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Working Class in Alaska

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — In my piece yesterday, I took a look at whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s record on issues important to the working class has matched her efforts on the national stage to woo that important voting bloc.

Palin has described herself as an “every-day” American and a “Joe Six-Pack,” struggling with the same issues as other working-class families.

An idea I didn’t get to explore much in the story is: what does it mean to be working-class in Alaska?

Many people I spoke with here told me that Alaskans would have a similar view on “working-class” as other places in the country. A working-class person probably has a blue-collar job or works in the service industry at an hourly rate. Working-class families live above the poverty level, but often have to make tough budget decisions to get by.

Nelta Edwards, a sociology professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, who studies class in the state, said that people here understand class in the same way the rest of America does, by and large. She said the difference is that it is made much less of an issue — particular in political campaigns.

“We just don’t talk about class,” Edwards said.

Some here disagree with Edwards’s assertions. They say it’s not just that Alaskans don’t talk about class, but that the actual idea of class is different than other places.

One Alaskan I spoke with yesterday, Mead Treadwell, who is both an entrepreneur and government employee, sees class differently. Treadwell is chairman of the state’s Arctic Research Commission and CEO of a firm called Venture Ad Astra, that invests in and develops new geospatial and imaging technologies.

Treadwell came to Alaska 30 years ago, to cover state politics for the local paper. He reported on the complex issues involved in the construction of the oil pipeline that now connects Alaska’s oil to the wider market. He went to business school, and then spent much of his career working on natural-resource issues and Arctic research.

His story shares a Western theme with many others who came here as modern prospectors.

This common story looks at class much differently here compared to the East Coast, Treadwell said. He spoke about how, back East, you’re often asked where you went to college. In Alaska, that’s not part of the discussion. For example, before Palin was tapped to be the GOP vice presidential nominee, Treadwell had no idea she was a graduate of University of Idaho.

“Where [Palin] comes from is people living their lives simply,” Treadwell said, noting that most Alaskans enjoy the same pasttimes of fishing and snow sports. “It’s a place where pedigree doesn’t matter — where you’re judged by what you do to help build the country, not by what your last name is, or where you went to school.”

Treadwell wouldn’t say that everyone is the same financially, though he noted the difference in lifestyle between the very rich and very poor isn’t so different here.

“Alaska is a hard place to put on airs,” Treadwell said, “even if you wanted.”

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