Photo via Flickr user Thomas Altfather Good
It's that time of year again, when street corners across the country are invaded by people in togas and tiaras, twirling arrows in the direction of the nearest Liberty Tax Services office.
"This job is amazing," says a marketing manager identified as Becky in a promotional video for the company's clone army of Statue of Liberties, which it dispatches each tax season to lure customers into its offices. "It gives you the opportunity to network, build relationships, extend your natural attributes that you already have, and it doesn't even feel like you are really working."
Sounds fun, right? But having passed numerous shivering Lady Liberties on the streets of New York City recently, I had my doubts. I know several people who, as teenagers, got their first job standing on a corner dressed as a slice of pizza or passing out fliers for a furniture store for minimum wage. But, in today's economy, workers taking such positions frequently have salt and pepper on their chins rather than acne.
"My hands are freezing, but it's not too bad," said Maynard, wearing ski gloves, a sweater, two jackets, and a Statue of Liberty outfit. We spoke earlier this month on Livingston Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Although he was glad to have the job, he wasn't as excited about it as anyone in Liberty Tax's promo film was. "I just wave and pass out their fliers. That's all the job requires."
Maynard, who is 49 years old, previously worked as a janitor at JFK Airport for 17 years but was laid off recently when his employer went under. He's not certain what he'll do when tax season ends on April 15, but he's "got things lined up," he said, including a potential security job. Until then, he'll be standing on Livingston dressed as one of America's most endearing symbols of freedom and prosperity.
There's a Miss Liberty Tax by the name of Brittney Wojtaszek who travels around the country acting as the company's public face at trade shows and franchise conventions. She is young and has a masters degree in marketing. But she's an exception: Most of the Statues of Liberty I've encountered are older men living hand to mouth. They said they were content, happy to have any form of work, but their biggest complaint was that it is boring as hell.
In Flatbush, Brooklyn, I met a Statue of Liberty named Dula, also 49, who tries to make things interesting by rapping: "Slim, trim, brown-skinned. I'm the man you probably want to meet. I'm giving away money so you all can eat."
The most fun part of being a Statue of Liberty, Dula told me, is when he drops fake $50 dollar bills on the sidewalk, which always sparks a frenzy in the working-class West Indian neighborhood. "We fold them and throw them down and people go crazy," he said. "When they pick them up and look closer, they see it's an advertisement. We tell them they should do their taxes with us and if they bring a friend they get $50 off."
The Lady Liberties I spoke with all earn minimum wage or a little more. Dula takes in $8.75 an hour. "I was on public assistance," he said, "but it ain't nothing. They only give you $215 a month. It's a Willie Lynch trap."
Dula has five kids to support, which means he spends as much time as he can out on the street so he can support them. He even worked during the blizzard that hit New York City last month. By working hard as a Lady Liberty, and whatever job he can find when tax season ends, he hopes to advance on to bigger and better things—an expectation that Liberty Tax Service appears to reinforce.
In its promotional video, Michael, a Liberty Tax franchise owner, claims the statues have moved up company ranks to "be tax preparers… managers… [and] multi-unit franchise owners." I wanted to ask Michael, or anyone from Liberty Tax, how often the employees it dresses as emblems of the American dream climb its corporate ladder, but no one from the company responded to the multiple emails and phone messages I left.
To Dula's 26-year-old colleague, Adrian, who has two kids to support, the job seems like just another snare. "They don't want you to make too much money, just enough to get you coming back the next day," he said.
Some sociologists would categorize the legions of Lady Liberties on America's street corners as examples of a new social class, the precariat. Unlike the traditional proletariat, the precariat lack steady employment and frequently work as contractors or in temporary positions, living precariously without job security or benefits.
"The American precariat seems… hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends, and family but without faith in American possibilities," wrote New York Times' David Brooks last year, lamenting: "This fatalism is historically uncharacteristic of America."
Brooks endorses a proposal from the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Strain to provide the long-term unemployed with travel vouchers. "If we could induce more people to Go West! (or South, East, or North) in search of opportunity, maybe the old future-oriented mind-set would return," he wrote.
However, Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at CUNY's Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, argues the struggles facing the precariat will persist no matter where the huddled masses travel.
"There might be jobs in North Dakota right now, but those jobs are going to be gone by the time the first 10,000 people arrive." said Milkman. "This is a national problem, a structural problem."
The rise of the precariat goes back to the decline of organized labor, beginning with de-industrialization in the 1970s, along with a legacy of workplace deregulation, and a lack of enforcement that has persisted since the Reagan-era in the 80s, according to Milkman.
Increasingly, since the Great Recession began, the precariat is a class that "cuts across the education spectrum," she added. It includes workers like Dula and Maynard, who lack college educations, as well as younger, often debt-strapped Americans who might have bachelors or graduate degrees and are working at Starbucks or as adjunct professors. She believes social movements taking on systemic economic inequality like Occupy Wall Street or the campaign for a $15 minimum wage could improve life for precariat.
In the meantime, Dula and his comrades are serving as stuntmen for the American dream, doing what it takes to get by on the streets while the real Statue of Liberty poses for photographs with tourists.
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