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Americans Will Bend the Rules to Help Working Poor, says Boston College Sociologist in New Book


CHESTNUT HILL, MA (2-19-10) – When middle-class Americans witness the effects of an unjust economy, they find ways— including bending or breaking the rules – to make things a bit more fair, says Boston College sociologist Lisa Dodson, author of the new book, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy (The New Press, December 2009).

In researching The Moral Underground, Dodson found that the popular perception of greedy Americans looking out only for themselves simply didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Americans she interviewed cared about fairness, about doing things that were moral and right even if they were not necessarily in keeping with the rules — ideals hearkening back to the founding of this country, she says.

Moral Underground reveals a middle-class America that practices economic disobedience in the name of justice, where people act outside regulations to even out the playing field for the working poor they encounter on a daily basis.

Lisa Dodson
   Lisa Dodson

"This is not a mobilized or intentionally organized underground, rather an array of secret and sometimes illicit ways people push back against unfairness. They revise work schedules, alter health-insurance forms, detour resources to hungry families, pad paychecks," wrote Dodson.

A theme of fairness permeates Moral Underground, Dodson’s comprehensive study of what she calls the economic fault line. On one side of the line, she explains, are middle-class Americans working and making enough of a living to cover their needs. On the other side are Americans working equally hard, but earning wages that do not enable them to keep their families safe and healthy. This is not an insignificant population. According to Dodson, 30 million children in the US are living in low-income families, most of which are working families.

The hundreds of people she interviewed across the country from Maine to New Mexico included nurses, doctors, teachers and managers, all of whom had close interactions with low-income wage earners — their employees, patients or parents of their students.

There is Andrew, a manager in a large food business in the Midwest, who pads his employees’ paychecks by punching them out on time even though they left early for a doctor's appointment and routinely gives his employees food to take home.

There is Cora, a manager of an upscale restaurant on the East Coast, who goes against corporate policy by letting her employees' children eat at the restaurant. She allows her workers to set their own schedules so they can cover for each other if one needs to run out to transport a child from school to daycare. Because this is against the rules, she has developed two sets of time sheets: one that is submitted to headquarters and one reflecting the actual schedule.

Cora tells Dodson she would be fired "in a heartbeat" if her system was uncovered by the corporate office, but "I couldn't go along with their rules. I thought a lot about it at first, you know, worried that I was lying. ... It's my name that goes on the [employer records]. Basically I decided that helping women meet their kids or do what they have to do is more important."

Like Andrew and Cora, the people in Moral Underground who subverted the system, "were saying 'I care more about you than the rules,'" says Dodson.

The ironic thing, notes Dodson, is that Cora's restaurant has low turnover and a loyal work force, but she cannot share her secret with other managers in the restaurant chain.

Those who chose to help the low-income workers had two things in common, says Dodson. First, their day-to-day life brought them in close proximity to the working poor. "They could see the chaos it created in their lives and they empathized," she says.

The second commonality was that their actions were spurred by a sense of social responsibility, "a feeling that you shouldn't be out there just for yourself," says Dodson.

Dodson says it was interesting that people got this sense of social responsibility from various sources. For some, it was from their faith. For others, it came from the experiences of their immigrant parents.

In fact, notes Dodson, the "ordinary Americans" she profiles were very diverse — some were liberals, others were socially conservative, and still others were apolitical. Some were religious, others were not. They were young and old, she adds.

"The major motivation in writing [Moral Underground] was so we could remember who we are as a people. There is a common ground in America where we believe in fairness. I hope this book shines a light on it and reclaims it."


--Kathleen Sullivan, Boston College Office of News & Public Affairs,