Working class in the United States

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In the United States, the concept of a working class remains vaguely defined, and classifying people or jobs into this class can be contentious. Economists and pollsters in the United States generally define "working class" adults as those lacking a college degree,[1] rather than by occupation or income. Many members of the working class, as defined by academic models, are often identified in the vernacular as being middle-class, despite there being considerable ambiguity over the term's meaning. According to Frank Newport, "for some, working class is a more literal label; namely, an indication that one is working."[2]

Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl see the working class as the most populous in the United States,[3] while other sociologists such as William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and James Henslin deem the lower middle class slightly more populous.[4][5] In the class models devised by these sociologists, the working class comprises between 30% and 35% of the population, roughly the same percentages as the lower middle class. According to the class model by Dennis Gilbert, the working class comprises those between the 25th and 55th percentile of society. In 2018, 31% of Americans self described themselves as working class.[2] Retired American adults are less likely to describe themselves as "working class", regardless of the actual income or education level of the adult.[2]

Recent history[edit]

Since the 1970s, economic and occupational insecurity has become a major problem for American workers, their families, and their communities, to a much greater extent than their counterparts in peer countries.[6][7][8] According to Matthew Desmond, the U.S. "offers some of the lowest wages in the industrialized world" which has "swelled the ranks of the working poor, most of whom are thirty-five or older."[9] Jonathan Hopkin writes that the United States took the lead in implementing the neoliberal agenda in the 1980s, making it "the most extreme case of the subjection of society to the brute force of the market." As such, he argues this made the United States an outlier with economic inequality hitting "unprecedented levels for the rich democracies."[10]

While outsourcing, the busting and decline of unionization and welfare supports, the rise of immigration, the prison-industrial complex, and unemployment have brought increased competition and considerable economic insecurity to working-class employees in the "traditional" blue-collar fields, there is an increasing demand for service personnel, including clerical and retail occupations.[3] Sociologist Gosta Esping-Anderson describes these supervised service occupations as "junk jobs," as they fail to pay living wages in the face of asset and price inflation, fail to pay benefits, are often insecure, unstable, or temporary, and provide little work control and little opportunity for skill development or advancement. In contrast to other expensive countries with higher proportions of quality jobs, the U.S. has developed an economy where two-thirds of jobs do not require or reward higher education; the other one-third of jobs consist largely in managing the junk job workers.[11]

Despite, or perhaps because of the well-known limitations that the US labor market, inequality—including deep educational inequality, and other structural factors set on social mobility in the US, many commentators find more interesting the idea of class cultures. Education, for example, can pose an especially intransigent barrier in the US, and not just because of gross educational inequality; culture plays some role as well. The middle class is often recognized in the US by educational attainment, which is correlated with (but may not cause) income and wealth, especially for white men. Members of the working class commonly have a high school diploma and many have only some college education. Due to differences between middle and working class cultures, working class college students may face culture shock upon entering the post-secondary education system, with its "middle class" culture.[12]

Some researchers try to measure the cultural differences between the American middle class and working class and suggest their ahistorical sources and implications for educational attainment, future income, and other life chances. Sociologist Melvin Kohn argues that working class values emphasize external standards, such as obedience and a strong respect for authority as well as little tolerance for deviance. This is opposed to middle-class individuals who, he says, emphasize internal standards, self-direction, curiosity and a tolerance for non-conformity.[3]

... views were quite varied at every class level, but the values we are calling working-class become increasingly common at lower class levels... Kohn's interpretation... is based on the idea that the middle-class parents who stress the values of self-control, curiosity, and consideration are cultivating capacities for self-direction... while working-class parents who focus on obedience, neatness, and good manners are instilling behavioral conformity.

— Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998.[3]

Other social scientists, such as Barbara Jensen, show that middle-class culture tends to be highly individualistic, while working-class culture tends to center around the community.[12] Such cultural value differences are thought to be closely linked to an individual's occupation. Working-class employees tend to be closely supervised and thus emphasize external values and obedience.[13]

Working class culture can be broken down into subgroup tendencies. According to Rubin (1976), there is a differential in social and emotional skills both between working-class men and women and between the blue-color working-class and college-educated workers. Working-class men are characterized by Rubin as taking a rational posture while women are characterized as being more emotional and oriented towards communication of feelings. This constellation of cultural issues has been explored in the popular media, for example, the television shows, Roseanne or All in the Family featuring Archie Bunker and his wife Edith Bunker. These popular television programs also explored generational change and conflict in working-class families. One does need to note, however, that there are great variations in cultural values among the members of all classes and that any statement pertaining to the cultural values of such large social groups needs to be seen as a broad generalization.[3]

Further, if the hypothesis that culture primarily produces class were true, such a non-dialectical, causal relationship pertains more validly in some low-social mobility societies. Scandinavian countries, by contrast, have discovered that removing structural barriers (and to some extent broadly valorizing working class culture) is effective in increasing social mobility, if not in eradicating social class under capitalism.[14]

Political role of the white working class[edit]

According to Thomas B. Edsall, an experienced political commentator, the white working class, defined as non-Hispanic whites who have not completed college, plays a pivotal role in the politics of the United States. This segment of the electorate is large and volatile and its swing vote role closely tracks the success or failure of Democratic candidates. It was solidly Democratic during the New Deal but its support of Democratic candidates has steadily eroded to about 50%. It is also diminishing as a portion of the electorate, both due to increased educational opportunities and because whites make up a declining share of the electorate overall.[15] Reagan Democrats describes the segment of the white working class which forms part of the Republican base of support.

The political role of the white working class was re-examined during the 2016 United States presidential election, due to the strong support for Donald Trump by white working class voters. Trump's victory was in part credited to this support in swing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, that had previously been won by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.[16] Professional pollsters did not predict such a large swing for Trump among the white working class. According to Nate Cohn, the gains that Trump's opponent Hillary Clinton made among other voter classes "were overwhelmed by Mr. Trump's huge appeal to white voters without a degree."[16] Voter turnout among white voters who did not have a college degree had increased by 3 percent from 2012 to 2016., despite the composition of white voters who did not have a college degree decreasing by 1 percent from 2012 to 2016.[17] Florida saw an even larger increase, with voter turnout among white voters without a college degree increasing almost 7 percent from 2012 to 2016.[17] In North Carolina, voter turnout in 2016 by this demographic increasing more than 4 percent compared to 2012.[17]

According to Lynn Vavreck and colleagues, survey data revealed that economic insecurities mattered to Trump voters most when connected to a racial animus, with the job losses being specifically important when lost to an out-group, in a composite they called 'racialized economics'.[18] Trump supporters have in turn been claimed to have actually have their jobs threatened by Trump's policies, but have continued supporting him.[19] Jonathan Metzl has claimed that low-income white men in Missouri, Tennessee and Kansas oppose policies that support people in their position because they believe that undeserving groups would benefit from them.[20] Arlie Russell Hochschild has studied working-class people in Louisiana, and come to the conclusion that what is motivating them is a feeling, which she calls the Deep Story:

You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.... You've suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American Dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are—a badge of honor.... Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You're following the rules. They aren't. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches.... Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don't control or agree with.... But it's people like you who have made this country great. You feel uneasy. It has to be said: the line cutters irritate you.... You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored.... [Y]ou are slipping backward.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Packer, George (October 31, 2016). "Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt". The New Yorker. Retrieved 25 October 2016.
  2. ^ a b c Newport, Frank (3 August 2018). "Looking Into What Americans Mean by "Working Class"". Retrieved 2019-03-18.
  3. ^ a b c d e Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. 0-534-50520-1.
  4. ^ Thompson, William; Hickey, Joseph (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X.
  5. ^ Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer; Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-36674-0.
  6. ^ O'Brien, Fergal; Schneeweiss, Zoe (June 18, 2020). "U.S. Ranked Worst for Workers' Rights Among Major Economies". Bloomberg. Retrieved July 29, 2023.
  7. ^ Ghilarducci, Teresa (June 14, 2023). "New Study: U.S. Tops Rich Nations As Worst Place To Work". Forbes. Retrieved July 29, 2023.
  8. ^ Henderson, Kaitlyn (May 3, 2023). "Where hard work doesn't pay off: An index of US labor policies compared to peer nations". Oxfam. Retrieved July 29, 2023. The US is falling drastically behind similar countries in mandating adequate wages, protections, and rights for millions of workers and their families. The wealthiest country in the world is near the bottom of every dimension of this index.
  9. ^ Desmond, Matthew (2023). Poverty, by America. Crown Publishing Group. p. 62. ISBN 9780593239919.
  10. ^ Hopkin, Jonathan (2020). "American Nightmare: How Neoliberalism Broke US Democracy". Anti-System Politics: The Crisis of Market Liberalism in Rich Democracies. Oxford University Press. pp. 87–88. doi:10.1093/oso/9780190699765.003.0004. ISBN 978-0190699765.
  11. ^ Esping-Anderson, Gosta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Page 207.
  12. ^ a b Zweig, Michael (2004). What's Class Got To Do With It, American Society in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Cornell University Press. 0-8014-8899-0.
  13. ^ Sussman, Marvin B.; Steinmetz, Suzanne K., eds. (1987). "9: Social Stratification". Handbook of Marriage and the Family. An Examination of Social Status & Family Life: Working-Class Families. Springer Science+Business Media. pp. 229–230. ISBN 9781461571537. OCLC 886497772. Retrieved August 21, 2018→ Values of the Working Class: function of their resources, position in occupational hierarchy, & their historical origins → Jobs rarely have power to Initiate & Innovate → conditions of their lives, past & present, make central the values of Security & Obedience → values tend to be Authoritarian: Conformity, Obedience, Patriarchal family attitudes, Masculinity, Anti-Intellectualism, Conservatism...{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  14. ^ Mulvad, Andreas Møller; Stahl, Rune Møller (August 4, 2015). "What Makes Scandinavia Different?". The Rise of the Right. Jacobin. Retrieved August 21, 2018True Finns, Norway's Progress Party, Danish People's Party, & Sweden Democrats → product of national particularities → Draw crucial Support from significant fractions of the Working Class that, since the 1980s, have become uprooted from relatively secure lives → consequence of Deindustrialization & Welfare Retrenchment → weakening of the Labour Movement in the Neoliberal era → negative feedback loop that has cut Civil Society Infrastructure between the Labor Movement, Social Democrats, & the working-class public & undermined Solidaristic values. Social-Democratic Working-class Voters Unable to Identify w/ social-democratic party that seems absorbed by Academic Technocracy & detached from blue-collar voters.{{cite magazine}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  15. ^ Thomas B. Edsall (June 17, 2012). "Canaries in the Coal Mine" (Blog by expert). The New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2012.
  16. ^ a b Cohn, Nate (2016-11-09). "Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-03-18.
  17. ^ a b c Griffin, Rob; Teixeira, Ruy; Halpin, John. "Voter Trends in 2016". Center for American Progress. Retrieved 2019-03-18.
  18. ^ Lozada, Carlos (2020-10-06). What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. Simon and Schuster. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-9821-4562-0.
  19. ^ Lombardo, Timothy (September 16, 2018). "Why white blue-collar voters love President Trump". The Washington Post.
  20. ^ Lozada, Carlos (2020-10-06). What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. Simon and Schuster. p. 20. ISBN 978-1-9821-4562-0.
  21. ^ Lozada, Carlos (2020-10-06). What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era. Simon and Schuster. pp. 23–24. ISBN 978-1-9821-4562-0.

Further reading[edit]