The fiery U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and bestselling author offers a passionate, inspiring book about why our middle class is under siege and how we can win the fight to save it
Senator Elizabeth Warren has long been an outspoken champion of America’s middle class, and by the time the people of Massachusetts elected her in 2012, she had become one of the country’s leading progressive voices. Now, at a perilous moment for our nation, she has written a book that is at once an illuminating account of how we built the strongest middle class in history, a scathing indictment of those who have spent the past thirty-five years undermining working families, and a rousing call to action.
Warren grew up in Oklahoma, and she’s never forgotten how difficult it was for her mother and father to hold on at the ragged edge of the middle class. An educational system that offered opportunities for all made it possible for her to achieve her dream of going to college, becoming a teacher, and, later, attending law school. But now, for many, these kinds of opportunities are gone, and a government that once looked out for working families is instead captive to the rich and powerful. Seventy-five years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal ushered in an age of widespread prosperity; in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan reversed course and sold the country on the disastrous fiction called trickle-down economics. Now, with the election of Donald Trumpa con artist who promised to drain the swamp of special interests and then surrounded himself with billionaires and lobbyiststhe middle class is being pushed ever closer to collapse.
Written in the candid, high-spirited voice that is Warren’s trademark, This Fight Is Our Fight tells eye-opening stories about her battles in the Senate and vividly describes the experiences of hard-working Americans who have too often been given the short end of the stick. Elizabeth Warren has had enough of phony promises and a government that no longer serves its peopleshe won’t sit down, she won’t be silenced, and she will fight back.
The Disappearing Middle Class
I was ready to go.
It was a Thursday morning in March 2013. I'd been in the Senate for two and a half months, and this was our first hearing on the minimum wage. For close to four years, the federal minimum wage had been frozen at $7.25 an hour. The rate was already low by historic standards, and a lot of workers were sinking. Minimum wage is just that — the minimum.
When I am home in Massachusetts, I make a point of speaking with as many Bay Staters as I can. This includes the people who do the service work in big buildings. These are the workers who stock the office kitchens, keep the buildings clean, provide security. I've been struck by how many of them hold down two or three jobs just to stay afloat. Women who take the T into Boston, work a full shift cleaning buildings, then stay to work a morning shift at one of the counters at South Station. Men who push wheelchairs and haul bags at Logan Airport all day, then drive cabs or work security in the evening. And I meet them outside Boston too. Mothers and fathers in New Bedford and Fall River, in Worcester and Springfield, who work at fast-food places in town or on the highway, piecing together a living from whatever jobs they can find. A woman up on the North Shore told me she sleeps in her car in the parking lot in the hours between when one job ends and the other begins. She said she's so tired that when she drives to her mother's house to pick up her baby daughter, she falls asleep on the couch the minute she gets there. Low-wage workers — in Massachusetts and in all the other states too — are among the hardest working people in America.
I'm pretty hard-core about this issue. The way I see it, no one in this country should work full-time and still live in poverty — period. But at $7.25 an hour, a mom working a forty-hour-a-week minimum-wage job cannot keep herself and her baby above the poverty line. This is wrong — and this was something the U.S. Congress could make better if we'd just raise the minimum wage. We could fix this now.
Ten weeks on the job, and it still gave me a thrill to walk into the Senate hearing rooms, notebook tucked under my arm. This room was like a stage set: high ceilings, heavy paneling, and dark blue carpets. The lights were mounted on the walls, giant art deco torches that looked like they were illuminating an ancient temple. The room was so vast that everyone had to use microphones just to hear each other.
Senators were seated on a raised platform, assigned places around a giant, wood-paneled horseshoe-shaped dais. Our chairs were huge, high-backed leather affairs, sort of ancient king meets modern CEO. Witnesses sat at a low table in the open part of the U, with the audience behind them. The room's design is intended to evoke the grandeur and solemnity of the Senate, a not- very-subtle reminder of the power of this body.
In keeping with the Senate's rigid deference to seniority and my junior status, my chair was the farthest from center stage, out on one end of the horseshoe. I didn't care. I was aware that this was pretty routine stuff for most senators. And okay, I understood that this committee wasn't going to do a movie moment and suddenly jump up and demand in the name of working people everywhere that Congress increase the minimum wage.
I knew that, but I also knew that the move to raise the minimum wage was gaining traction around the country. And I knew that this hearing was a pretty good platform to move that fight forward. After all, this committee really did have the power to recommend a raise for thirty million Americans, and even if we weren't going to do it today, I wanted to make sure we made some progress. If you don't fight, you can't win.
I also understood that for more than forty years, workers' pay hadn't kept pace with inflation. Productivity had gone up. Profits had gone up. Executives had gotten raises. Couldn't we at last come together to make sure that the people who did some of the hardest, dirtiest work in the nation got at least a chance to build a little security?
And couldn't we also give this whole "bipartisan" thing another try? Since the 1930s, Republicans had joined Democrats to support periodic increases to the minimum wage, and now, after four years of holding steady, I thought we might come together for some kind of increase. Okay, it probably wouldn't be as much as I wanted, but couldn't we at least do something?
No. The Republicans were locked in: they would block any efforts to increase the minimum wage by even a few nickels.
The hearing produced some sharp back-and-forth about the impact that raising the minimum wage might have on jobs. The data are clear: study after study shows that there are no large adverse effects on jobs when the minimum wage goes up — and one of the country's leading experts was sitting right in front of us testifying to exactly that point. I battled a couple of the other witnesses, and I got in my licks about how far the real minimum wage had fallen, but after about an hour and a half, the hearing began winding down.
I gathered up my papers, ready to leave as soon as the gavel fell. Lamar Alexander, the senator from Tennessee and the most senior Republican on the committee, was asking his last questions when a witness interrupted him to point out that Congress was responsible for setting the right level for the minimum wage.
Senator Alexander replied that if he could decide, there would be no minimum.
No minimum wage at all. Not $15.00. Not $10.00. Not $7.25. Not $5.00. Not $1.00.
The comment was delivered quite casually. It wasn't a grand pronouncement shouted by a crazy, hair-on-fire ideologue. Instead, a long-time U.S. senator stated with calm confidence that if an employer could find someone desperate enough to take a job for fifty cents an hour, then that employer should have the right to pay that wage and not a penny more. He might as well have said that employers could eat cake and the workers could scramble for whatever crumbs fall off the table.
For just a blink, I wasn't in a heavily paneled Senate hearing room. I wasn't sitting at an elevated dais. I didn't have an aide seated behind me and cameras pointed my way.
FOR JUST A blink, I was a skinny sixteen-year-old girl, back in Oklahoma City. It was early in the fall, and I had just started my senior year of high school.
By then we were a small family: all that was left of us was Mother, Daddy, and me. My three older brothers had each in turn left for the military, gotten married, and were starting families of their own.
Like every family, we'd had our ups and downs, but from my teenage perspective, life felt a little steadier again. Mother answered phones at Sears, and Daddy sold lawn mowers and fences. Two paychecks. It had been a couple of years since the bill collectors had called or people had threatened to take away our home. Late at night, I no longer heard the muffled sounds of my mother crying.
But it was still tough. There was no extra money, no breathing room. I waited tables and babysat. I picked up a few dollars sewing and ironing, although nothing regular. I was sixteen — sixteen and watching the world slip away. This was my last year of high school, and it looked like everyone at Northwest Classen had a future, everyone except me. All my friends were talking about college. They went on nonstop as they compared schools and sororities and possible majors. No one seemed to worry about what it would cost. Me? I didn't have the money for a college application, much less tuition and books. Some days it seemed like college might as well have been on the moon.
It was a miserable time in my life.
One night my mother and I had another fight about what I should do after high school. I look back now and realize that she was trying her best. She worked long hours, and she sometimes seemed stretched to the breaking point.
On this one night, it all spun out of control. She had been yelling at me. Why was I so special that I had to go to college? Did I think I was better than everyone else in the family? Where would the money come from? I did the usual: I stared at the floor in silence, and when I'd had enough, I retreated to my bedroom. But this time, retreat wasn't enough. She followed me into my room and kept yelling. I finally jumped up from my desk and screamed at her to leave me alone.
Quick as lightning, she hit me hard in the face.
I think we were both stunned. She backed out of my room. I stuffed a handful of clothes into a canvas bag and raced out the front door.
Hours later, Daddy found me downtown, sitting on a bench at the bus station. My face was red, and I was still shaking. I was hurt — hurt and discouraged.
Everything in my life seemed wrong.
Daddy sat down beside me on the bench, and for a long time he said nothing. Both of us stared ahead. After a while, he asked if I was hungry. He walked over to a vending machine and brought back some cracker sandwiches. Then he asked me if I remembered the time after his heart attack, those hard months when he and Mother were sure they were about to lose the house.
It had been nearly four years earlier. After his heart attack, Daddy had been in the hospital for a long time, and when he came home he was gray and even quieter than usual. He spent hours sitting alone, smoking cigarettes and looking off into space. He moved into the tiny bedroom that had been left empty when my brother David joined the army.
For months, my mother carried around Kleenex or the cheap off-brand she usually bought. She worked the tissues into shreds, leaving them balled up in ashtrays and on her dresser. But she always had one ready in case she started to cry. And she cried a lot.
Daddy said it was the worst time in his life. Worse than when the doctors thought the lumps on his neck were cancer. Worse than when his best friend, Claude, died. Worse than when he was in a terrible car crash and smashed through the windshield and tore his shoulder open.
"Your mother was at home when they took the station wagon," he said, his voice low. "And then they said they were going to take the house. She cried every night."
He paused for a long time. "I just couldn't face it."
Sitting there on the bench in the bus station, he told me that he had failed and that the shame had nearly killed him. He wanted to die. He wanted to disappear from our lives and from the earth and from everything that had gone wrong. He would think about how bad things were and ask whether this was the night to leave my mother and me.
What happened? I asked.
Daddy sat silently for a long time, caught somewhere in his memories of those awful days. He still didn't look at me. Finally, he took my hand in both of his and held it tightly.
It got better, he said. Your mother found work. We made some payments. After a while, I went back to work. We had less money, but it was enough to get by. We got caught up on the mortgage. You seemed to do okay.
Finally he turned and looked at me. "Life gets better, punkin."
And that's how I'd always remembered this moment: my daddy telling me to hang on, that no matter how bad it feels, life gets better. I had carried that story in my pocket for decades. It was how I made it through the painful parts. Divorce. Disappointments. Deaths. Whenever things got really tough, I would pull out that story and hold it in my mind. I'd hear my daddy's voice, and I'd always feel better. By now, his line was a part of me.
Life gets better, punkin.
IT WAS JUST a blink before I was back in that fancy hearing room again. But that's all it takes — just a blink — to change someone's life. My daddy's life. My mother's life. My life.
As I walked back to my office, I thought about how close my family had come to disaster. After my daddy's heart attack, we were tumbling down a hill toward a cliff, and we had been just about to go over the edge when my mother grabbed a branch — a job at Sears. She was fifty years old, and for the first time in her life she had a job with a paycheck. She answered phones and took catalog orders. In a cramped room with no windows, eight women, mostly hard-pressed mothers like her, sat all day long, ready to help customers who called. She wore high heels and hose, and every day she and her coworkers took forty minutes for lunch and two breaks that lasted exactly ten minutes each.
And she was paid minimum wage.
So when Senator Alexander said there would be no minimum wage if it were up to him, I thought about how much that job had meant to Mother and Daddy and me. My mother's minimum-wage job not only saved our house — it saved our family. No, it didn't make our lives perfect. It took years to work off the medical bills from my father's heart attack. My mother worked and reworked her grocery list to squeeze out every last nickel. The carpet in the living room got worn through to the bare floor. And there were times when my mother's anxieties took over and she lashed out, and times when my daddy got scary quiet. But we hung together. We made it — shaken, but still standing.
What if Mother hadn't earned enough money to keep us going after Daddy got sick? We'd already lost the family station wagon. What if we'd lost the house? What would the shame have done to my daddy? And if he had left us forever? What would the loss have done to Mother and me? Would I have ever made it to college? Or would she and I have clung to each other, both so fatally wounded that neither of us could ever have recovered?
I don't know what would have happened if Mother hadn't been able to break our fall with a minimum-wage job at Sears. But I do know that policy decisions about important issues like the minimum wage matter. Those decisions — made in far-off Washington, reached in elegant rooms by confident, well-fed men and women — really matter.
Back in the 1960s, when my mother worked at Sears, a minimum-wage job could keep a family of three afloat. Mother had a high school education and no work experience, but when Sears needed someone to answer the phones, the law required the company to pay her an hourly rate that was enough to keep our family of three up and on our feet.
And that's where the sick-in-the-back-of-the-throat unfairness of it nearly chokes me. In the years since my mother went to work at Sears, America has gotten richer. In fact, the country's total wealth is at an all-time high.
My mother wasn't much into politics, but I'm sure she would have assumed that fifty years later, the minimum wage would be a lot higher. If it could feed a family of three and pay a mortgage in 1965, surely by now a minimum wage would let a family afford, say, a home and a car — and maybe even a little money for college applications for a skinny daughter. Right?
Wrong. Way wrong.
Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage today is lower than it was in 1965 — about 24 percent lower. That job at Sears allowed my mother to eke out a living for a family of three; today, a mother working full- time and getting paid the minimum wage cannot afford the rent on the average two-bedroom apartment anywhere in America. In Oklahoma, where I grew up, that mother wouldn't even come close to providing a poverty-level income for her family. Paying rent, keeping groceries on the table, having a little money left over for school shoes or lunch money — those are all out of reach. Today a mother who tries to break her family's fall simply can't grab the same branch that was there for my family.
Today, Washington has decided to turn away as more families than ever tumble over a financial cliff and crash on the rocks below. I'm in my fifth year in the United States Senate, and during my time in office I've learned a bitter lesson: a Republican-led Congress just doesn't care.
Where people end up in life is about more than hard work and good fortune. The rules matter, too. It matters whether the government blows tens of billions of dollars on tax loopholes for billionaires or whether that same money is used to lower costs for students who have to borrow money to go to college. It matters whether Wall Street can pocket billions of dollars by cheating people on mortgages and tricking them on credit cards or if there's a cop on the beat to keep them honest. It matters whether the minimum wage is set so low that a full-time worker still lives in poverty or if minimum wage also means a livable wage.
Excerpted from "This Fight Is Our Fight"
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Warren.
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.
1. The Disappearing Middle Class
2. A Safer Economy
3. Makingand Breakingthe Middle Class
4. The Rich and Powerful Tighten Their Grip
5. The Moment of Upheaval
Afterword to the 2018 Edition
Warren lays out a position I'd call enlightened populism. She rails against the growing concentration of income and wealth in the hands of a tiny elite; argues that this concentration of economic rewards has also undermined our political system; and links unequal wealth and power to the stagnating incomes, growing insecurity and diminishing opportunities facing ordinary families. She puts a face on these stresses with capsule portraits of middle-class travails…She also makes good use of the autobiographical mode, contrasting her stories of modern hard times with the opportunities her (and my) generation had in a more generous, less unequal era…Warren brings an edge to her advocacy that many Democrats have shied away from…This Fight Is Our Fight is a smart, tough-minded book.The New York Times Book Review - Paul Krugman
★ 2017-05-01Kirkus Reviews
Girded for battle, the senior senator from Massachusetts forcefully lays out the bleak picture of an American government increasingly controlled by corporate greed and special interests.Warren (A Fighting Chance, 2014, etc.), a former Harvard Law School professor and a prolific author, has been America's Cassandra even before becoming a Democratic senator in 2012. She is appalled by the inability of regular working people like her own family from Oklahoma to make a living in a once-thriving American economy. She proudly cites how, in the 1960s, her mother got a minimum-wage job after her husband's heart attack and was able to keep the family going and even pay the mortgage. Yet now, a war of attrition is being waged on most Americans, a kind of "economic boa constrictor that is squeezing working families so hard they can't breathe." The causes are broad and include stagnant wages that have not kept up with inflation, unstable employment as companies move overseas, lack of benefits such as basic health and day care, high fixed expenses (transportation, housing, college), and rising debt. Using several examples of personal stories, such as a low-wage worker and an African-American family struggling from layoffs and mortgage discrimination, Warren addresses these issues one by one. In Washington, D.C., she has taken up the cudgel for basic fairness regarding the minimum wage and alleviating the national scandal of student-loan debt, all the while struggling mightily against the Republican majority. Indeed, Warren's education in maneuvering through the powers that be is eye-opening, and she shares her experiences with grim frankness. As she notes, the persistent mirage of trickle-down economics, begun by Ronald Reagan, has taken on fresh life thanks to Donald Trump, resulting in renewed calls for deregulation (especially on banks), withdrawing research and infrastructure spending, cutting taxes for the rich, busting unions, and permitting unlimited lobbying and influence. The author sounds the alarm that an oligarchy is in the making, and her urgency is palpable and necessary. Inspiring words to empower Warren's marching army.
“This Fight Is Our Fight is a smart, tough-minded book....What Democrats need right now is a reason to keep fighting. And that’s something Warren’s muscular, unapologetic book definitely offers. It’s an important contribution.” Paul Krugman, The New York Times Book Review
"This Fight Is Our Fight provides an insider’s look at the machinations that are undermining the U.S. economy and political system. Warren spells out what is happening and what needs to be done to reverse the slide....Warren is outspoken, personable, emphatic, dedicated....It is unusual for any politician to be so open." New York Journal of Books
"Girded for battle, the senior senator from Massachusetts forcefully lays out the bleak picture of an American government increasingly controlled by corporate greed and special interests....The author sounds the alarm that an oligarchy is in the making, and her urgency is palpable and necessary. Inspiring words to empower Warren's marching army."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)From the Publisher