Twitter has been merciless to Renee Elliott, the laid-off Indiana Carrier worker whose speech at a labor-group press conference in mid-January made her the face of the Trump-voting white working class. In a voice vibrating with emotion, Elliott said she’d been excited to vote for Trump, who had visited the plant and promised to keep Carrier jobs from going to Mexico: “He’s walking through and we’re in awe, like, ‘Savior!’” But now, as pink slips were being handed out to 215 workers, including herself, Elliott felt “angry and forgotten.” You might think there’d be a little bit of empathy out there for this middle-aged, divorced mother who’s overcome health problems and other setbacks, only to face a rocky future in a declining community. But no. Typical responses: “stupid,” “ignorant,” “gullible,” “turned on by Trump’s bigotry,” “selfish,” “self-absorbed.”
To tell you the truth, my first response too was mockery and blame: Oh, you poor baby, throwing everyone else off the bridge didn’t help after all. Sad! (Twitter is catching.) I completely agree that “economic anxiety” is not a full explanation of why white working-class people chose the creepy tweeter. As Brittney Cooper said recently at a panel at the New York Institute for the Humanities, black and brown people are also facing hard times, but they didn’t vote for Trump. (On the other hand, Trump didn’t promise them anything; he just called their communities ghettos, hells, and war zones and quipped that they should vote for him because what did they have to lose?—ha, ha.) Sure, Elliott was foolish, even in terms of her own immediate self-interest, ignoring the warnings of her then–union leader, Chuck Jones, who, for his troubles, was called out by Trump on Twitter.
But Elliott was hardly alone in focusing on her own personal situation at the expense of the larger picture, in hearing what she wanted to hear, or in being overly impressed by a candidate’s personal attention. Nor is she alone in naively placing her trust in someone notorious for being untrustworthy. In any case, what’s done is done. 2018 is coming up, and then 2020, and we don’t want her to make the same mistake. So let’s ask: What does she face going forward, thanks to Trump and the Republicans?
Trump not only broke his promise to preserve Elliott’s job; he and his fellow Republicans are working overtime to make life harder—much harder—for her in her likely future. For instance, let’s say Elliott, who will receive a one-time payment, severance pay, and six months of health insurance from Carrier, goes on unemployment, something she is proud to say she’s never done. Uh-oh. The Labor Department has indicated it wants to give states greater leeway to drug-test unemployment recipients, which is pretty humiliating.
After her Carrier-paid health insurance runs out, she may find herself applying for Medicaid. Uh-oh. Under new guidance issued by the Trump administration, Indiana has become the second state to implement a work requirement for Medicaid recipients. Under Trump, you see, we no longer believe low-income people are entitled to at least some basic health care. Funding for community health centers, which was previously a bipartisan and noncontroversial issue, is currently up in the air.
Since good jobs are in short supply in Indianapolis—Elliott was making $18 an hour at Carrier—let’s say she gets a job waitressing, like thousands of other working-class women. Uh-oh. Last December, the administration proposed allowing restaurant owners to take workers’ tips and distribute them as they see fit (even to management and themselves) as long as they pay those workers the minimum wage—in Indiana, that’s $7.25 an hour. Since Elliott has a hair-dresser license, she might try that instead, but unless she is self-employed, she might run up against the same problem and find herself working for minimum wage. Fortunately, there are food stamps, right? Maybe not: Here, too, the Trump administration is pushing to expand work requirements and also make deep cuts to the program.
Let’s hope things won’t be quite so dire for Elliott. Perhaps she’ll get a salaried white-collar job—working in hospital administration, perhaps. But what if she suspects that she’s being paid less than men in the same slot? She’ll have a harder time suing, because the Trump administration no longer requires the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect the relevant data on race and gender from employers. Overtime pay could really help Elliott with the bills, and the Obama administration made millions of salaried employees eligible who were previously paid too much to qualify. But uh-oh. The Trump administration isn’t contesting a judge’s ruling against that expansion. And if Elliott ends up at a workplace where employees are trying to unionize, she’ll find that Trump’s National Labor Relations Board has made it harder.
But wait—if she gets a job, won’t Elliott benefit from Trump’s great triumph, the tax bill? People complain that the Koch brothers and other one-percenters are getting billions in lowered taxes that will explode the deficit and require massive cuts in social spending, but the little people get something too. In a quickly deleted tweet, House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote: “A secretary at a public high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she was pleasantly surprised her pay went up $1.50 a week… she said [that] will more than cover her Costco membership for the year.”
At least Elliott won’t have to worry about Trump’s move to endanger transparent financial advice for retirement, because she isn’t likely to accumulate much of a nest egg. But she’ll have Social Security, right? Trump promised he would never cut that. By now, let’s hope Elliott has learned the hard way what Trump’s promises are worth.