THE TWO GAUNT rich guys currently vying for the attention of a fat, broke electorate talk about “jobs” all the time, and their minions spin the latest unemployment numbers back and forth like sports talk radio callers parsing an on-base percentage. The candidates also speak frequently about “hard-working middle-class families” and employ a variety of euphemisms for the working class. But because running for president is an exercise in sentimental abstraction, the working lives of Americans rarely crack the surface of a campaign. It’s very difficult for candidates to talk with any meaningful precision about who’s working and who isn’t, what the work is like, and what kind of life it makes possible.
So Jeanne Marie Laskas’ new book, “Hidden America,” comes along at just the right moment to provide a useful perspective. Laskas examines the lives of coal miners, migrant fruit-pickers, air traffic controllers, oil rig workers, truckers, landfill workers, and others who do vital but often invisible labor. We want electricity when we flip the light switch, we want to order something online and have it show up on our doorstep soon after, we want to fly without incident. But on the rare occasions when consumers think about those whose labor makes such things possible, it’s usually because some of these workers died on the job, screwed up, or went on strike. “If the disconnect between us (the people who demand) and them (the people who supply) says anything about us, it’s probably not flattering,” writes Laskas.