Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality

Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality

by Katherine S. Newman

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A sharp examination of the looming financial catastrophe of retirement in America.

As millions of Baby Boomers reach their golden years, the state of retirement in America is little short of a disaster. Nearly half the households with people aged 55 and older have no retirement savings at all. The real estate crash wiped out much of the home equity that millions were counting on to support their retirement. And the typical Social Security check covers less than 40% of pre-retirement wages—a number projected to drop to under 28% within two decades. Old-age poverty, a problem we thought was solved by the New Deal, is poised for a resurgence.

With dramatic statistics and vivid portraits, acclaimed sociologist Katherine S. Newman shows that the American retirement crisis touches us all, cutting across class lines and generational divides. White-collar managers have seen retirement benefits vanish; Teamsters have had their pensions cut in half; bankrupt cities like Detroit have walked away from their commitments to municipal workers. And for Generation X, the prospects are even worse: a fifth of them expect to never be able to retire. Only the vaunted “one percent” can face retirement without fear.

Other countries are confronting similar demographic challenges, yet they have not abandoned their social contract with seniors. Downhill From Here makes it clear that America, too, can—and must—do better.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250119476
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/29/2019
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Katherine S. Newman is the author of more than a dozen books, on topics ranging from urban poverty to middle-class economic insecurity to school violence. No Shame in My Game: the Working Poor in the Inner City received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize and the Sidney Hillman Foundation Book Award. Newman, who has held positions at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Princeton, is currently senior vice president for academic affairs for the University of Massachusetts system.

Katherine S. Newman is the author of several books on topics ranging from urban poverty to middle-class economic insecurity to school violence. No Shame in My Game: the Working Poor in the Inner City received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize and the Sidney Hillman Foundation Book Award.

Newman, who has held positions at Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and Princeton, is currently senior vice president for academic affairs for the University of Massachusetts system.

Read an Excerpt



Rita Lewis never imagined she would find herself addressing a crowd from a podium on the National Mall in Washington, DC, or testifying before a committee of the US Senate. She came from a modest midwestern family, a textbook example of twentieth-century blue-collar America. But in a twist of fate, the retirement crisis would make her the public face of a social movement, made up of thousands of Teamster retirees looking to take their crusade to the country's political leadership.

Rita's father, Floyd Lanter, drove a tractor trailer out of Cincinnati his whole working life. When Rita was in high school, she had ambitions for college, but she had to abandon them because money was too tight in the family. Next, attracted like many other teenage girls of her generation to the idea of seeing the world, she dreamed of becoming an airline stewardess. But in the 1960s, flight attendants had to be at least five feet two inches tall. She was an inch short. "That was that," Rita remembered, in her matter-of-fact way.

Instead of flying, at age seventeen she became a receptionist at a trucking company where her father had an "in" with the hiring manager. "The guys all took bets that I wouldn't last even three months," she chuckles. They underestimated this Teamster's daughter, who knew a good thing when it happened to her. At a time when the minimum wage was only $1.00 an hour, she was making $2.25. "I loved that job. I really, really did," she recalls. "I was very good at what I did. It felt like home."

Rita's high school sweetheart, Butch Lewis, volunteered to go to Vietnam in the summer of 1967. Within a few months, he was badly wounded, nearly losing his leg to the load of shrapnel embedded in his knee and thigh. He was airlifted to an American military base in Okinawa, then sent to Germany to recuperate. When Butch came back to the United States, he and Rita got married, and she left the workforce once their first child was born. Rita and Butch had long ago decided that it was best for their children if Mom was at home.

Over the course of the next forty years, Butch would endure thirty-two knee operations and three knee replacements. Years of physical therapy never quite calmed the pain from those injuries, and they would continue to plague him in the freezing winters and the humid summers. Still, the most pressing concern when he came home from the war was not his aching leg, but the need to find a job. Floyd Lanter came through once more, connecting Butch to a temporary position as an on-call truck driver. With that experience under his belt, Butch then easily transitioned to a much larger trucking firm, Holland Freight, where he worked from 1974 until the day he retired.

Rita grew to be a "proud ... middle class, blue collar woman," the daughter of a union trucker and the wife of another. Rita's men were traditional fathers and husbands who took care of their own, asking for no help from anyone. Floyd and Butch were careful about their finances and modest in their lifestyles. Teamster wages were solid as blue-collar jobs went, but in the best of times that meant $60,000 annually — enough to take out a mortgage, run a couple of cars, and, in a good year, take the family to Disneyland. Even that depended on a working wife bringing in some money, which everyone thought of as "extra" but really wasn't.

Butch and Rita built a good life for themselves, drawing on the security he had with Holland Freight. The company was good to Butch and he, in turn, was loyal to them. He would volunteer to take on extra freight to help generate business. Long before the dawn of cell phones, Butch bought a pager — then a new technology — so that he could pick up extra loads the company booked on the spot. One year, Rita remembers, he brought in $1 million in extra revenue all by himself, which was unheard of among the rank and file.

From the outside, the Lanter and Lewis families looked a lot like those of the teachers and cops that lived in the neighborhood: homeowners with limited savings, careful about their finances and modest in their lifestyles. Most importantly, they trusted in dependable pensions and union-paid health benefits to the end of their days. The stability and security they enjoyed was the reward for many years of hard and unforgiving work. Unlike teachers, who can depend on the respect of the community and the status that comes with white-collar work, Teamsters are "grunts," the invisible army we rarely acknowledge that moves the goods we use every day.

Floyd and Butch relished the brotherhood of fellow Teamsters and the protective cloak of the union. Those bonds mattered. Periodic layoffs, the unforgiving cold of the loading docks, the sweltering heat of trailers where they off-loaded their cargo — none of that had to be explained to their buddies in the union. Everyone endured these things for the salaries and retirement accounts that swelled with time on the rig. For someone like Floyd, with a seventh-grade education, that prospect made all the trouble worth it. He was a self-taught man who appreciated every dollar he made.

Between the end of World War II and the mid-1970s — Floyd's prime working years and the early part of Butch's time in Cincinnati Local 100 — an expanding economy and a growing federal highway system put thousands of trucks on the road. Rising affluence generated insatiable demand. Consumers who had waited through years of shortages demanded furniture and food, refrigerators and air conditioners. Industries had to have spare parts, pipes to lay in the ground, cables to string for telephone wires, and logs to feed the construction industry. A rich America translated directly into steady work for the nation's Teamsters.

For men with no college education, trucking was a good line of work in many respects. As long as they could get enough hours, the income and retirement benefits were on par with the best of the nation's factory jobs. True, they suffered through layoffs and callbacks as orders surged and then receded. But that was the lot of most blue-collar workers in the 1960s and '70s.

Bill Ackerman, a tall, broad-shouldered man from the south side of Milwaukee, is a second-generation Teamster. As a kid, Bill grew up hearing about the strikes of the 1930s, as union truckers fought for wage increases and fair pensions. His father started hauling freight in 1954 and stayed with the same firm for thirty-four years until his retirement. Bill followed in his dad's footsteps and reveled in the same romance of the road. "It's a freedom that people who work in offices can't feel and will never appreciate," he explained. "Your windshield is your office ... You're meeting people everywhere from all different walks of life. And it's a great opportunity to see this country and get paid for it."

The stereotypes of truckers as workers with no brains hurt, though. "We're not given due respect," Bill complains. "Most people," he says, believe that "a monkey can do this job." A trucker is "looked down upon by management as a second-class citizen or lower, uneducated person." Bill remembers being called a "dock pig" by managers who seemed to feel that making truckers feel worthless was part of their jobs. "You were just wallowing in the mud out there moving freight," while "supervisors wouldn't want to get their nice shirts and ties dirty so they wouldn't even come out on the docks."

That disdain was heaped on people whose working conditions were backbreaking. Teamsters like Doug Flynn learned to take the punishment. "When you work the dock at two o'clock in the morning and it's January, February, and there's no bumpers on the doors, all the wind and the snow is coming in ... Ice dripping from your nose gets frozen on your mustache," Doug recalls. He would work "sixty, seventy hours a week. Every week. And there were times at one company that I would work twenty-eight straight days." It was what they had to do to provide for their families.

Teamsters on the docks always looked forward to the day when they could get the specialized license for driving a big rig and take to the road. The union bargained on behalf of all of them, but compared to the loading bay, sitting inside the cabin of an eighteen-wheeler was a comfort. Still, it wasn't easy. "Oh my god, the trucks back then," Larry Williams, a second-generation Teamster from Cincinnati, remembers.

I started in '67 and never drove my first truck with power steering until probably 1980 ... And you'd go back up to the dock with a trailer and these things steer so hard you'd have to stand up and put two arms around [the steering wheel] to crank the thing so you can get it into the dock ...

You'd never get heat out of these early trucks. The only time you'd ever get any heat at all is when you'd run the expressway. You've got to run the truck and ... raise the temperature up in the engine to get any heat. And the windshield wipers! They had air[-driven] windshield wipers and they'd go flip, flip, flip! Oh my god it was horrible.

Out on the road, Teamsters lived off NoDoz caffeine pills to stay awake, ate in cheap diners with lousy food, lifted heavy cargo on and off their big rigs, and twisted their torsos to steer unwieldy trucks. Back injuries and knee pain were part of the job description. Working-class boys would start as soon as they scored a driver's license, and many put in three decades on the job before they turned fifty. But it was not unusual for them to hang it up shortly thereafter. Physically, they were spent. Floyd Lanter was done by the age of sixty-two, and that was a long career for a Teamster.

Those long years took a toll on the drivers and on their wives. Especially before cell phones, Teamsters' families worried about the safety of their loved ones out on the road. Larissa Kammerer, whose husband, Tim, was a member of an Ohio local, remembers those nights alone all too well. "You can't imagine what it's like when someone you love goes out in a blizzard, and they're driving miles and miles away and you can't reach them."

Teamsters tended to keep their problems to themselves. But women like Larissa Kammerer and Rita Lewis knew very well how hard their fathers and husbands were working. "Driving a truck is a challenging task, mentally and physically," Rita explains.

You have your bosses to contend with, sometimes your coworkers. You've got the traffic. You have to pass your DOT test. If your blood pressure's too high, or you have a health issue, you can be redlined, which means you can't work. You have to make sure that the freight gets there on time. You're out there in all kind of weather. Battling all kind of elements, all kind of pressure coming at them all the time. And being physically fit was imperative.

Rita thought Teamsters deserved more respect, more money, more of everything for enduring these working conditions. Instead, the pressures they faced on the job were compounded by fears of layoffs, wage cuts, and bankruptcies.

And if the job was hard on the white working class, trucking life was that much more difficult for African American and Latino Teamsters. Where white workers found fellowship and support within the union, black workers discovered they were second-class members of the brotherhood, unwanted competitors for whatever opportunities there were. In many a coffee shop and motel along the interstate, minority drivers were not welcome. This came as little surprise to African American truckers in the South, where the legacies of Jim Crow had barely faded. Hostility in the North was more surprising, but sadly still fairly common.

Kevin Staples is an African American who grew up thirty miles outside of Milwaukee. When Kevin was a teenager, his family began tumbling down the economic ladder. By his junior year in high school, his father had lost his small business, and his mother had been forced back into the labor market after many years as a housewife. She landed a job with a manufacturing company, where she worked for the next thirty years.

With that somewhat rocky past in mind, Kevin was looking for security when he graduated from high school and leaned on the advice of a buddy who passed along a tip: a nearby trucking company was looking for reliable workers. He put in an application, but curiously never heard from the firm. Other people, young white men he knew, got those calls instead. So Kevin tried the company again. When they told him that they weren't hiring, he pursued a discrimination suit and, to his surprise, won the case. But that would be "the beginning of me being blackballed in the industry. No freight company would touch me," he recalls.

"I was discriminated against in this industry by my own people who were supposed to represent me in the union," Kevin laments. "This very industry that was supposed to ... help people find jobs and get fair treatment, was also the one that allowed employers to just slam the door in your face." He wouldn't break into the freight business until 1993, when he linked up with a business agent who sympathized with his situation.

Barry Barkley, another African American truck driver, had much the same experience. At meetings of the Local 100 retirees, Barry is often one of only a handful of black men in a crowd of several hundred. He graduated from an integrated public high school in Cincinnati, trained in a vocational program as an auto mechanic, and then put those skills to use in the Marine Corps in the early 1960s. With the service behind him, Barry found a part-time job at GE in Cincinnati and enrolled in a local university in hopes of improving his chances for better wages. But when he dropped out of college to seek full-time work, he hit a wall almost instantly. Application after application was declined or ignored.

"In 1971, a black man could not get a union job in the city of Cincinnati," Barry recalls, a scowl crossing his face. "I don't care what kind of experience he had ... Civil rights laws were enacted in '64, '65, but the government did not [start to] enforce them 'til late '60s or early '70s. That's when you started seeing black guys get jobs." And when Barry did finally find his way into the trucking industry, he discovered how hard it was for a black man to navigate social conditions on the road. "We couldn't go into a lot of restaurants on the interstates," he says. Police pulled him over all the time, especially at truck stops. White truck drivers would refuse to work beside him on long hauls because they would have had to share sleeping quarters.

Whether black or white, truckers had hard jobs and got little respect. Yes, there was fellowship among the Teamsters, especially the long-haul partners who spent days on end in one another's company. And true, the wages were good, especially for men whose education tended to stop with high school and perhaps some military experience. But the day-to-day experience of trucking was grueling, and it took its toll on workers' health. "Teamsters or truck drivers really don't have a very long lifespan," Larry Williams notes in a matter-of-fact way. "Most of them don't eat right, they smoke, they drink. And it's a very dangerous job. I don't know how many people I've seen killed through thirty years. So you don't know how many years you've got. My father"— a Teamster —"only made it to sixty-six."

With this grim prospect hanging out there, truckers like Peter Farber saw their pensions as a reward they had earned and the main reason for the sacrifices they had made over many years in unforgiving jobs. Peter's craggy face shows the toll his work has taken on his health. "Teamsters give the majority of their life to ... their families and to their employers," he says. And a lot of them don't make it. "The manual labor jobs kill 'em before they get there. I know some that retired on Monday and by Friday the next week were dead. It ain't right. It ain't right."

What made it worth it, then? Rita likens it to a college student pursuing a degree. The Teamster's "skill is driving that truck, and their degree is that pension that was waiting for them at the end of their life," she says. "That's what they worked forty years for: that pension."

For Teamsters, as for many military men, the overriding goal was getting to retirement in one piece. And the pension dangled out there in the future as the reason to pull through another day on the loading dock and contend with another chronic ailment. Most wanted nothing more than to retire as early as they possibly could while protecting their income and their families.

The pension was the main reason for enduring the hardships of the job and giving up so much time with their loved ones, Tim Kammerer explains. On Ohio primary day, his "I voted" sticker plastered to the pocket of his leather motorcycle jacket, Tim thinks of what a good working-class American wants out of his job. "The main thing for me was that pension. I knew I couldn't save up myself," he says. "I always looked out there and I thought, well, when I get my thirty years ..."


Beginning in the 1980s, the kind of security that pensions offered became less and less certain. Deregulation would be the beginning of its end.


Excerpted from "Downhill from Here"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Katherine S. Newman.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1. Teamsters in Trouble 13
2. White-Collar Damage 47
3. Municipal Blues 77
4. Gray Labor 113
5. Two-Tiered Agreements and the Dilemmas of Gen X 147
6. Retiring on Next to Nothing 179
7. Keeping the Promise by Rebecca Hayes Jacobs 213
Conclusion 249
Notes 267
Acknowledgments 307
Index 313

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