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An All-American Myth About the White Working Class

Two men talk during the livestock auction at Belleville Farmers Market & Livestock in Belleville, Pennsylvania.

Since Donald Trump’s election, there’s been no end to the political analysis that credits the disappointing and shocking results on some permutation of white working-class people’s angst. As a theory, it’s as good as any; Trump is now in the White House, in part, on the strength of his 39-point margin over Hillary Clinton among less well-educated white voters in key states.

That analysis, however, leaves me with a sense of unease. It assumes a misguided narrative of America that places a higher value on the concerns of a sliver of the white voter pool and diminishes the concerns of a larger, more progressive ocean of multicultural voters. As Joshua Holland pointed out in a post-election Rolling Stone article, the media and pundits should “stop obsessing over white working-class voters.” He wrote:

Any effort to court voters who are animated by racial grievance wouldn’t just be morally dubious, but would also risk alienating the fastest-growing groups within the Democratic coalition. Non-college-educated whites represent a demographic that’s in decline as college graduation rates rise and the electorate becomes more diverse. They may have broken heavily for Trump, but their overall share of the electorate was down this year compared to 2012.

But the allure of chasing woeful white working Americans is an all-American myth, one that is nearly impossible to refute because so many white Americans want to believe in it.  This is especially true when it is seemingly backed by authoritative and scholarly supporters.

Enter here, Anne Case and Angus Deaton’s latest work: a white paper report titled “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century,” that suggests middle-aged white Americans without college degrees are dying at a rising rates due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide, and that these increasing mortality rates are at odds with similar age groupings in other developed nations.

Case and Deaton, Princeton University economists, made similar observations in a 2015 paper. They are loath to draw too many conclusions from their research, but their most recent study does point an accusing finger at the economic inequality in America that has lesser-educated whites fearing for their future.

In fact, they argue in the new paper, since the early 1970s, white people without a college degree have experienced stagnant wages, reduced unionization, declines in church membership, and fewer stable marriages. This period coincides with the ascent of affirmative action programs that brought blacks and other previously disadvantaged Americans closer to the mainstream of the nation’s economic life.

In other words, for nearly a generation, the white-working class has come to experience American life as less a guarantee of success and more of an all-out competition with better educated white, black, and immigrant Americans. And, as Case and Deaton describe it, poor white Americans are not dealing well with this new competition. “Cumulative distress, and the failure of life to turn out as expected is consistent with people compensating through other risky behaviors such as abuse of alcohol, overeating, or drug use,” they write. “Ultimately, we see our story as about the collapse of the white, high school educated, working class after its heyday in the early 1970s, and the pathologies that accompany that decline.”

I don’t quibble with the learned professors’ scholarship. I worry about how political people will manipulate Case and Deaton’s findings to argue for more aid for white people, but ignore the same, long-standing concerns of people of color. To be sure, Case and Deaton’s work comes at a significant time in our nation’s political history. As congressional leaders continue to insist that they will push for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, Case and Deaton make the case succeeding generations of poor, white Americans will need and consume greater shares of the nation’s care.

Yet, the political manipulation of the troubled white, working class narrative fails to place the story in the proper context. Examples abound of how politicians and pundits paint a distorted picture of what is happening. Consider, recent news stories that suggest the nation’s heroin epidemic in white communities is a national health crisis – not a crime problem when it was imagined to be a problem for inner-city black Americans.

Or consider, perhaps, Nancy Isenberg’s elegiac White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, a 2016 book that garnered attention for its ambitious effort of giving esteem to a group of downtrodden white folks who have been so reviled in pop culture and folklore. One critic, writing in The New York Times, took issue with Isenberg’s exceptionalism of white working class to the exclusion of other working Americans:

But Isenberg falls prey to one of the most common and pernicious fallacies in American popular discourse about class: For her, America’s landless farmers and precarious workers are by default white. “Class,” she writes, “had its own singular and powerful dynamic, apart from its intersection with race.” Thus we get a history of class in America that ­discusses white tenant farmers at length, but scarcely mentions black sharecroppers or Mexican farmworkers, as if somehow their race segregated them from America’s history of class subjugation.

If the nation is to set its policy priorities straight, it will need a clear-eyed understanding of its economic, health and social challenges. The unfortunate experiences befalling working-class and poor white Americans stem from the same painful life realities that other historically disadvantaged Americans have long endured. It shouldn’t matter more now that it’s white people who feel pain. Rather, it is in the nation’s best and long-term interest to find common solutions that uplift every American—not just favor a few.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.