Those obituaries for Jean Stapleton, the remarkable actress who played the guileless and good-hearted housewife Edith Bunker on All in the Family who died recently at 90 years old, made me think about the parallels of life for the Bunkers and a similar family today.
Edith and Archie Bunker were stand-ins for all of America's working-class whites who were being buffeted by the social and economic change of the early 1970s, when the show premiered. Who can forget the couple warbling Those Were the Days at their spinet piano? The song was a paean to that just-passed moment when men like Archie "had it made." Archie was a dinosaur on the verge of extinction, and he knew it. His narrow-minded fears were the stuff of great comedy.
We joined in the joke because social change, Archie's great nemesis, was moving in such a hopeful and promising direction. Racial and gender equality were in the ascension. Opportunities for college education were broadening. New ideas about justice and compassion were influencing the law and public policy. Science was bettering lives. Heck, the future couldn't come fast enough.
Archie was worried about losing the privileges of his sex and race that had meant for generations that men like him didn't have to compete economically against nonwhites and women. Those social norms gave Archie a job as a unionized loading dock foreman that paid enough to support a family, and a wife at home who would literally jump up to get him a beer. No wonder he clung to the status quo.
Sure, the Bunkers faced tough economic times — when Archie's union settled a strike for a 15 percent raise over three years, it wasn't expected to keep up with inflation at the time — but the Bunkers of today are worse off. Edith's entry into the workforce would be a necessity, and even with two incomes the family would be struggling with basic living expenses. Then, child care for Gloria was provided by stay-at-home Edith. Now it is another family expense.
Today's low-skilled workers have none of the advantages that men like Archie enjoyed, such as regular raises and good benefits. Back then, industrial workers and laborers often had job security until a dignified retirement with a pension. This all went away as unionization rates plummeted, from more than a third of the private sector workforce during Archie's prime working years to under 7 percent today. Powerless workers are losing ground even as U.S. corporate profits soar. In the third quarter of 2012, corporate profits made up the largest share of national income since 1950, putting workers on the losing side of that ledger.
Archie felt he knew who was changing the rules: women, minorities, hippies, homosexuals and college boys.
But the real forces that were inexorably reducing his economic prospects were imperceptible to him. The conservative political wave, from Richard Nixon on, that the flag-waving Archie fell into lock-step with was to be the undoing for people like him. Those politicians and their corporate partners would be his silent enemies, de-leveraging worker power through union-busting, unfettered outsourcing and keeping minimum wages low.
Archie Bunker was a tragic figure in the Shakespearean sense. He was a mouthy bigot prone to malapropisms, and he was an unwitting accomplice in his own slipping economic footing. The politicians he supported were in many ways the ideological forbearers to the ones who are now obsessively trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act — a law that, for the first time, requires large employers to provide their employees with health coverage or pay a fine. It's one bright spot for low-skilled workers.
But beyond health reform and the promise of legalized gay marriage, signs of societal change are not hopeful for average Americans. Job security, pensions and upward mobility are vestiges of yesteryear. Wealth inequality continues to widen.
Archie's modern-day doppelganger might blame immigrants or "moochers" for all this, but the factors are more complicated and driven more by public policy and market forces than outdated stereotypes.