Canadian Journal of Sociology Online January - February 2000

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Margaret K. Nelson and Joan Smith.
Working Hard and Making Do: Surviving in Small Town America.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999, 279 pp. $US 16.95 paper (0520215753) $US 45.00 cloth (0520215745).

This book is about the survival strategies adopted by rural American families in the context of the economic restructuring that has characterized the U.S. domestic economy for the past two decades – what some sociologists have termed a post-fordist economy. This economic restructuring has brought with it a shift toward a service-based economy that gave way to downsizing, de-industrialization, closure, outsourcing, and restructuring. According to the authors, the latter may have a most disastrous, if subtle, impact on rural families, as it means that companies that stayed in business ceased to offer their employees promotions, wage increases, and other benefits. In addition, restructured companies are no longer hiring permanent staff. Rather, they tend to hire workers on a temporary basis. Consequently, work relies more and more on the contracts that the company can get. Employees in all sectors of the economy, including manufacturing companies, have become service-providers. Furthermore, these economic changes give rise to the “homework economy”: through subcontracting, the place of work is shifting to the home, putting an extra constraint on family life. No more is the home a safe haven from the exigencies of work and politics. With the homework economy, the solidarity that can emerge between workers is short-circuited.

Starting from these facts, the authors assert that the new economy has exacerbated the gap between good job households and bad job households. Bad job households are characterized by low-wages, sub-contracting, part-time employment and last but not least, no benefits. These bring uncertainty and hardship to households that struggle to maintain a standard of living through one or more survival strategies.

To draw a picture of these strategies, the authors have interviewed some 117 individuals in 81 households. On methodological grounds, the authors chose to restrict their research subjects to two-parent heterosexual families with children in order to eliminate too great disparities in household types. They chose Coolidge County, Vermont, as their community of inquiry because its small size made it easier to see how families struggle to overcome the hardships of economic changes.

Among the survival strategies identified by the authors we find the dual-earner strategy, moonlighting, self-provisioning and non-monetary inter-household exchanges (barter, informal exchange, reduced rates, etc). But in order to use these strategies households must have job security, or at least some kind of stability, and control over time. Surprisingly, the biggest users of the informal economy are the good job households. They rely on these unofficial economic activities to maintain the same standard of living as in the sixties and early seventies.

In the same vein, the authors found that bad job households are in a situation where they cannot even manage their own time to do moonlighting or other such activities, because their status requires them to be waiting for a phone call. In other words, Nelson and Smith found that the exclusion from the formal economy brings exclusion from the informal economy as well. The crisis also penetrates the structure of bad job households, causing the gender gap within them to increase. The man who used to be the breadwinner feels he must find a scapegoat and the nearest at hand turns out, not too surprisingly, to be his wife. This leads the authors to observe that bad job households refer also to their inability to transcend traditional gendered organization of values, leaving women little room to manoeuver:

“… in bad job households, husbands especially but also wives try to reproduce gendered expectations of themselves in the face of objective conditions that make those expectations all but impossible to meet. The result is despair. In short, what we found missing was not “family values” but the ability to rise to the standards those values imply” (154).

Chapter five shows that gender struggle is more ferocious in times of hardship and economic uncertainty, as men who lose their position as house-provider tend to diminish or denigrate the economic efforts of their wives who try to make ends meet.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the perception by workers of job security and their employers in times of economic restructuring. The interviews showed that good job workers are more concerned about how to better protect themselves individually rather than collectively. Yet bad job workers also value self-reliance and resent any sort of governmental assistance. For the majority of workers in both groups, government regulations are the source of economic problems faced by American individuals and companies.

Overall, this book gives a very good picture of the effects of the current economic restructuring on workers and their household structure. It shows that these effects concern not only the financial sphere; but also amplify the gender struggle within the family. In so doing, it raises very important questions about the quality of life in an age where the individual is placed on a pedestal.

Serge Villandre
Departement de Sociologie
Université du Québec a Montréal
January 2000
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