Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
White Americans have historically enjoyed a privileged position, and for much of the country’s history that included whites with limited education and income. Is this still true, or has inclusion in the American community decreased significantly for working-class whites?
Skip to …
- Population share
- Economic well-being
- Political satisfaction
- What has gone wrong for working-class whites?
Half a century ago, whites with less than a four-year college degree were about 75% of the American population. As figure 1 shows, that share has been declining steadily since then, to fewer than 50%.
Manufacturing jobs were a key source of employment and good wages for working-class whites in the middle part of the 20th century. As we see in figure 2, the share of working-age Americans with a manufacturing job has been falling steadily for half a century, from 16% in 1970 to 6% in the late 2010s. In some cities and towns, the decline has been particularly sharp.1
Whites without a four-year college degree are less likely than college graduates (of all races) to be employed, as we see in figure 3. However, the gap doesn’t appear to have widened in recent decades.
Have working-class whites become increasingly worried about losing their job? Figure 4 suggests they haven’t.
Nor is there evidence of a widening gap between working-class whites and college graduates in job satisfaction, as we see in figure 5.
When we turn to wages and income, the story is different. Figure 6 shows trends in wages since the early 1970s. Not surprisingly, wages and incomes are higher for those with more education. What about the trend over time? Wages have increased for Americans who are college graduates, whereas for whites without a college degree they’ve barely budged. A similar story holds for household incomes, as we see in figure 7.
Figure 8 shows the share of people who think their standard of living is better than that of their parents at a similar age. Until recently there was no difference between college graduates and whites without a college degree. In the 2010s a small gap emerged.
Since the mid-1980s, the General Social Survey has regularly asked “The way things are in America, people like me and my family have a good chance of improving our standard of living. Do you agree or disagree?” As we see in figure 9, agreement is a bit more common among college graduates than among whites without a college degree, but there has been little if any change in the magnitude of the gap.
Figure 10 shows one additional indicator of perceived economic well-being. Noncollege whites are a little less likely than college graduates to feel the taxes they pay aren’t too high. But the gap is small. And for both groups the share has been increasing steadily since the early 1980s.
So the story with respect to economic well-being is mixed. White Americans without a four-year college degree are less likely than college graduates to be employed, and their wages and household incomes are lower. But only for wages and incomes has the gap increased. And there is a relatively small gap, or none at all, when it comes to job satisfaction, fear of losing one’s job, doing better economically than one’s parents, optimism about future improvement in standard of living, and satisfaction with taxes.
The share of Americans who are married has been falling since the mid-1960s. As we see in figure 11, through the mid-1990s the marriage rate among noncollege whites was very similar to that for college graduates. Since then, however, the trends have separated, with marriage holding steady for college grads but continuing to decline for whites without a four-year college degree.
A common measure of people’s perception of safety is their response to the question “Is there any area right around here — that is, within a mile — where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” Figure 12 shows the share responding no. There is no difference between whites without a college degree and college graduates.
Figure 13 shows Americans’ responses to the question “Would you say your own health, in general, is excellent, good, fair, or poor?” The lines indicate the share responding good or excellent. That share has tended to be significantly lower among whites who don’t have a college degree than among college graduates, though there hasn’t been any noteworthy change in the size of the gap.
Mortality trends tell a different story. Figure 14 shows deaths by drugs, alcohol, or suicide among people in middle age. The rate among whites without a college degree has increased steadily and sharply since the early 1990s, and particularly since 2000, whereas it has been relatively flat among Blacks without a college degree and among college graduates.
Americans’ trust in other people has been declining since the early-to-mid 1960s. As figure 15 shows, that’s true among both college graduates and whites without a college degree. Noncollege whites are less trusting. The gap doesn’t appear to have changed much, if at all, over time.
The General Social Survey regularly asks Americans “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Figure 16 shows the share who say they are pretty happy or very happy. For much of the period since the early 1970s whites without a college degree have been slightly less likely than college graduates to be pretty or very happy. The gap has widened a bit since the early 2000s.
In a recent study, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald use data from a different survey to construct a measure of what they call “extreme distress.” The survey asks “Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 days was your mental health not good?” Respondents who said their mental health was not good for all 30 days were classified as exhibiting extreme distress. Figure 17 shows trends for four sociodemographic groups over the period for which the survey data are available, 1993 to 2019.
Extreme distress among middle-aged white Americans who have no college increased from about 5% to 12% over this period, whereas it held constant among the other three groups. About one-third of whites have no college, and people aged 35-54 are a subset of the full population, so the share of all white Americans in extreme distress rose from perhaps 1% to 2%. This is a relatively small group. Still, it’s a striking trend, suggesting that something has gone wrong among this group.2
From one perspective, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election wasn’t surprising.3 We can predict presidential election outcomes pretty well by looking at income growth in the middle six months of the election year coupled with how many terms the incumbent party has held the presidency. This predicted the popular vote result almost perfectly in 2016. Also, most Americans are firmly attached to their preferred political party and each party currently has the support of about half of the electorate. Most Republicans and Democrats will automatically vote for their party’s candidate, which guarantees each candidate 45% or so of the votes.
From another perspective, the election outcome was shocking. Donald Trump was one of the most objectionable presidential candidates in our country’s history — an impulsive, mean-spirited, narcissistic, thin-skinned serial liar and confessed sexual predator with little interest in policy details. According to pre-election YouGov polls in 2016, Trump was viewed as “not qualified” by 60% of Americans, “not honest and trustworthy” by 58%, and “crazy” by 56%. Yet 63 million Americans, nearly half of those who voted for one of the two major-party candidates, cast their ballot for him. Then, after getting a good look at him in office for four years, nearly half voted for him again in 2020.
One key reason is whites without a four-year college degree. In 2016 and 2020, Trump won this group by a margin of more than 20 percentage points, as figure 18 shows. That’s a large number, and a significant increase compared to elections in the 1990s and 2000s. A sizable number among this group seem to have wanted a president committed to changing the country’s economic and/or social direction.
WHAT HAS GONE WRONG FOR WORKING-CLASS WHITES?
White Americans without a college degree don’t appear to have lost much, if any, ground relative to college graduates (of all races) when it comes to likelihood of being employed, perceived job security, job satisfaction, having a higher standard of living than one’s parents, optimism about future improvements in one’s standard of living, or satisfaction with taxes. They have, however, experienced stagnant wages and household incomes, with the result that they’ve fallen farther behind those with a college degree.
Marriage has declined more for non-college-degree whites. Their likelihood of dying in middle age has increased. More of them say they aren’t very happy, and that their mental health has been not good every day during the past month. And quite a few seemingly feel so frustrated with the status quo that they were willing to vote for Donald Trump for president.
According to analysts and commentators, trends in the economy, changes in social norms, shifts in popular culture, and the surge in availability of opioids are among the key causes of these developments.4 What, if anything, do working-class whites themselves think is wrong?
Here are some possibilities:
- Frustration at the disappearance of good jobs.5 Joan Williams puts it as follows: “‘The thing that really gets me is that Democrats try to offer policies (paid sick leave! minimum wage!) that would help the working class,’ a friend just wrote me. A few days’ paid leave ain’t gonna support a family. Neither is minimum wage. White working-class men aren’t interested in working at McDonald’s for $15 per hour instead of $9.50. What they want is what my father-in-law had: steady, stable, full-time jobs that deliver a solid middle-class life to the 75% of Americans who don’t have a college degree.”
Worry due to economic insecurity: fear of losing your job and not being able to find a comparable one to replace it, fear of your home’s value falling, fear of losing your home to foreclosure, fear of poverty in retirement.6
Disappointment with lack of economic improvement. As we saw above, wages and household incomes for white Americans without a four-year college degree have been stagnant since the late 1970s.7
Frustration at perceived economic decline. Whites without a college degree (aged 25-54) are twice as likely as similarly-educated African Americans and Latinos to say their standard of living is much worse or somewhat worse than their parents’.8
Frustration at the high cost of child care, health insurance, housing (in an area that’s safe and has a good public school), college for your kids.
Resentment at growing economic inequality. Those with college degrees have been doing well economically, and the rich have been doing extremely well.
Resentment at groups who receive government help that you don’t, from social assistance to disability benefits to health care to affirmative action.9 Arlie Hochschild: “You are standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage, patient but weary. You are in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, native-born, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not. At the crest of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line, a standard of living higher than that your parents enjoyed. Many behind you in line are people of color — poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. You wish them well, but your attention is trained on those ahead of you…. But look! Some people are coming from behind and cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you are being moved back. How can they just do that? You’re following the rules. They aren’t. Who are they? They are black. They are brown. They are career-driven women, helped by Affirmative Action programs.”
Frustration at loss of economic and social status.10 This may be particularly pertinent for working-class men, whose identity used to be centered on having a solid-paying stable full-time job in a “male occupation.” There are fewer manufacturing jobs available, and it feels like other stereotypically male occupations, such as solider and police officer, have lost some esteem and status in the eyes of many Americans.
Resentment at lack of fair treatment by the federal and state government: ignored, given fewer resources, saddled with unfunded mandates. Government is seen as favoring other groups — minorities, the poor, immigrants, big cities, corporations, everything except rural communities and their residents.11
Frustration at liberals’ and government agencies’ perceived privileging of the environment and endangered animals over jobs.12
Dislike of government deficits and debt. Families have to reduce spending when economic times are tough, so why, according to this perspective, shouldn’t government have to do the same?13
Frustration at neighborhood and town decay — fewer good jobs; less attendance at religious services; schools and infrastructure decaying due to revenue decline, which spurs population decline, which furthers the revenue decline; more people on meth, opioids, or heroin.14 Along with the perception of absolute decline, this also has a relative component: big cities seem to be doing great, with growing populations, rising property values, declining crime, loads of restaurants, nice parks, new housing. Even some large cities that were in bad shape a few decades ago, from New York to Pittsburg, seem to have come back successfully, whereas smaller cities and towns feel like they’re getting worse.
Discomfort with social and cultural modernity and its perceived assault on traditionalism — the embrace of racial and ethnic diversity, openness to nontraditional family structures and sexual orientations, rejection of guns, political correctness, and ascendance of secularism.15
Discomfort with growing ethnic and cultural heterogeneity in your local community, particularly when it is driven by immigrants.16
Frustration with the diminution of national pride and “America First” sentiment.
Resentment at economic, cultural, media, and governmental elites’ condescending view of working-class whites as ignorant, simple-minded, backward, blindly religious, intolerant, “deplorable.”17
Distrust of politicians who argue for staying the course. They must be in the pockets of the rich and powerful or the well-organized.
There has been quite a bit of research on this question, but we don’t yet have clear answers.
- David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson, “The China Shock: Learning from Labor Market Adjustment to Large Changes in Trade,” Annual Review of Economics, 2016. ↩
- See also Noreen Goldmana, Dana A. Gleib, and Maxine Weinstein, “Declining Mental Health Among Disadvantaged Americans,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018. ↩
- Larry Bartels, “2016 Was an Ordinary Election, Not a Realignment,” Washington Post: The Monkey Cage, 2016; Lane Kenworthy, “Voters, Groups, Parties, and Elections,” The Good Society. ↩
- Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, 2020; Lane Kenworthy, “A Decent and Rising Income Floor,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Shared Prosperity,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Families,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Personal Freedom,” The Good Society; Kenworthy, “Longevity,” The Good Society. ↩
- Andrew Levison, The White Working Class Today, Democratic Strategist Press, 2013; Joan C. Williams, “What So Many People Don’t Get about the U.S. Working Class,” Harvard Business Review, 2016. ↩
- Jennifer Sherman, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America, University of Minnesota Press, 2009. ↩
- Case and Deaton, Deaths of Despair. ↩
- Andrew J. Cherlin, “Why Are White Death Rates Rising?,” New York Times, 2016. ↩
- Pete Hamill, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” New York Magazine, 1969; Thomas B. Edsall with Mary D. Edsall, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, W.W. Norton, 1991; Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New Press, 2016. ↩
- Hamill, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class”; Levison, The White Working Class Today; Case and Deaton, Deaths of Despair; Arthur C. Brooks, “The Dignity Deficit,” Foreign Affairs, 2016; Betsey Stevenson, “Manly Men Need to Do More Girly Jobs,” Bloomberg View, Dec 7, 2016. ↩
- David Brooks, “One Nation, Slightly Divisible,” The Atlantic, 2001; Sherman, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t; Katherine Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, University of Chicago Press, 2016. ↩
- Sherman, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t. ↩
- Levison, The White Working Class Today; Monica Prasad, Steve G. Hoffman, and Kieran Bezila, “Walking the Line: The White Working Class and the Economic Consequences of Morality,” Politics and Society, 2016. ↩
- Sherman, Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t; Levison, The White Working Class Today; Timothy P. Carney, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Harper, 2019. ↩
- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Metropolitan Books, 2004; Levison, The White Working Class Today; Daniel Cox, Rachel Lienisch, and Robert P. Jones, “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump,” PRRI and The Atlantic, 2017. ↩
- Cox et al, “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump.” ↩
- Levison, The White Working Class Today; Michael A. Lindenberger interview with J.D. Vance, “Trump’s Appeal among Working Class Rooted in Resentment of Elites,” Dallas News, Sept 21, 2016. ↩