as the pandemic could spur the lasting policies they needed to escape a cycle of precarity. To me, the pandemic exposed how intractable our economic disparities had become. That hopelessness was the starting point for my book idea but not the driving force — I didn’t envision this book dwelling in struggle but instead aim to chronicle the ways people are exercising their agency to push back against forces blocking their paths to comfort.

In your work, personal stories play a major role in unpacking the larger issues around labor and industry. Why is it important to include these stories, and how do you gain the trust of your sources?

Exploring big-picture concepts through specific people allows me to cut through any preconceived assumptions or ideologies readers might hold by grounding the story in human experiences that feel universally relatable. No matter a reader’s financial status, I think everyone can understand a person’s fundamental desire to provide for their family, and if a reader connects with a character in the book, I think it can help simplify complicated policy issues into concrete circumstances and outcomes. Of course, that means being able to report on the intimate details of a person’s life. For me, gaining that trust requires, above all, listening. I want to avoid projecting my own assumptions and present these stories as my sources experience them, without shoehorning them to seem more representative than they actually are. Everybody’s experience is unique. I try to enter these source relationships without any sense of entitlement to their time — they’re the ones doing me a favor by talking to me, not the other way around, and I always want to make clear my appreciation for their generosity in sharing their stories.

As the Inequality Editor for BuzzFeed News, you oversee reporting on a wide range of inequities, both domestic and international. What attracted you to reporting on labor and essential workers specifically?

Economic inequality is one of the most deeply embedded and universal problems of our time, and the shape it takes today traces to historical forces that I have reported on for years from other angles. I came to labor issues by way of racism and colonialism, the fundamental factors at the root of the wealth divide in the U.S. and around the world. As I considered how to report on the legacy of imperial oppression, I found that all roads led to the ongoing battle between those seeking to protect old wealth and those seeking to access opportunities to build new wealth. That tension most explicitly manifests in the experiences of service workers, who are disproportionately descendants of colonized or enslaved people.

Your project challenges the supremacy of free enterprise. Given the many American ideals that uphold our current economic system, how can we begin to have a more informed and honest public conversation to challenge these long-held beliefs?

I think that discussion starts by looking beyond American mythology and acknowledging the real engines powering the country’s ascension to world superpower. Our capitalist hegemony traces back to pillaging land through genocide and accumulating wealth through slavery. U.S. economic success in the 20th century wasn’t a vindication of free market principles but the result of specific conditions in the wake of the Great Depression and two world wars, which sparked an unprecedented redistribution of wealth through government programs that have since eroded over the last four decades. Immigrants from the Global South came here not just because our mythology promoted America as a promised land filled with opportunities, but because the U.S. and other powerful Western nations devastated their homelands with exploitative imperial interventions and occupations. America has never been a meritocracy for all, and the oppressions of the past have left a lasting impact that can’t be eroded without sweeping policies aimed at balancing scales that have been tilted ever since Columbus crossed the ocean. That means an honest accounting of the costs of our American comforts.