Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family
by Lillian Breslow Rubin
Basic Books (first edition 1976, revised 1992)
An ebook version of Worlds of Pain can be borrowed free from Open Library
Worlds of Pain is one of the first mass marketed books to challenge the corporate/government myth that class differences vanished in the US with the post-World War II economic boom. Rubin herself (now deceased) came from a working class background. Reading her book in the early eighties was a big help in understanding why my working class background made me feel so alienated from my physician colleagues.
The book is based on a sociological study of fifty white Bay Area working class families and twenty-five professional families. On the basis of intensive interviews conducted over two years, Rubin concludes there are major cultural differences between upper middle income and low income families. She argues (convincingly) that these cultural differences are deeply rooted in the financial pressures experienced by working class families.
More than half the working class families Rubin interviewed had tortured childhood memories of extreme financial and emotional deprivation. Ten percent spent their childhood in institutions and foster homes and more than half experienced chronic family chaos tarnished by alcoholism, parental conflict and/or divorce.
All the working class families married in their late teens or early twenties, this being their sole means of escaping their hellish families. Forty-four percent of the wives were already pregnant at the time of marriage. The rest conceived within a year of pregnancy, resulting in a loss of their income.
The Prevalence of Debt
I was particularly struck that even in 1974 (before US manufacturing jobs were exported overseas), 70% of the families could only provide basic necessities for their children by acquiring major debt.*
Due to financial pressures, 58% of the women interviewed were forced to work outside the home even though they (and their husbands) would have preferred them to stay at home.
Rigid and Authoritarian Parenting
All the working class couples Rubin interviewed engaged in rigid and parenting out of fear their teenage girls would get pregnant and their teenager sons would be lured into criminal activity.
Rubin also found that her couples had few close relationships outside of extended family, that they had few shared leisure activities and limited community involvement (largely due to childcare expense). They were also highly skeptical of “liberal” ideas their children were exposed to in school – fearful these ideas might lead to “bad habits” that would get them in trouble.
*Due to the unavailability of credit cards in the mid-seventies, this was mainly in the form of mortgages, car loans and household items bought on installment payments.