This interview was conducted via Zoom and has been edited for clarity and length.
SD: What led you to create the Going for Broke podcast?
I was in conversation with the managers of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP). I’m on their advisory board. And when I joined the board, I was still very much gainfully employed and a very busy guy. Part of our conversation had to do with the fact that for the first time in 31 years I was unemployed, but unlike the time 31 years ago, ageism was playing heavily into my job search.
They said, you should write about that. You should write about what faces older workers. So, I wrote about that for EHRP…And our conversations continued. We thought about how to talk about what was going on in the economy and how to make a radio series out of it. And the first season of Going for Broke with our production partners at The Nation came out of that. And now we’re in season two with our production partners, Wisconsin Public Radio.
There are millions of stories to be told. This unfortunately is a well that will never run dry, you might say, because the reformulation of the economy in recent decades has left a lot of people out. A lot of people are not doing well. It has become quite clear that a lot of these designs of a new way of work and a new relationship to the workplace were made strictly with the people who count the money in mind, not with workers. We felt there was a lot of work to do there.
RR: How did the partnerships behind the podcast develop, and how did those partnerships inform the podcast’s objectives?
We feel as a foundational, philosophical proposition that conventional coverage of the economy leaves out tens of millions of people. I sometimes jokingly point out that you’d never know from the way we cover the economy that half of the people live below the median wage. And obviously it is a median wage, so by definition half the country lives below it. But you would never know that in conventional media—from the products that are advertised, from the business stories that are told, from the consumer stories that are told, from the worshipful highly detailed coverage of events like the consumer electronics show and almost no coverage of labor organizing, of the Fight for 15, of the various struggles that people below the median face.
So, EHRP exists to tell those stories and finds partners in a serial kind of way, in an episodic kind of way. They come together for projects, for short-term marriages, and they highlight the work of working-class writers.
They throw a lifeline to under-employed people who have been caught in the downdrafts of the reformulation of the business. When the business model is under tremendous stress, and thousands of journalists have lost full-time work, lost health coverage, and lost retirement benefits. EHRP helps them weather those storms—placing their work, finding them work, and sometimes just giving them cash stipends to tide them over until they can find work again.
So, a project like Going for Broke is right in the wheelhouse of EHRP. And it attracted the attention of an organization that has partnered with EHRP before and that is Wisconsin Public Radio. Alissa Quart, one of the senior editors of EHRP, has shown a lot of her work with Wisconsin Public Radio, so we had relationships there already.
SD: Since you mentioned the labor movement, I was curious, do you have a family history in the labor movement?
I’ve been a union member of SAG-AFTRA for most of my career. My father was self-employed, my mother was a very faithful Teamster. We’ve always been people who realized that the union, though you may complain about it, though you may not like everything it does or love paying your dues, you realize that it builds a floor under your feet. And it means you don’t have to talk to the bosses alone as one against the management. They help you speak with a louder voice.SAG-AFTRA is kind of a white-collar union. But my mother valued the union for making sure her conditions were proper and for guaranteeing her pension when her employer. She was in a public-employees local, and New York City wanted to impose certain reformulations of pension benefits and health and welfare benefits. The union went to bat for them and won them concessions from the city that ended up being really important in her later working years and her retirement.
SD: You started your podcast on the care economy saying, “What if we defined success in our economy less in terms of profit and more in terms of care?” I found that an intriguing question, so I thought I’d give you a chance to give your own response to your question.
Well look, profit being the only motive has gotten us the world we have now. If you like that world and you think it is working great for you and you think it is working great for everybody, I don’t think there is a lot I can say to dissuade you from that.
But I think a lot of Americans would like profit to be one of several variables that are being considered at a time when CEOs are making hundreds of times what their workers are making, when companies will pay millions to avoid organizing in their own shops rather than give raises that wouldn’t even cost them millions. Some of this is just war, and it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.
It was interesting that when Volkswagen was planning to come to Tennessee, the Germans actually wanted a union to talk to because they have unions in the other places where they build cars, and it just makes their lives easier. But Tennessee was so opposed to having unionized labor in that much sought after, much recruited, much wooed, and seduced investment from Volkswagen that the state legislature said, “If Volkswagen organizes, we’ll pull out our investment. We’ll pull out the money that we promised to create some infrastructure, onramps and offramps to highways, the kinds of things that local governments do to entice new investment.” It was so adamantly opposed to workers there having a union that they were actually going to shut off the taps to subsidized capitalism because they were more worried about the union than they were about Volkswagen saying, “Yes, we’re happy if you have a union shop. This makes things easier for us.”
That’s the crazy moment we’re in now, when in their zeal to find ways to cut pennies here and pennies there, they’ll push people to the wall who can’t afford their health insurance, trying to find ways to eliminate jobs just short of people’s retirement. All sorts of efficiency that comes along with what certainly looks from the outside like cruelty.
A care economy would take other variables into account beside profit. Obviously, these companies exist to make a profit, I’m not denying that. And the workers want to make a profit too—because that helps guarantee future employment. But profits at what cost? It seems to be a question that we are reluctant or uncomfortable to ask.
When you see a company like Starbucks closing locations rather than letting their employees continue to work and organize, closing profitable locations and saying it is because of security concerns or crime concerns, there is something going on here besides an interest in profit. Those workers would help you make a profit.
RR: Could you talk about the structure of the podcast? How do you weave stories and expert testimony into your podcast? How are you hoping your podcast can shift or challenge conventional narratives about the economy?
There is a core story told by someone who is up against a situation created by the modern workplace and the modern world of money and work. Someone who is dealing with administrative duties—that is, the heavy load of paperwork and record keeping that is put on people when they try to acquire the benefits to which they are entitled by law.
When someone who is working or is insured finds that the way their health insurance leaves out mental health, even when their mental health struggles include physical manifestations and physical suffering, you’re pushed into crazy situations where finally you do have to get in physical health trouble before they will address your mental health problems.
No one ever thinks of insecurely housed people as having interior lives, as having social lives, as having romantic lives, even. They are homeless. They are defined by the problem that they have.
Going for Broke has at its core personal stories that illustrate some of these aspects of our modern economy but [that] also bring along people who have made long-term study of this and tried to fix it in various places. Someone who designs shelters for insecurely housed people who is finally listening when unhoused people say, “This is the problem with shelters,” is listening and saying, “OK let’s design a place that takes care of some of those problems.”
So, it’s not poverty porn or struggle porn, where we just build the entire episode around somebody with a problem who the listener is meant to feel sorry for. It’s also talking out loud about how it could be different, asking why it is not different, and offering suggestions for how it could be different.
SD: If somebody told me there was a podcast series on the care economy, I might expect to see senior care, childcare, and so forth. You divided it up very differently, and in a very interesting way, focusing on the topics of housing, mental health, and the workplace. How did you come to that decision?
Well, we want people to come away from the series thinking more broadly about what care is. What a society that…cared for each other would look like. Right now, I think it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that if you just make the most cursory examination of the ways things run day in and day out in various parts of our lives, they are run with an obsession for the bottom line and not an obsession for results that actually lead for better lives for a lot of the people who are involved in these systems.
[Take] the administrative burdens story, for example. We speculate on whether administrative burden is not purposefully put in there to make benefits harder to get in the hope that some people will just say, “Oh, the heck of it,” and do without unemployment benefits. Do without a housing supplement. Do without a subsidy for their affordable care act premiums. Because we build the bureaucratic gauntlet, the obstacle course, so complex that where maybe we are crossing our fingers and hoping, some state legislators and some state administrators have actually admitted that. They don’t want to make it too easy or else everyone who is eligible will go on the benefit.
But that’s what they were paying for in their taxes. When they were working, that’s what they were paying for, the ability to tap into that when times were tough, when they qualified for disability, when they were periodically unemployed. They were paying a premium, a part of their taxes, for that kind of care, and now you’re saying we don’t want to make it that easy to get it because then they might take it. Well, that’s just nuts. That’s the antithesis of a care economy. That’s, I don’t know what you would call it—a don’t-care economy?
RR: With regard to housing, housing is usually defined as shelter or often a strategy for family wealth building. You chose to examine housing from the framework of care. Can you explain why you made that choice and what you learned from looking at housing through the lens of a care economy?
We don’t want to just tell the same stories that everybody else tells. To be honest, we were looking for a slightly different door to walk into.
We put a designer on, who thinks about these questions as part of his architect’s brief and thinks about the holistic building of community. Right now, if you look at thousands of subdivisions being built across America, they are built with the crazy idea that all families are roughly the same size, that everybody can afford a house that is within two or three percentage points in cost of each other, depending on what options they buy in the kitchen and the bathroom.
We build residential monocultures. A place where you can live at a specific time in your life when you have specific needs. And then when those needs change, you have to move. Because there is no other housing in close proximity that meets a continuum of need.
The episode that we did on housing asks some questions about young people having to leave the town they grew up in…because there is no rental housing anywhere nearby, there is no place for them to work, no commercial space, they have to own a car.
We are building community as if we don’t really like each other very much because those are not places where you can spend different parts of your life. You have to leave. You have to say goodbye to a place you might have become comfortable in and people you might have become comfortable with. If your physical needs change, if your physical abilities change, you can’t stay. You have to go. Because you can no longer mow your lawn and shovel your drive. If you want to build a community where different kinds of people can live at different times in their lives, you have to build something fundamentally different from what we are building right now, which is a monoculture in terms of cost, in terms of need, and in terms of ability.
And a care economy would include the idea that an elderly parent might be able to live with you during the last part of their life, would include places where young people just starting out as liberated adults could rent before they make a commitment—or maybe they will never make a commitment to do purchase housing, maybe that is just not in their life’s plan. Right now, what we are doing is not in most cases emblematic, illustrative of what a care economy might look like.
SD: Mental health is obviously part of the care economy, but it’s often treated a little bit differently. The workers aren’t necessarily thought of as care economy workers. What led you to focus on mental health as part of the care economy, and what lessons did you draw from exploring mental health from that angle?
Katie Prout, the writer, came to our attention. She works for the Chicago Reader, one of the great alternative weeklies that is still alive in America. She was having some mental health struggles. It was early on. She thought, “I can get this taken care of.” But she found, while she looked for a job, that her Medicaid didn’t cover mental health treatment. So, while she was really struggling during a rough time in the economy, and it was difficult for her to find work, she also had to deal with untreated depression.
That just makes everything harder. Instead of creating the means for someone like Katie to be more productive—yes, obviously happier and living a more coherent life, but that’s just of value to Katie and her closest and dearest people—but from a societal point of view, she is a better neighbor, a better worker, a more reliable taxpayer, a net contributor, someone who is less likely to call on social services and need socially provided medical care, if she is able to stay healthy. And a holistic view of what it means to stay healthy is to treat all of her. If she broke her leg getting off a CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] bus, we would set her tibia or fibula, and we would put her in a cast, and nobody would have any problem with that. “Yeah, we got to take care of Katie’s problem; she broke her leg.”
Medicaid would never question that. But because she needed a different kind of care, she couldn’t locate it. Not that it wasn’t available at all under the program, but there were no doctors that she could find who would take her on as a patient and take Medicaid as payment. That is an illustration of a program design that is not taking care of all of Katie. And it is not emblematic of what a real care economy would look like.
A lot of people—if you have Medicaid or have insurance under the Affordable Care Act—think that if you’re covered, you’re good. But when you go to try to use some of these benefits, the holes in the net start to show.
RR: The workplace is perhaps the most conventional way to think of the care economy, and it is a topic we have explored ourselves. Is there anything you want to say about how you approach the issue of the care economy at work?
We are of the belief that a lot of people who don’t even think this story is going to be about them should understand that at some point of their work life it might be. The core of the story is built around a woman with vision problems. She is slightly sighted, but legally blind. She lost her sight gradually, over time. You don’t tell by looking at her. You don’t tell when she walks into a room. You don’t tell when you walk into her office that there’s anything that would separate her from any other worker in the shop.
And she tells us a terrible story about the ways that someone who is dealing with a physical challenge but not apparently constantly handicapped by it falls into this weird nether world between where we assign people who are “handicapped” and where we assign people who, for want a better word, are fully able.
She tells some great stories about jobs she is convinced she lost. One interviewer dinged her after the interview for not making eye contact. She told him, “Well, sometimes that’s a problem for me because I am legally blind.” And he had no idea until she said that. This was a case where if she announced it or put it down on every piece of paper “I’m blind,” he might’ve taken a whole different approach to her. Instead of just going by her credentials, by her experience, by her ability, there’s this set of expectations that we, even people who think of themselves as good people and want to pat themselves on the back as being sensitive to the needs of people with physical challenges and so on, want people to present as more disabled almost.
SD: Anything else that you would like to add?
Well, I never would have wanted my career to unravel. Wasn’t in my life plan. It wasn’t in my late career bucket list. But look. It did. And it has given me the opportunity to do some things that have been unexpectedly wonderful and interesting and fun. And this series is one of those things.
I never would have wanted to get cancer obviously. This past year I did a podcast on being diagnosed, treated, and surviving cancer. And again, these opportunities, if you want to call them that, come along, and they give you a chance to make sense for yourself of what’s happening but also give an opportunity in this new world to tell stories that people listen to in a different way, consume in a different way, hear in a different way.
So, it’s been a bumpy road in recent years, but I am really blessed, lucky, happy, that I was able to do work like Going for Broke. It’s been a great experience.