Today’s working class is far different than the working class of more than half a century ago, at the height of American manufacturing’s importance in the labor market.1 Yet widespread misconceptions persist about the people without a four-year college degree who make up the American working class. Throughout the 2016 and 2020 election cycles, the term became, in some circles, nearly synonymous with white workers in manufacturing or skilled trades.2 A new Center for American Progress analysis reveals that, in fact, today’s working class is more diverse than ever.
According to data from the 2021 American Community Survey (ACS), the current working class largely works in services, particularly retail, health care, food service and accommodation, and building services, though manufacturing and construction remain large employers as well. Black, Hispanic, and other workers of color make up 45 percent of the working class, while non-Hispanic white workers comprise the remaining 55 percent. Nearly half of the working class is women, and 8 percent have disabilities.
These statistics highlight the need for policies to address the challenges that the working class faces in 2023.
The major industrial policies that President Joe Biden has signed into law—the Inflation Reduction Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and the CHIPS and Science Act—will help provide millions of quality jobs to people without college degrees, as well as help far more women and people of color enter construction and manufacturing jobs.3 These are vital steps. Yet these policies will need to be properly implemented to ensure they deliver high job quality and access to these jobs for workers from all walks of life. Further, additional policies will be required to more broadly improve working conditions in the service sector.
Pro-worker policymakers must understand the diversity of today’s working class as they craft policies to build an economy that truly works for all workers.
Defining the working class
This analysis defines the working class as comprising labor force participants who do not have a four-year college degree. It refers to non-working-class respondents as “college-educated,” defining them as individuals in the labor force with at least a four-year college degree or higher levels of education. Income can also be used as a measure of class membership, but it is far more variable by respondents’ age and job status than is education. For more details on the approach used in this analysis, see the Methodology section at the end of this brief.
Some surveys and press accounts rely on self-reported status of class membership, but individual attitudes on this topic are shaped by a number of factors and even change over time. A 2022 Gallup poll found that 46 percent of American adults identified as either “working” or “lower” class, with the rest identifying as “upper,” “upper-middle,” or “middle” class.4
The majority of America's workers are part of the working class
Prior to the 1990s, the working class constituted more than 90 percent of the labor force. Yet even as rates of college education increased, the working class continued to represent the largest portion of the workforce.5 In 2021, the working class still made up a majority of the American workforce, totaling 104 million workers. This means that, excluding students and active military members, 62 percent of the adult labor force is made up of members of the working class, while 38 percent of the labor force has at least a four-year college degree. (see Figure 1)
These numbers mean that policies directed toward the working class have an outsize impact on the health of the economy.
The working class is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever
For half a century, the working class has been growing more racially and ethnically diverse, and today, workers of color make up 45 percent of it, while non-Hispanic white workers make up the remaining 55 percent.6 (see Figure 2) The racial and ethnic diversity of today’s working class, even greater than the Center for American Progress Action Fund found in its 2017 analysis of working class demographics using 2015 data, is the product of a decadeslong shift; in 1970, when the share of people of color in the working class began to accelerate, non-Hispanic white workers made up 85 percent of the working class.7 This trend is poised to continue, with estimates suggesting that workers of color will make up a majority of the working class in 2032—a full 11 years before the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that people of color will constitute more than 50 percent of the entire population of the United States.8
Furthermore, as shown in Figure 2, the college-educated labor force is disproportionately white, while Black or African American and Hispanic or Latino workers make up a much larger share of the working class. This is in part the product of decades of discriminatory practices in access to education.9 Indeed, the growing share of Americans of color among the working class comes as a product of two things: 1) the nationwide gaps in degree attainment between white workers and workers of color10 and 2) the country itself growing more racially and ethnically diverse, especially as Generation Z, the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse generation,11 continues to enter the labor force. Immigrants of color currently make up 16.9 percent of the working class.12
Women make up nearly half of the working class
As shown in Figure 3, women make up 44 percent of the working class. This share has remained relatively consistent for several decades: The 2017 CAP Action analysis found that it had been stable at around 46 percent since roughly the 1990s.13 The proportion of women in the working class is affected not only by the rate at which women earn college degrees, which has been increasing,14 but also by women’s labor force participation rate. The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of working-class women in the labor force: Although the overall labor force participation rate for women remains roughly the same as in 2019, the total number of working-class women fell from 42.0 million in 2019 to 40.4 million in 2021.15 Women have borne especially steep job losses and increased caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic,16 which contributed to working-class women making a disproportionately high number of exits from the labor market.17 Occupational segregation, meanwhile, has contributed to fewer women reentering the labor market during the nation’s economic recovery.18
Decrease in working-class women in the labor force, 2019–2021
Additionally, a divide exists between the jobs held by women and men in the working class. Though jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors make up 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of the jobs that working-class people hold, only 8 percent of working-class women are employed in manufacturing, and only 2 percent are employed in construction. Far too often, women in these male-dominated roles still face harassment on the job.19 Job quality measures that only target manufacturing or construction work, therefore, are insufficient for addressing the needs of women working in service roles, while policymakers nationwide tasked with implementing industrial policies such as the IIJA or the CHIPS and Science Act must ensure the construction and manufacturing jobs those laws create are accessible to women.
Workers with disabilities are highly represented among the working class
Workers with disabilities make up a larger proportion of the working class than they do the proportion of workers with college degrees. As shown in Figure 4, a total of 8.7 percent of the American working-class labor force has a disability, compared with 4.76 percent of the labor force with four-year college degrees. This represents an increase from 2019, when 7.8 percent of the working class reported having a disability, and is potentially due in part to the disabling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.20
According to CAP analysis, 8 million working-class Americans describing themselves as having a disability. (see Methodology) policymakers must ensure that industrial policies create jobs that are accessible to disabled workers. Workers with disabilities already face occupational segregation and other inequities in the workforce and are concentrated in low-paying occupations such as janitors, building cleaners, and personal care aides.21 So industrial policies must not only raise standards in the industries where disabled workers are currently employed, but also incorporate protections, expand routes to entry, and boost retention for disabled workers in all sectors, while improving access to good jobs. Otherwise, policymakers risk leaving disabled workers behind both in the workforce and on the job.22
Working-class people are more likely to work in retail or to hold service, construction, and manufacturing jobs
Working-class Americans primarily work in different occupations and industries than workers with college degrees. Figure 5 compares the top 10 occupations and industries with the largest numbers of working-class people with the top 10 occupations and industries with the largest numbers of workers who have at least a four-year college degree. Although some industries—especially construction and elementary and secondary school education—are common among both working-class and college-educated workers, members of the working class are far more likely to be employed in retail, accommodation and food service, material moving and truck driving, and building cleaning or other service roles; even in construction, they largely work as laborers. Additionally, home health aides and personal care aides together constitute one of the largest working-class labor forces in the country—more than 1.6 million workers.23 Overall, the dominance of service-sector roles in the working class has been increasing for decades—with some slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and will likely only increase in the future.24
The jobs held by working-class Americans far too often offer low pay, few protections, and insufficient worker voice on the job. Nonunion construction25 and manufacturing26 jobs are often low-paying, while other jobs predominant among members of the working class—including in the service sector,27 food service,28 health care,29 retail,30 and home care31—commonly offer low wages, few benefits, and insufficient worker protections. These problems are widespread: While only 17 percent of workers with four-year degrees lack health insurance through their employer or labor union, 37 percent of workers in the working class lack such insurance. Lower job quality worsens economic disparities for the disproportionate numbers of people of color and people with disabilities in the working class, with corresponding impacts on health.32
Making industrial policy work for the working class
Improving job quality across a wide range of sectors and occupations—including health care, retail, food, and building services, as well construction and manufacturing—is critical to the well-being of the working class.
Although Biden’s signature industrial policy laws include important features to advance job quality for the working class and will create thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs, they need to be properly implemented. Proper implementation will require, among other things, thorough screening of bidders for government projects to ensure capacity and commitment to adopt high-road standards; sufficient agency funding and oversight to monitor and enforce these standards; and empowered community and worker organizations through legally enforceable partnerships, such as community workforce agreements33 that hold accountable state and local government and private sector recipients.34
To more broadly enhance job quality and worker power in the service sector, policymakers must go further. This includes passing policies targeted toward specific service-sector occupations, such as proposals to raise standards for home care35 and child care36 workers; enacting measures to improve job quality for airport service workers;37 and expanding to other states the recent California law that aims to improve working conditions in fast food.38 It also includes supporting policies that increase worker power and raise job quality across the entire economy, such as the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and increases to the minimum wage.39
The working class today, as ever, is the cornerstone of the American economy, making up a large majority of the workforce yet largely concentrated in lower-paying jobs in the service, retail, and construction sectors. Policies that improve job quality for these workers, and make good jobs accessible to women, workers of color, and workers with disabilities, will therefore bring the greatest benefits to working families. The Biden administration has already taken significant steps forward through the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, the IIJA, and the CHIPS and Science Act—three landmark laws that will create quality jobs in American manufacturing and construction. Nevertheless, the share of the working class employed in manufacturing will remain small compared with the share who work in services, and working families are in dire need of policies that set strong standards and empower workers in these occupations. Many policymakers claim to be champions of the working class, but those truly interested in helping must understand this group as it exists and works today in order to ensure all Americans have access to decent, family-supporting jobs.
The author relied on 2021 American Community Survey data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and published by IPUMS-USA. This includes data on demographics, education, and job classifications and allows for an analysis representative of the U.S. population.40
The author defines a “working-class” person as a member of the labor force—whether currently employed or looking for work—who does not have a four-year college degree. In this analysis, non-working-class respondents are defined as individuals in the labor force with at least a four-year college degree or higher levels of education and are referred to as “college-educated.” The data set was restricted to omit individuals identified as students or members of the military.
One question on the ACS asks respondents to describe whether they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin; a second question that lacks these options prompts respondents to indicate their race. As a result, an individual can identify as both Hispanic or Latino as well as a member of any other racial or ethnic group. For this analysis, the author refers to respondents as Hispanic or Latino if they stated that they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin in the first question. In the rest of the racial or ethnic groups—white, Black or African American, and other or multiple race—the author included only non-Hispanic respondents to avoid double-counting some respondents.
Disability status was determined from a set of six questions regarding different forms of difficulty because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition, including cognitive, physical activity, independent living, self-care, vision, or hearing difficulty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “Respondents who report anyone of the six disability types are considered to have a disability.”41 Throughout this analysis, the author refers to these respondents as “workers with a disability” or “disabled workers.”