The report defines the working class as consisting of persons “with at least a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree living in households between the 20th and 50th income percentiles—roughly $30,000 to $69,000 a year for a household with two adults and one child” (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 1). It includes whites (58.6%), Hispanics (18.3%), and blacks (17.1%) (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 12). For the most part, the report discusses the working class as a multi-cultural category, without reference to race or ethnicity, a useful strategy for discussing socio-economic conditions. However, inasmuch as the white working class voted for Trump in a much higher percentage than the Hispanic or black working class, the framing of the report establishes as a constant and primary concern with the impact of the dynamics affecting the working class as a whole on the political and social attitudes of white workers in particular. Indeed, the report could be interpreted as implicitly asserting that, if the government and the corporations do not attend more to the needs of the working class, white workers will increasing turn to the ultra-Right, to white nationalism, and to new forms of fascism, which would weaken the capacity of the political establishment to govern.
The report outlines a number of factors since 1980 that have effected the U.S. working class adversely: the loss of manufacturing jobs as a result of automation, factory relocation, and corporate investments abroad (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 51, 61-62); stagnating wages and declining wealth (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 27-28, 34, 61); falling union membership (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 10, 34, 63), limited parental leave benefits and insufficient affordable high-quality child care (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 36, 102-5); and insufficient training programs oriented to workplace skills (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 77-86). The report maintains that these work-related insufficiencies have social and personal consequences: declining rates of marriage, an increasing number of single parent families, decline of participation in religious and civic associations, and increasing drug addiction and overdoses (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 52-54, 97-98). These dynamics have affected all sectors of American society, but they have hit the working class the hardest (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 111).
What occurred, the report maintains, was that the nation retreated from the social contract that had been built on unions and government benefits. Previously, unions “checked the power of corporations” and were able to improve wages and working conditions. There was a range of government benefits, including social security, the GI bill, labor laws, and support for home ownership. As the nation turned from the social contract, “the political establishment looked the other way,” seeming to favor every group except those with moderate incomes (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 10-11).
The report pays special attention to the effects of these dynamics on the quality of life of the white working class. It notes that US middle-aged whites with only a high-school education or less is one of the few groups of the world for which mortality rates are not declining, as a result of an increase of deaths by drugs, alcohol, or suicide (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 10). And it describes their effects on the political and social attitudes of white workers.
The white working class, once the mainstay of the Democratic Party, looks back on the War on Poverty as the first step in a long fall from favor. The perceived betrayal continued through the 1960s and ’70s, as economic dislocation began to erode workers’ way of life but national sympathy focused on minorities, women, the gay community and other “victims,” some worse off than the working class but others much more affluent. Rightly or wrongly, many working-class people begrudge the money Washington spends on antipoverty programs, which they believe reward idle and irresponsible behavior. Others chafe at affirmative action, which they feel tips the scales against them when they apply for jobs and college admissions. The government programs that address working-class problems are paltry and often all but invisible to the people they’re intended to help (OA/AEI/BI, 2018, 11)
In assessing the impact of the indifference to the working class on the political attitudes of white workers, it is relevant to note that the percentage of whites in the working class today (58.6% nationally) varies greatly from state to state. The white percentage is lowest in states with large populations of color, like California, Texas, and Florida, where whites are less than 50% of the working class. But in many states of the Midwest and West, and in the key Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin (which Trump won in 2016), whites comprise 75% or more of the working class. Inasmuch as white workers are far more likely than black and Latino workers to turn to an economic nationalist and scapegoating candidate like Trump in reaction to indifference to the needs of the working class, the political impact is greater in states where the white percentage of the working class is higher, which include key states in the Electoral College.
The Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings study group formulates a series of proposals to restore dignity and a sense of purpose to the American working class. Its proposals are far too limited. The fundamental limitation of the study group is that it seeks to forge bipartisan consensus in support of a plan that intends to rescue the American political establishment from an increasingly alienated working class. It does not seek to reframe the analysis from the vantage point of the working class and reformulate national aspirations toward the empowerment of the working class and other popular sectors. I will discuss this theme in the following posts.
Opportunity America/AEI/Brookings Working Class Study (OA/AEI/BI). 2018. Work, Skills, Community: Restoring opportunity for the working class. (Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and the Brookings Institution).