Doing the "Right Thing" by Working Families: Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground

Oct 07, 2010

By Jodie Levin-Epstein and Crystal Canales

Company supervisors around the country report feeling morally obligated to break company rules to sometimes come to the aid of those employees struggling to support their families.   On September 29, Lisa Dodson joined CLASP for "Wisdom and Wine" to discuss her new book, The Moral Underground, which tells the stories of such employers-middle-class managers and professionals who refuse to be complicit in an economy that puts a decent life beyond the reach of the working poor.

Ms. Dodson, currently a professor of Sociology at Boston College, became interested in writing on issues of low-income working families after her first professional position as a nurse. At that time, Dodson was concerned with the link between how parents who came to her clinic, mostly single mothers, reported work lives that impacted their children's development. 

She has carried that interest into her field work as a sociologist. Often her discussions with parents during field work start off about workforce issues but nearly always lead back to family, and in particular how best parents could provide for their families and ensure their needs are met. 

As part of her research Dodson decided to ask employers their side of the story.  In conducting interviews with middle-class and professional managers of low-wage workers about workplace issues, one manager asked, "Aren't you going to ask what this does to me, too?" At that point, Dodson realized some middle-class and professional managers are affected by the struggles their employees' experience.  It turns out that it was not hard for Dodson to find supervisors who thought that some rules were untenable in certain circumstances.  And, these supervisors sometimes refrain from imposing them on workers struggling to support their families. 

Dodson interviewed many middle-class managers disturbed by workplace rules such as docking the pay of a mother who has to leave early to take care of a sick child. Dodson says the occurrence of the "moral" managers phenomenon is indicative of a much larger issue: low-wage workers are not paid a sustainable wage.

The Moral Underground calls attention to the nation's failure in providing a livable wage for low-wage workers. If middle-income managers feel compelled to risk their jobs and break rules to do the "right thing" for struggling families, there is a problem with the broader policies in place.  CLASP commends the work of researchers like Lisa Dodson, who not only provide reasons for change in workforce policies that affect low-income people but also bring those to light through a new lens.  Dodson has uncovered a bridge across class lines.  That's potent.

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