Parts and Wholes: Unpacking Reports of White Working-Class Death Rates

The white working class has been getting a lot of attention lately — not just for how they’re voting in primary elections, but also for dying at increasingly high rates.  As we might expect, a lot of this attention is classist, especially when politics and death rates are discussed together, but even thoughtful and probing commentaries too often confuse parts and wholes, leading to loose generalizations that couldn’t possibly be true.

The discussion of death rates was initiated late last year by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton who found “rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans.”  I suspect one reason their study attracted so many political commentators, including some who tried to link it to support for Trump, was because Case and Deaton define the white working class the same way political analysts do – whites with less than a bachelor’s degree.  The man-bites-dog news value of the study, however, was that it showed death rates of a large group of Americans increasing rather than decreasing. Since 1900 life expectancy at birth has risen from 47 to 79 years, nearly doubling the average American lifespan. So it was big news that the death rates of U.S. whites aged 45 to 54 had increased by 8% from 1999 to 2013.

When Case and Deaton divided this white cohort by educational attainment, however, they found that all of the increase was accounted for by increased deaths among whites with high school educations or less.   What’s more, this group of whites had substantially higher death rates than blacks or Hispanics in that age group, including much higher rates of deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, and chronic liver cirrhosis.

Mortality rates in 2013 for persons aged 45-54, organized from low to high (deaths per 100,000 population)

“Racial”/Ed. Group All-cause mortality Poisonings

(drug OD)

Intentional self-harm


Chronic liver cirrhosis
White non-Hispanic w/BA or more  









Hispanics (all races)









White non-Hispanic w/some college  









Black non-Hispanic









White non-Hispanic w/high school or less  








SOURCE: Compiled from Case & Deaton, Table 1, p. 3.

This was startling news because we are so used to seeing blacks and Hispanics at the bottom of these kinds of lists.  These “racial” minority groups consistently have much higher rates of unemployment and poverty – often double and triple white rates — and lower average incomes and much lower accumulated wealth.  Why would any group of whites be dying at higher rates than minorities, let alone killing themselves or poisoning themselves with drugs and alcohol?

Speculations about causes range from broad-based economic factors to the psychological impact of crushed expectations. A few have even suggested that folks with white-skin privilege are not as resilient in dealing with hard times as blacks and Latinos, and others have claimed that personal morality has “collapsed” in the white working class. These speculations move very carelessly from one white age cohort – those who would have graduated high school between 1977 and 1986 – to the white working-class as a whole.

A confusion of parts and wholes, however, began with Case and Deaton themselves, as we can see in the table above. Whites are by far the largest group, so it makes sense to break them into three parts by educational attainment, but that leads Case and Deaton to compare all Hispanics and all blacks with three separate segments of the white population. It could well be that blacks and/or Hispanics with only high school or less have even higher death rates than comparable whites. We can’t tell because parts are being compared to wholes.

But the reverse is just as important: comparing patterns between white and black, with no recognition of class differences, erases substantial differences in life conditions and life chances among whites. Dividing the white population by education reveals that white-skin privilege may not be all it’s cracked up to be among the largest group of American whites – those with only high school educations or less.

Janell Ross recently provided a thorough rundown of black-white disparities in The Washington Post: “On just about every measure of social or economic well-being, white Americans fare better than any other group. That’s true of housing and neighborhood quality and homeownership. That’s true of overall healthhealth insurance coverage ratesquality of health care receivedlife expectancy and infant mortality. That’s true when it comes to median household earningswealth (assets minus debt), retirement savings and even who has a bank account.” Ross’s bouquet of links, based on very solid sources, documents an appalling degree of racial injustice, especially toward blacks. But, unlike Case and Deaton, these sources all compare the entire white population with the entire black and Hispanic populations, with no internal differentiation. As with death rates, all these disparities might look very different in a five-category comparison like Case and Deaton use. I’m betting, for example, that whites with only high school educations or less have nowhere near the “typical” white family’s wealth of $131,000. Routinely differentiating the white population by educational attainment would not show that we overestimate racial injustice, but it would almost certainly show that we grossly underestimate class injustice.

Differentiating the white part of the population by three levels of educational attainment provides a somewhat surprising profile of the American population, I think, even if it downplays class differences within other racial groupings: 

“Racial” composition of U.S. population, 18 & over, in 2014, with “class” by educational attainment for non-Hispanic whites

“Racial”/ed. Group % of U.S. pop. # in millions
White non-Hispanic total        65.5 156.8
         WNH w/BA or more        21.8 52.2
         WNH w/some college        19.4 46.4
         WNH w/ high school or less        24.3 58.2
Hispanic        15.2 36.4
Black non-Hispanic        12.3 29.4
Asian          5.6 13.4
Others          1.4   3.4

SOURCE: Compiled from U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment in the United States: 2014

One surprise, I suspect, is that whites with only high school educations or less are the single largest group – nearly a quarter of all Americans 18 and older, some 58 million adults. This is not some small leftover group atypical of whiteness in the 21st century, and if they have high and increasing death rates, that’s not a “pocket of poverty” problem. Combined with much larger percentages of blacks and Hispanics with only high school educations or less, who also likely have higher death rates than what Case and Deaton report for blacks and Hispanics as a whole, they constitute more than 40% of our adult population. These are not canaries in a coal mine – they’re the miners, and the mine walls are collapsing.

It should be obvious that the entire group of whites without bachelor’s degrees, nearly 105 million people (adding those with “some college”), is too large to possibly share a single personality type, a uniform social psychology, or any one political ideology – as so many commentators are wont to assume. Why do critics insist on making judgments about working-class resilience and morality based on a handful of misunderstood facts?

Rising aggregate death rates, and especially those related to self-harm, drugs, and alcohol, are indicators of increasing stresses being experienced by a population. But only about 1/10th of one percent of whites without bachelor’s degrees are killing or poisoning themselves. They tell you nothing about how most people in that population are dealing with those stresses. Within my own extended white working-class family, a small sample to be sure, the addicted and de-moralized are a decided minority, with sometimes dramatic changes across their life stages. The vast majority, given the destabilizing challenges they’ve faced, demonstrate near-heroic levels of personal morality and resilience – and they rightly feel considerable pride in their capacity for “taking it.” If anything, their sturdy commitment to these admirable qualities may undermine their capacity for the kind of broader collective action that could change their fates – fates that could and should require a lot less resilience.

Jack Metzgar
Chicago Working-Class Studies

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Art for whose Sake? Working-Class Life in Visual Art

A recent article on Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet art installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York focused on the huge amounts of money that contemporary art can fetch, and concluded that the monetary value of such art highlights economic inequality and demonstrates that art is a product of capitalism. Members of the public who enjoy visiting galleries displaying these over-priced products are therefore condoning economic inequality caused by capitalism, because their patronage supports the super-wealthy who purchase art as investments.

It’s true that art can fetch ridiculous prices and is treated as a commodity by dealers and some purchasers. And it does seem contradictory that art intended as a critique of society (and of the art world in some cases) could end up as a valuable asset in the vault of a billionaire collector. Regardless of the economic value of art in a capitalist system, people attend galleries and art exhibitions because they find something moving, beautiful, challenging, and thought provoking in the works displayed.

Looking around art galleries today in metropolitan cities, it seems clear though that the majority of visitors are middle/upper-class (excluding the school children who visit the galleries on excursions and some tourists). When I was a child we often visited art galleries in London. This wasn’t typical of working-class families in my neighbourhood, but because they were free, it was a cheap day out. I continued this habit after I finished high school and started a retail job in central London. I would often sit by myself in the National Gallery in front of a favourite painting. I loved art, but as a working-class high school student, I had been told that a career as an artist was unrealistic. Despite this advice, I took art at high school and learnt all I could about art history. I could wander the galleries and feel pleased with myself because I knew the artists and what their works were about. I enjoyed all sorts of art from different eras and genres.

But there was also something missing. Very rarely did I come across a work that represented me, or the people I knew. It didn’t bother me so much when it came to abstract art, because as far as I was concerned, this was about feeling or about a sensory experience. Figurative art was another story. There were the classic paintings and sculptures of rich and important people, still life scenes of opulent objects and interiors, and contemporary figurative art that showed people I didn’t know in fancy looking homes or lounging about doing nothing and looking mysterious (sometimes in the nude).

The art displayed in museums, whether classic and contemporary, rarely features working-class people. When it does, the images can be problematic, such as the European paintings of noble peasants epitomised in works such as Jean-François Millet’s nineteenth century painting Gleaners, which depicts working-class women picking up the leftovers from a harvest in rural France. The painting represents work, but the women are anonymous, and viewer can’t see their faces, so we don’t know how they might be feeling. Australian artist Tom Roberts also painted scenes that romanticized rural workers, such as sheep shearers.

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams

Tom Roberts, Shearing the Rams

British artist L.S. Lowry painted urban landscapes that included scenes of workers at the factory gates, but the workers are treated the same as the other aspects of the landscape. There is no sense from the paintings that Lowry was interested in the actual lives and experiences of the working-class people in his work.

Where is the contemporary art that offers working-class self-representation? I’m not talking about street art or activist art, which does offer interesting and power self-representation. My interest here is in the art deemed as good enough to be presented in a gallery. How many successful artists have working-class backgrounds? Working-class people may visit galleries on school visits at an early age, but could the lack of working-class self-representation in the displays make them feel that art is not for them? Does this mean that young working-class people don’t take up art because they think of the visual arts as something for the middle/upper-classes?

It may be a vicious circle – working-class people see art as not for them, and so they don’t become artists. Of course, a working-class young person who wanted to study art, as I did, also faces practical barriers.  The uncertainty of an artist’s career makes it difficult for young working-class people to take on the debt of a fine art degree. It is expensive to create art. Low-income students can’t afford paint, clay, and other materials. While it’s possible to be resourceful or to salvage materials to make art, artists also need space — a studio or the equivalent, somewhere to make a mess. It seems unlikely that a young working-class person living with their family in public housing would have access to such a space.

British artist Grayson Perry has explored how class determines taste in his work. Grayson is sensitive to how class works in relation to the reception of art, and his art is informed by his working-class background. He suggests that what we might appreciate (in terms of material possessions including art) is a result of unconscious absorption of the tastes of our families and communities. So, if ‘fine’ arts are not considered important, we will follow suit. Perry’s ideas follow from those of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who demonstrated how class is the most consistent marker of taste. Bourdieu stated that middle-upper class people acquire cultural capital, which leads to an appreciation of ‘high’ culture and art. Taste is therefore not neutral and can be used against people, for example in disparaging a working-class person’s preference for a ‘tacky’ sentimental painting over a highly theoretical abstract work.

What sorts of attitudes do working-class people have to art galleries in general? Do they worry that their taste in art might be ridiculed due to lack of the ‘proper’ knowledge? I know my working-class family and friends don’t often visit galleries because they either feel that they won’t ‘get’ the art, or they are dismissive of contemporary art that they think is ‘rubbish’ and could be made by anyone (such as some contemporary abstract or installation works). My brother-in-law was particularly amused by a photo I sent to him of an artwork by German artist Charlotte Posenenske.

1930-1985 Presented 2008

Square Tubes [Series D] 1967 Charlotte Posenenske

The work  (part of her 1967 Square Tubes [Series D] displayed in the Tate Modern, London), resembled the air conditioning ducts he made in his factory. The idea of an artist having work considered ‘high art’ that was based on what he did for a trade confirmed his negative attitudes towards contemporary art.

More work needs to be done to look at the ways in which working-class life is represented in visual arts and to consider why such examples might only rarely find themselves in galleries. Art is something that all humans seem to enjoy, but working-class people are often excluded from the production of art and from the pleasures to be gained from viewing.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney, Australia

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From Paula Jones to Trailer Parks: Journalists’ Class Blind Spots


In 1996, James Carville was asked what he thought about Paula Jones’s claims of being sexually assaulted by Bill Clinton. He said, “Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.” The liberal press didn’t respond much to Carville’s comment, but conservative pundits like George Will rallied to defend Jones, arguing that such remarks reflected the underlying disrespect and elitism that many Democrats and especially the liberal media have for the working class.

Twenty years later, after five election cycles, campaign reporters and editors still disparage the working class. For example, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) suggested that organizers of the Republican convention could house Sarah Palin’s “whole dysfunctional family in a trailer park in Ashtabula,” a largely working-class community in northeast Ohio. This incensed Pulitzer Prize winner and former Plain Dealer reporter, Connie Schultz, who wrote, “I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash.’ These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means. Every group has its ‘other.’ For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

Clearly, journalists have been having difficulty understanding the politics of resentment that has fueled the Trump and Sanders campaigns, but they also don’t recognize that middle-class voters share in those resentments. As Jack Metzgar has documented, the working class is underrepresented among Trump supporters. But listening to the media you would think that Trump’s support was coming almost entirely from an ignorant and biased working class.

Thomas Frank chides journalists for helping to foster a version of liberalism that serves the interests of the wealthy. In his new book, Listen, Liberal: Or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People, he argues that the media ignored the economic damages liberal policies inflicted on the working and middle classes.. Instead, he writes, they offered “an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians and the lamentable surplus of ‘affordable housing.’”

Why is it so hard for the media to understand and respect the working class? Brent Cunningham, former editor of Columbia Journalism Review, explains that many reporters have blind spots that make it difficult for them to see anything that undermines the myths of neoliberal economics, individual responsibility, modernity and progress. These attitudes reflect journalists’ own class positionality, Cunningham suggests. For much of the twentieth century, many journalists grew up in working-class neighborhoods and regularly spent time with working-class people. Marilyn Geewax, business editor at NPR, grew-up in working-class Youngstown. She fondly remembers how, when she was a reporter at the Beacon Journal in Akron years ago, the reporters would go out after work and drink “boilermakers” with the typesetters and printers and discuss all aspects of life. As Cunningham says, this connection produced “a strain of journalism that was much more organically connected to the poor and the working class.” Today, reporters are more likely to come from middle-class backgrounds, have professional training, and spend most of their time with other educated, professional people. They misrepresent the working class because they don’t know them, spend time with them, or build relationships with them.

To be fair, some journalists recognize their blind spots and want to cover the working class well. When I was asked to speak about the reporting on the working class to the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001, I started by asking why the conveners were interested in class. They said that their editors were angry that they had missed the story of the unrest behind the “Battle in Seattle.” Instead of writing about class perceptions and conflicts, they had presented the protests as “street theater.” When I asked why they found it difficult to write about working class, their answers ranged from basic ignorance to willful self-censorship associated with their own new precarity. On some level, I think, they were simply confused about class and remain so.

No doubt, discussions of social class, especially the working class, are complicated. Not only can class be defined in multiple and sometimes conflicting ways, but it also intersects in confusing ways with other aspects of identity and culture, especially race. That’s part of what makes this year’s populist politics so confounding for many. As Jelani Cobb explained in The New Yorker, American populism has often been driven by both “economic malaise” and “fears inspired by racial progress.” Equally important, he writes, populism reflects “the belief that these two things are synonymous.”

Cobb’s analysis offers a powerful contrast to much of what we’re hearing about class and racism in this year’s election. It helps, of course, that he is also a trained historian. Perhaps what journalists and politicos really need is not a reminder to avoid classism, or even the kind of quick lesson in class that I offered to the Society of Professional Journalists, but a much deeper understanding of the intersections between class and race, the complexity of class identity, and the history of class conflict.

John Russo, Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Class














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Happy Valley: Cops, Killers, and Working-Class Community


It begins with landscape, the look and feel of industrial West Yorkshire. The smaller towns nestle in valleys between green hills crossed by dry-stone walls and narrow roads.  The Calder Valley, where the river once powered the woolen mills of Halifax and Hebden Bridge, rises into the South Pennines towards Lancashire.  In these towns, you can look up from the streets and see farm fields or open moorland across the way.  Or you can look down from the tops onto the few mill chimneys still standing, streets of terrace houses curving away round the contours of the land, allotments (community gardens) cut into the hillside.  This is the physical landscape you glimpse in the frenetic opening credits of the BBC/ Netflix contemporary police drama Happy Valley.

The social landscape is another matter.  The show’s theme song, “Trouble Town” by folk-punk artist Jake Bugg, sets the tone:

There’s a tower block overhead

All you’ve got’s your benefits

And you’re barely scraping by.

In this trouble town

Troubles are found.

The Calder Valley is “happy,” in ironic police parlance, because it is flooded with drugs.  Its criminality and addictions are symptoms of deeper troubles rooted in deindustrialization and compounded by decades of neoliberal social and economic policy.  Initiated by Margaret Thatcher and continued under Tony Blair and now David Cameron, this policy entailed the breaking of trade unions, casualization of work, dis-investment in public services, and promotion of free-market opportunism.  In some ways, the drug trade and human trafficking – the major crime patterns in Seasons 1 and 2 of Happy Valley – are direct expressions of this ethos.

Most of young men making minor trouble for the police in Calderdale are working-class lads “off their heads” on “skunk” or “smack.”  They belong to the class of youths known in sociological terms as NEETs: Not in Education, Employment, or Training. The hands-on perpetrators of the area’s worst violence – kidnapping, rape, and murder, including the serial killing of prostitutes – are also young white men, but with particularly chaotic or abusive family backgrounds.  Writing in the Guardian about a recent study showing poor white kids losing ground in school achievement, Paul Mason explains the cultural shift that formed the NEET generation:

A specific part of their culture has been destroyed.  A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid.  It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer. . .  Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave-drivers.

“Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions,” Mason writes. “It crushed a story”: the story of working-class community.  Oddly enough (for US viewers accustomed to lethal and militaristic policing), it is the cops – the best of them anyway, along with other caring adults — who in this TV series enact that lost cultural ethic.  They operate not only to solve horrific crimes but also to restore some of the threads of shared responsibility for the community’s wellbeing. There’s nothing sentimental about this project, however.  Happy Valley is thrilling action TV in which the menace and suspense rarely let up.

Ed McBain, godfather of the American police procedural, quotes Mel Brooks as saying, “The essential ingredients of any hit show are a family and a house.”  In his 87th Precinct series, McBain created “a family of working cops.  Their house is the squad-room; their backyard is the precinct territory.” The Calder Valley police call their territory “our patch” and their house is the Northern Road “nick” (police station) in Sowerby Bridge.   At the moral hub of their extended family, by turns its mother hen and its wild child, is Sergeant Catherine Cawood, played to perfection by Sarah Lancashire.  (Fans of British TV may recognize her from Coronation Street, the perennial working-class soap opera set across the Pennines in Salford).  Catherine is a tough 49-year-old local mother and grandmother with a sharp tongue, wicked sense of humor, deep affection for people in trouble, and a face that both expresses and suppresses feeling in ways you can’t take your eyes off.  Her accent, like most of the characters around her, is broad Yorkshire, which will leave some viewers wishing for subtitles. But you’ll pick up the idiom if you stick with the show.

It’s crucial to Happy Valley’s success as a working-class police procedural that its star is a sergeant in “community policing,” rather than a detective in an elite squad (as in Law and Order SVU).  She’s in the middle of the chain of command, with loyalties tending mostly towards those down the line, especially young women recruits.  The “brass” above her, while not caricatured as feckless, are compromised in their usefulness by the politics of rank and influence, to put it politely.  In most episodes, we see Catherine giving the morning briefing to her charges, beginning with “Now then, you lucky people.”  Then she’s out in the street with the “wooden-tops” (uniform coppers) in a hi-viz jacket dealing with routine disturbances as well as the series’ major crimes — without a gun, it’s worth noting.

Alongside “the nick,” the show’s other anchoring location is Catherine’s home, the terrace house where she lives with her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) – a recovering alcoholic and keen allotment gardener – and her grandson Ryan.  As in any good soap — such as, in a different class register, Downton Abbey (where Finneran labored downstairs as the odious Sarah O’Brien) — there’s plenty of “history” in this family.  Catherine’s daughter Becky was a heroin addict.  Raped and pregnant at age 17, she gave birth to Ryan, but hanged herself weeks later.   Catherine’s husband left and her son withdrew in the aftermath of this tragedy, and she took on the raising of Ryan, a skinny kid played by Rhys Connah as both adorable and infuriating.  It is the reappearance of the rapist “father” of Ryan after years in prison that kicks off the first series’ action, links the domestic and police narratives, and makes for intense emotional complexities.  Catherine’s kitchen table and back steps host dramatic conversations over endless cups of tea during which much of the healing and the informal detective work of the show is managed.  Becky’s gravesite in the hillside cemetery at Heptonstall – with Sylvia Plath’s marker nearby, another young mother suicide – is Catherine’s place of retreat and reflection.

I haven’t said much here about the specifics of crime and detection, the narrative arc of Happy Valley’s action, so as not to risk dropping spoilers.  Some critics have complained about the show’s graphic violence.  I don’t find it excessive, since the origins and consequences of physical rage and cruelty are fully explored. It’s important to note, too, that operating above the few psychopathic NEETs who perpetrate the worst violence are older middle-class men who initiate crime while mostly keeping their hands clean — that is until they are inevitably tracked down by Catherine and her crew.  Suffice it to say that writer Sally Wainwright and her excellent cast have produced top-quality drama with heart, edge and purpose — and a working-class ethic at its center.

Nick Coles, University of Pittsburgh

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Class and the EU referendum

On June 23rd, voters in the UK get a say on whether to remain in the European Union (EU). The UK first joined what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) back in 1973, and in a 1975 vote, 67% voted to stay in the EEC. The issue was fairly settled until Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, under pressure from the right wing of his party and anti EU sentiment, promised an in/out referendum in the Party’s manifesto for last year’s General election. The stakes here are high, and no one really knows what the result of a ‘Brexit’ (a neologism for British Exit) would be.

In recent polls, opinion seems fairly evenly divided, with roughly 40% each for staying and going.  While a crucial 20% remain undecided, momentum seems to be with the ‘out’ side. Sentiment towards the EU cuts across party lines in the UK. Broadly speaking, the political establishment want to remain, though significant numbers of supporters, especially in the Tory Party, wish to go.  While initially hostile to the EEC, many on the left and in the trade union movement have come to embrace Europe because of its promotion of progressive labour law and working conditions directives, even though the UK has opted out of many of these.

But what about the question of class in all of this? In many ways, class is a central factor, though it is rarely mentioned in debate or in the mainstream media. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has been a threat to both Conservative and Labour parties, has made immigration central to its campaigns. UKIP draws much of its support from the working-class, especially those who feel marginalised by the political mainstream, and one of the biggest reasons for this is immigration. According to a recent survey, 55% of voters see immigration as the most important issue in the upcoming referendum.  Of course, the issue is being mixed up with the ongoing refugee crisis and the desire of many non-EU economic migrants to come to Britain. This is a difficult and touchy subject for all political parties and for understandable reasons. But immigration was an issue even before refugees began streaming in from the Middle East, because one of the main planks of the EU is the free movement of goods and labour. Any citizen of the EU can choose to live and work in any other member state, and millions of people have chosen to do just that. Migration within the EU, which was seriously underestimated by the previous Labour government, has had very different outcomes in different labour markets. Many eastern and southern Europeans have been attracted to Britain by the promise of relatively high wages, job vacancies, and the fact that English is widely spoken across the continent.

The biggest losers in this migration process have been the indigenous UK working class, who now have to compete with millions of semi-skilled and unskilled workers from across the EU. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that UK workers are being discriminated against by recruitment agencies, the best evidence of this practice comes from a high profile case in the English midlands where local people have been effectively excluded from the 3,000 jobs created at a distribution warehouse owned by sports clothing retailing firm Sports Direct.  The company apparently preferred to recruit directly from Poland. For working-class voters, the EU’s free market in labour appears to be more about big corporate profits than worker mobility.

Immigration has an impact beyond access to employment. It also affects housing, schooling, and a host of other public services. All of these factors raise questions about the long term stability and sustainability of working-class communities. In many areas in the UK, from big cities to smaller towns, working-class people bear the brunt of all of these issues, and this has turned many towards UKIP and away from Labour as their natural home. Brexit begins to look attractive for those most marginalised by the effects of the free market, who also benefit least from the more positive aspects of EU membership. This situation has been confounded for many by the ways in which, after the recession of 2007/8, the EU has liberalised its markets and toned down its hitherto strong commitment to social legislation. Most notably, this has seen the EU in secret negotiations with the US over The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP.

Nothing about the EU referendum is clear or straightforward. Whatever the result of the ballot, the motivations of voters in terms of class may not be clear. The EU had and still has the potential to improve the lives of millions of working-class citizens across Europe, but too often the interests of big business and social elites trump those of ordinary people.

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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Redefining the Working Class

Once again, a presidential election is bringing renewed interest in the working class, especially the white working class.  Are they a racist bulwark of Trump support? Will they support a Clinton, after NAFTA and welfare reform? Do they represent a populist backlash against neoliberalism? As Jack Metzgar suggested last week, in the face of such discussions, we need to consider just who  we are talking about.  What is the working class, and how is it changing in the twenty-first century?

Historians have argued that the working class was formed through industrialization, which generated changes not only in economic structures, working conditions, social relations, and politics, but also in culture. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, economic restructuring has again brought fundamental changes, including the rise of neoliberalism.  Those changes together with the economic crisis of the last decade have expanded the working class, but the working class is also changing.

While some would argue that class is an objective term, and being working class is a matter of economic relations regardless of self-identification or attitudes, class has always involved both economic conditions and culture.  Yet while the traditional definition of the working class as those who sell their labor, who do not “control the means of production,” remains relevant, it is also somewhat problematic in the current economy.  No doubt, many people work in jobs that fit this definition easily, but neither the taskers who sell their labor in small chunks to varied “owners” nor those who sometimes choose the apparent self-control of freelancing over what they see as the drudgery and false security of traditional jobs fit easily into this model.

Even on a purely economic basis, class structure and conflict no longer fit this traditional model. As Guy Standing has suggested, the emerging class structure is increasingly based on insecurity. Whether the “precariat” represents something different from the working class or an emerging set of conditions shaping working-class experience, there is no doubt that in the contemporary economy, increasing numbers of people face increasingly precarious employment and income.

On the cultural side, established definitions of class are also problematic.  We make a first mistake in understanding the working class when we try to define it in any simple or singular way. Too often, references to “the working class” imply white, male industrial workers.  Yet the working class has always included men and women of all races, ethnicities, and sexualities, who work in a wide range of jobs at factories, farms, stores, offices, and homes.  Within this large and multifaceted working class, individuals and groups have rarely defined themselves solely in terms of class, and the working class has fought bitter battles across divides of race, gender, and nationality.

For all their diversity, working-class voters have enough influence that pundits and pollsters want to track their views, and to make that manageable, most rely on a single marker: college education.  But here, too, traditional definitions of the working class don’t work as well as they once did. A college degree may be a lever into better lifetime earnings and thus, presumably, into the middle class, but it does not provide any guarantees.  As a recent study showed, people from lower-income families gain less from a college degree than do those who come from more affluent families, even if their parents also went to college. And even those who secure good jobs based on college degrees face so much debt and so little job security that the undergraduate degree has lost much of its power as a launching pad into the middle class.

Two recent books point to important cultural changes in the working class.  In The New Class Conflict, Joel Kotkin argues that the nature of class struggle is changing.  It now pits a wider range of elites, including oligarchs, technocrats, bureaucrats, the media, and academics, against both the struggling middle and the working class. Class struggle also plays out geographically, between urban and suburban communities, and generationally, between the young and the old. Especially hard hit are millennials who are saddled with low incomes and high student loan debt.  As a recent report found, millennials are more likely than previous generations to identify themselves as working class. They are leaving cities in their 30s, because they can’t afford housing in gentrifying areas, and, Kotkin argues, they are also increasingly alienated from the political process.

Jennifer Silva agrees that millennials from the working class are alienated, a trend she attributes to the failure of the American Dream and the obstacles that keep many of them from acquiring the markers of adulthood.  In an economy that puts homeownership and stable employment out of reach, Silva argues in Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, younger working-class people have embraced a “therapeutic model of selfhood” built on self-sufficiency and overcoming personal traumas. This worldview differs dramatically from the model of working-class culture described by Barbara Jensen and Jack Metzgar, which values belonging over individual achievement.  But the trends Silva documents may provide additional evidence that we are seeing some merging of the middle class and the working class. While this reflects the proletarianization of the middle class, it may also be that the working class is adopting more middle-class values of individualism.

Silva writes that younger working-class people are buying into the “cultural logic of neoliberalism.” They not only “embrace self-sufficiency over solidarity,” they also “blame those who are unsuccessful in the labor market.”  They distrust institutions and reject the idea that racism creates real obstacles for people of color.  They survived in a bad economy and they think others should as well.

As Silva argues, this attitude “has profound personal and political consequences.”  We’re seeing the resentment and blame that she identifies in comments from supporters of Donald Trump. Others, including Kotkin and Thomas Frank, have explained Trump’s popularity in these terms, reading his political success as evidence of economic frustration.

The problem, as we have noted in several previous election seasons, is that defining “the working class” as the class of racism, xenophobia, and resentment reinforces outdated notions of who is working class. “The working class” includes only angry displaced whites, whom media reports describe as forming Trump’s base but who also make up much of Bernie Sanders’s base.  But it also includes the frustrated millennials who are more likely to support Bernie Sanders and African-American, Latino, and other people of color who seem to be turning out in support of Hillary Clinton.  If the media and politicos believe that the working class holds the key to this year’s election, that’s good news.  Now it’s time for them to pay attention to all of the working class, in all its diversity.

Sherry Linkon and John Russo
Georgetown University

Posted in Contributors, Issues, John Russo, Sherry Linkon, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Misrepresenting the White Working Class: What the Narrating Class Gets Wrong

Most of the time the white working class is invisible in the U.S.  But during elections there is a flurry of attention to this “demographic” among political reporters and operatives, and as a result, also among the millions of us who read, listen, and watch their reporting, analyses, and endless speculation about who is ahead and behind and why.

I’ve been watching this phenomenon since 2000 when Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers first revealed that  a large chunk of the American electorate is white and working class.  As it has migrated from social scientists, with their “operational definitions” and facility with math, to pundit world, however, loose stereotypes and class-prejudiced assumptions have been growing exponentially.   It’s becoming a low-level one-sided cultural class war where what Nadine Hubbs calls “the narrating class” blithely assumes that working-class whites are “America’s perpetual bigot class.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Connie Schultz noted how many reporters and columnists associate Donald Trump and his pal Sarah Palin with white working-class ignorance and bigotry.  A Cleveland Plain Dealer writer, for example, complained: “Thanks to Trump, the entire Palin clan is now back in the spotlight they so crave.  Come July, Republican National Convention organizers should house the whole dysfunctional family in a trailer park in Ashtabula [Ohio].”  As it happens, both of Schultz’s grandmothers lived portions of their lives in trailer homes in Ashtabula, and she commented that “since Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash.’  These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.  Every group has its ‘other.’  For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

Unlike Schultz, most of the narrating class are from solidly middle-class backgrounds with little or no experience of working-class people of any color, but in my reading it is relatively rare to see outright classist remarks like the one Schultz quotes.  Rather, for the most part class-prejudiced assumptions are based on professional middle-class ignorance and misunderstanding.

Take the assumed popularity of Trump among the white working class, for example.  There appears to be supporting evidence for that. According to Brookings, for example, in a national survey 55% of “Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who support Trump are white working-class Americans.”  But this does not mean what Brookings thinks it means.  Among all adult whites, nearly 70% do not have bachelor’s degrees (the definition of “working class” used here).  This means that at 55%, the white working-class is under-represented among Trump supporters.    Conversely, unless Trump is getting much more minority support than reported, his supporters are disproportionally college-educated whites.  They make up 30% of the white population, but they are at least 40% of Trump voters in the Brookings survey.

There are two reasons for this kind of error, this one by a highly respected D.C. think tank.  One is simple ignorance of class demographics.  The bachelor’s/no bachelor’s binary is widely used to separate whites into two broad classes, but many analysts and reporters have no idea of the relative sizes of these two groups in the overall population.  They routinely assume that most white people must be college-educated professionals like themselves and the people among whom they live and work.

The other reason for this kind of error is based solely on the assumption that white people who have graduated from college are less racist, less anti-immigrant, less anti-feminist, less homophobic, and generally more tolerant of diversity than people who have not.  As a college professor, I very much hope this assumption is valid, but I could find no solid evidence that it is.   At least in political commentary, the question is never asked, and you have to wonder why not.

Here’s where Nadine Hubbs’s Rednecks, Queers, & Country Music is so helpful.  She shows how an educated white “narrating class” tends to see working-class whites are “ground zero for America’s most virulent social ills: racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Hubbs traces this to a Southern tradition of “white elites placing the blame for racial violence on poor whites as early as the turn of the twentieth century.” Hubbs quotes Patricia Turner, who has dubbed it “the fallacy of To Kill a Mockingbird”, which is the “notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens.”

This class-based blame-shifting (“It’s not us, it’s them!”) actually supports racist and other systems of oppression.  As Hubbs points out, the well-documented institutional racism that involves banks denying mortgages, employers not hiring blacks, and landlords refusing and/or exploiting black renters is not generally carried out by poor and working-class whites, but by white middle-class professionals.   By casting intolerance and bigotry as the unfortunate/misguided attitudes of “poorly educated,” “low-information” white voters, we white middle-class professionals deflect attention from those well-entrenched institutions within which we work, institutions that systematically deny opportunities to a wide range of people based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and class.

This usually plays out in political reporting and analysis more subtly than in To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is no less class-prejudiced.  Articles like “The truth about the white working class: Why it’s really allergic to voting for Democrats” use extensive polling data to explain why working-class whites are so strongly Republican, but they fail to mention that “the” white middle class is also “allergic to voting for Democrats,” if a little less so.   Even when writers explain how working-class whites’ “racial fears and anxieties” are based in their deteriorating living standards and working conditions, they inadvertently deploy the bigot-class framework.  By not asking whether and to what extent there might be some “racial fears and anxieties” among the white middle-class as well, these analysts assume, and expect their readers to assume, that there’s not any!

Based on my own observation and experience of both working-class and middle-class whites, my guess is that there is more bigotry and intolerance in the working class, and as I have said, I have an occupational bias in hoping that’s true.   But it’s not a slam dunk.  When I actually try to count heads from my direct experience, the only thing I’m sure of is that bigotry and intolerance are present and absent in both classes.  And as part of the narrating middle class, I recognize how comforting a blame-shifting bigot-class narrative can be as we witness the Republican front-runners advocate torture and carpet bombing while fulminating against Mexicans, Muslims, and New York values.   But we should be aware that this one-sided narrative protects our class from scrutiny and thereby supports institutional forms of exclusion that bite harder and more systematically than inappropriate sentiments and bad attitudes.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Politics | Tagged , , , | 25 Comments