BEAST — Luis Flores Jr., 33, a Calexico native and a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard, has won the American Sociological Association’s annual Dissertation Award for his groundbreaking dissertation on working from home, side jobs and the hidden economy that boosts so many people’s incomes. houses like the ones here in the Imperial Valley.

The dissertation, titled “The Regulatory Politics of Home-Based Moneymaking After the American Family Wage,” examines changing attitudes toward these informal and nontraditional ways of earning, as well as their proliferation since the 1970s. His work offers a deep understanding of how these shifts have blurred the boundaries between family and market, transforming homes into sites of production, exchange, and speculation.

“I bring a lot of personal experience to the way I think about changes in the economy,” said Flores, who grew up in his family’s flower shop across from Las Palmas Swap Meet in Calexico. “I just grew up in a marketplace, where the lines between family and work were always blurred. It was an immigrant economy, and you saw all this informality in it all the time. I grew up with MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) people coming into the store every other day with all kinds of energy drinks or Avon, you know?

Documents from the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were used by Luis Flores Jr. in research for his award-winning dissertation, “The Regulatory Politics of Home-Based Moneymaking After the American Family Wage.” | PHOTO COURTESY OF LUIS FLORES JR.

“Growing up at swap meets, it’s all about Calexico,” Flores said with a laugh.

The experience gave Flores introspective inspiration as he began his postdoctoral work at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “There’s this whole economy that I grew up in, and then I got to graduate school and realized that no one writes about this,” Flores reflected. “Everyone writes about unions, corporations, wealth at the top of the income distribution, and when they ever write about immigrant economies, it’s like these enclaves, these kind of separate, anomalous cases.”

Flores fell in love with research and academia when he left Imperial Valley after graduating from Calexico High School to attend the University of California, Berkeley. “You have to love universities to go into academia, you certainly don’t do it for the money,” Flores said with a laugh. After earning his bachelor’s degree, he followed that passion to Ann Arbor, where he began his doctoral studies in sociology under the guidance of advisor Dr. Greta Krippner.

In his award-winning dissertation, Flores examines the history of what he calls “home-based earning” and how it can now be used as a lens through which to look at the broader economy. He uses a rich archival methodology, analyzing regulatory documents, court challenges, and other data sources to unpack the conflicts and negotiations at the intersection of state and household economies. These informal ways of earning income have long been a trend, whether through street vending, home-based childcare, MLMs, or renting out garages and other Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). His findings highlight how these diverse forms of home-based work, once stigmatized, have gained acceptance and even encouragement as solutions to economic insecurity.

This shift is particularly clear in the context of the platform economy and the COVID-19 pandemic, though working from home isn’t limited to gig economy apps like Uber or AirBnB. “These kinds of things started in the ’70s and ’80s when jobs became a lot less stable, unionization was declining, deindustrialization, all these kinds of things,” Flores said. “That started long before the platforms. By the time AirBnB came along, there’s almost 40 years of fighting over accessory dwelling laws.”

“If you drive through Calexico, you see a lot of closed garages. Everyone rents out their garage,” Flores added.

While most researchers view border towns like Calexico as an outlier, where unique border dynamics create their own distinct economies, Flores sees the bigger picture reflected in immigrant communities across the country.

“There’s this extraordinary kind of story about Calexico, that it’s so different from everywhere else because it’s a border town. We often promote that as a source of pride, but I realized that it’s just an extreme case of immigrant neighborhoods everywhere else. If you go to MacArthur Park in LA, for example, you’re just in a denser Calexico in a lot of ways. Or if you go to Modesto or the Central Valley, right? There are a lot of cities that are very much like the Imperial Valley. The border reinforces the transnational aspect of our identity, but the kinds of social struggles, the inequalities, the kinds of histories, where the power lies in these communities, the kinds of resilience are all very similar to other immigrant communities.

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“That’s not to undermine our exceptionality in any way,” Flores said. “It’s to say that we have so much in common with these other communities, we’re part of this other America. We can learn about how people in those places are working to make our lives better. We’re in this shared struggle. A lot of my leaving is forgetting the exceptionalism story.”

Flores’ work has profound implications for our understanding of contemporary capitalism and economic citizenship. By examining the small-scale changes experienced by ordinary people, his research offers a unique perspective on the larger shifts in labor and economic systems.

Luis Flores Jr. is seen in an American Sociological Association graphic announcing his dissertation award for “The Regulatory Politics of Home-Based Moneymaking After the American Family Wage.” | COURTESY IMAGE

Some of the reasons for the rise of telecommuting are evident in current attitudes toward traditional labor, though Flores reminds us that these attitudes are not purely a modern development. “A 9 to 5 job is soul-destroying in many ways, even if it means you have health care. Not only are the benefits stagnant, or stagnant, in formal employment, but even in the ’60s, if you’re a white, union member in manufacturing, it’s very grueling work. You knew exactly where you were going to be in 30 years as you moved up the seniority ladder, but there wasn’t a lot of creativity or agency, and there were these trade-offs of a different kind. Once you’re faced with the fact that your 9 to 5 also doesn’t give you health care and your schedule is irregular, you start to think, why not take a leap of faith and start a pop-up somewhere?”

And while the discipline of sociology is more concerned with examining and explaining human behavior in the past and how it affects the present, Flores also looks to the future. As the current economic instability leads more households to seek these alternative income streams, he gives us two possible ways to stabilize home-based money-making enterprises.

“The first is finding new forms of collectivization, like unionization in this fragmented environment,” Flores explains. “The models for this are not just Uber drivers, who are trying to unionize, but the most successful are home care workers. They are a model of this type of work that is outsourced to mostly women who turn their homes into daycare centers. They have been able to unionize around this issue. You are also starting to see street vendor unions, which are not formal unions using labor laws, but they are organizing and trying to pressure governments to put in place protections to make this a more collective effort.

“The other way is that very, very basic needs have to be socialized. The reason why losing a 9 to 5 job, in the 70s and today, is so devastating is because it means you lose your pension, you lose your health care, you lose your unemployment insurance, you lose your 401k contributions. You lose all of these things that are tied to this work. The other way to make this new kind of economy less inequitable is to not make those basic needs dependent on a formal 9 to 5 job, which doesn’t exist as much anymore.”

The home-based money-making economy is real, and it’s the only way many American households, especially those in marginalized communities, can make ends meet. As the internet, automation, and increased outsourcing of labor continue to change the dynamics of American work, home-based money-making continues to expand. Flores believes that stability can be achieved within this new economy.

“I think those two things would move us in a direction where people can have creative and flexible work, where childcare, healthcare and pensions are not dependent on the type of job you have.”