Who is working class?

The question we’re asked most often at the Center for Working-Class Studies is “Who is working class today?” Despite the stereotype of the traditional blue-collar industrial worker, the working class is and always has been diverse – racially, politically, geographically, and occupationally. The working class can’t be defined simply, nor do they fit neatly into any box. That said, here’s how we approach class at the CWCS.

Class is a way of describing the hierarchy of society. Where you fit on the social class ladder affects your opportunities in life, because it determines your social, cultural, and financial resources. For example, statistics show that people from more elite families are significantly more likely to graduate from college than those who come from working-class or poor families. And having a college degree correlates with increased income and opportunity. One way of defining the difference between the middle class and the working class is level of education. College graduates are more likely to be middle class.

Class divisions are based primarily on economics. Where you fit in the class structure depends on the nature of the work you do as well as how much money you earn, how much wealth you have, and how much control you have over other people’s labor. Anyone who works for an hourly wage and whose work is closely supervised is working class. That includes traditional blue-collar workers, most clerical workers, restaurant and retail workers, and many others. Someone who earns a salary and has significant autonomy in the workplace is middle class or professional class.  That would include many mid-level workers in large companies, teachers, some retail managers, and many medical professionals. If you run the company, you belong to the upper class, especially if your position comes with the kind of paycheck and benefits that put you in the top 1 or 2% for household wealth.

Class is political in the sense that it creates allegiances and divisions based on shared or competing interests. In the workplace, it’s in the interests of owners or managers to get as much labor from each worker for as low a cost as possible, but it’s in the worker’s interest to get as much money as possible for their work. Beyond the workplace, government policies such as labor regulations or tax laws that benefit corporations or the wealthy often harm workers and people without significant savings or property. And, as this year’s election demonstrates, class matters in the voting booth.

But class is also a matter of culture. People in different classes think and behave differently. Research suggests that working-class people place a higher value on the good of the group, whether that be the family, coworkers, or the neighborhood, than middle-class people do. Working-class culture focuses on everyday life, while middle-class or professional-class families tend to focus on individual advancement. In addition, how we think about class is shaped by how our culture views class. What we see on TV, read in the newspaper, and hear from friends and family will influence what we think class means, and that shapes how we think about our own class positions.

Even with this definition, class can be confusing. Is a truck driver working-class or middle-class? That might depend on whether she owns the truck, but it might also depend on how she thinks of herself. How should we respond to the differences between a home health aide who earns $8.50 an hour and a unionized autoworker, who earns more than twice that much? What difference does race make? Or place?

No definition can adequately capture the complexity and diversity of the working class is today. But regardless of the nuances, working-class people have some things in common – strong commitment to family and community, economic vulnerability, a solid work ethic, occupational health risks, negative cultural stereotypes, limited access to education, and a significant number of votes in key states. This year, with an important election and a faltering economy, the working class matters perhaps more than ever.

— Sherry Linkon

This entry was posted in Sherry Linkon, Understanding Class and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Who is working class?

  1. Had Enough says:

    I do believe there is a class system.I classify my self as working class forever,regardless if I become ‘rich’ or not.It is an honourable position in life and I defend the rights and decent wages of my class to death and no I am not a commie heathen.My skill set as a metal worker in terms of knowledge must vastly outway that of a dentist for example but because of a class system they are paid far more than people like me because they jumped through hoops or had money or means or lack of scruples to do so.Although I may have the intelligence to become a member of the bar,I would never do so as it would mean taking advantage of the less well off.To hell with people who think I do a mindless job,at least I do an honoust days work for (at the moment-with more battles impending) a fair days pay.

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  3. The word working class means different things to different people together with socialism. Now I get to understand very well that the working class has been always diverse occupationally, geographically and in terms of how it organizes itself. I noted the most critical aspects that the class distinguishes itself from another class. Is the level of income and the economic backround. But the middle class sometimes consist of the stratum.

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  6. Surprising that the comments stop after 2009. What happened?

    An old rubric for conceptualizing our social classes goes back perhaps 700 years. In the feudal era, there were (largely) only two classes — the landed gentry; an upper class who owned the land; and the peasantry who worked that land. The upper class received their living from the rents on their capital holdings, and the lower class earned their bread by physical labor and the sweat of their brow.

    At about that time, there began to rise a class in between the landed gentry and the peasantry — a “middle” class. Members of this class did nor have inherited wealth, and thus had to work for a living — much like the peasantry. But unlike the peasantry, they did not work primarily with their hands (physical labor): Rather, they worked more with their brains; their incomes depended more upon what they knew / knew how to do. Thus the blacksmith who knew how to work iron, the merchant who knew where he could get good stuff cheap, the primitive early doctor — the artisans, the merchants, and the professionals.

    Since their livings depended more upon what they knew, this “middle” class were more likely to emphasize the value of an education — both for themselves and for their children. And because the education comes before the earning, this class also placed more emphasis on self-control and delayed gratification. (Also, because they were less directly tied to the land, they were more likely to live off the farm in the village or burg. It is from this that we derive the term bourgeois — essentially, burg-dweller.)

    Today, much of our so-called working class would fit within this concept of the middle class — think urbanized skilled-labor. And some of our middle class are moving toward the upper-classes — think real estate salesman who’s managed to save and acquire a couple of pieces of rental property.
    For them, some of their income is from their (knowledge) work, but a share is now from rents on their capital holdings — like that ancient landed gentry.

    Of course, the modern welfare state has added a new class at the bottom — a welfare class who neither work nor have invested capital. And perhaps a governing class at the top who command power (and hence their livings) more through political connection than through either labor or investment.

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  7. Katy says:

    I grapple with this question of class distinction a lot and I have more questions than answers.

    I come from a multi-class background. I descend from working-class immigrants who left the working class one or two generations before me, either through marriage and higher education or through assimilation into the managerial/professional class . I had educational opportunity (which I largely squandered) and grew up not by any means wealthy but with my needs met and a sense of opportunity. Ultimately I married a construction worker with no formal education and began raising a family on union wages but with little to no economic or job security. Even a brief foray into starting a (failed) construction business did not improve our material security, even if it seemed to briefly afford us greater autonomy in some ways. It is because of my economic reality, along with my sense of solidarity with working people, that I consider myself working class today.

    The real difference between classes is the degree of control people are able to exercise over the means of production.

    In simpler terms, economic and social class is a question of HOW MUCH CONTROL we have over our conditions, such as where we live, where we work, what our working conditions are, what materials went into the goods we use and where, and under what conditions, those materials were produced, what kind of transportation we rely upon to get to work or school and how far we have to travel to get there, where our food comes from, and so on.
    (Naturally, when we organize we can exert much greater control.)

    Just because you might be a “manager” or even the owner of a small business does not mean you are not working class in the sense that you might have extremely limited control or influence over the economic forces that shape the community.

    In the wake of the current crisis of capitalism, we are seeing things shake out this way. Many people who might have thought that they were no longer working class are finding that they have much more in common, in terms of struggle, with the people right “below” them on the ladder than either of them do with the people “above.” It is this distinction that matters more than anything else, it seems to me.

    Defining class isn’t a game of testing people’s authenticity or working class credentials, but more a way of defining common conditions around which we can work together toward our mutually-assured liberation.

    So, I think that it’s beside the point how we ascribe class identity to individuals. Class, by definition, is a collective identity. I hope, for the sake of struggle, that we can spend less time trying to define “working-class” and more time organizing around our common conditions and interests. That is what is needed now.

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  8. NHP says:

    As a college student today, I’ve witnessed dramatic changes in economic and cultural outlooks with respect to this area and the country and world as a whole. Though some of these perspectives are undoubtedly colored by childhood, I must admit I’ve seen a change in the way my family views its cultural and economic identity between the time I was a child and the present day.

    Through the 1990s and the 2000s, my family’s occupational conditions have remained largely unchanged. Both of my parents work for an hourly wage at a closely supervised job, which economically identifies us as a working-class family. However, from my recollection, we identified more with the middle-class in terms of lifestyle. We were largely individualistic in terms of outlook and not really involved with the community.

    My sister and I were also provided with a solid education, partially public and partially private as we both attened a prestigious private high school. Both of us now attend four-year public universities, a trait, according to this article, that is less common among working-class families.

    To complicate matters, between the prosperity of the 1990s and the economic recessions of the 2000s, the perception, at least, that money is very tight, has become an issue that has caused some tension within my family. Both my parents have been working many additional hours above that which they used to. Budgeting has become a more serious concern. Saving money for various goals or projects has also become a common practice.

    My family has also become more community-oriented in the 21st Century, with an interest in local elections, city politics, and local organizations. My parents also commonly consider themselves part of the working class in conversation, as opposed to the middle class, as they did in the past.

    Certainly, my family’s case stands as an effective example of how difficult it is to distinguish social classes based on economics, cultural identity, and education status. However, the transformation in terms of cultural identity between the 1990s and the 2000s strikes me as more interesting.

    Are the economic tensions in place today truly as severe as my family perceives them, even though my parents’ occupational statuses have remained largely the same if not slightly improved? Have the definitions of the middle and working class changed since the recessions of the 2000s?

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  9. Rufus says:

    I believe that the working class is anyone that pays bills, takes care of their children, works, studies, and pretty much just take care of what is important to them. The amount of money shouldnt have anything to do with whether or not you are deep or shallow in the working class. Everyone is in the working class. without work, no one would have money. And no money means no power. Sadly enough, i dont want to admit it but money does mean power. Education also has a lot to do with it. A person with more education maybe does not have to work as much. But that person still works to pay for his or her expenses. That person still takes their kids to school and takes care of what is important to them. We are all in the working class together.

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  10. Captain Internet says:

    In this day and age, I think we should be worrying less about defining the “elite” and “poor” members of society and more about the greater good of the American people as a whole. Let’s face it, American society exists as a symbiotic relationship. We cannot function efficiently without the “working class” man picking up our trash, packaging our meat, purifying our water, delivering our mail, and so on. On the other hand, society also needs the “white collar” citizens to run the hospitals, preserve the law, and operate the corporations. Both classes are essential to one another. As the economy fails and families struggle to make it day to day, people are still hung up on defining social classes. If we worried less about class and more about society as a whole, we could help drag the nation our of this depression and unite as one…each class no more important or highlighted than the other.

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  11. prina says:

    I too have grown up in a working class family and i am now trying to become am middle-class worker. Someones race and ethnicity should have nothing to do with wheather a person is classified as working or middle class, i believe that it should be based strictly on how a person is paid and what they are paid for the job they do.

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  12. ok says:

    This article made alot of good points. Like many others, I struggle with the question of “What is middle-class, upper-class, or poverty?” Our economy, the way it is now, makes that a very hard question to answer. The wage of a “middle-class” citizen, 5 years ago, has really changed to today. A person making 25,000 dollars a year, with a car payment, house payment, and a family, may not seem to be in the poverty level, but with numbers aside, it’s really difficult to live on that. You mean to tell me that 25,000 dollars, isn’t enough to live on in our economy today, it’s sad. There are many problems that come along with these questions. They are really difficult to answer, and the answers, are always changing. just like our economy.

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  13. ryan says:

    I also agree that these days it is becoming harder and harder to classify what middle-class/working-class truly is. I grew up in a “working-class” family, in which the only person with a college degree other than myself was my uncle–who has become very successful professional, but worked very hard to get where he is. I also think getting a college education often propels you into the proverbial “middle-class”, but that doesn’t mean you don’t work just as hard as a person who makes much less. Class shouldn’t be based on a person’s work-ethic. I also think working-class could be defined by everyone who works, rather than just those working minimum-wage.

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  14. Sean M says:

    This article brings up many good points as to how an individual truly determines what is considered working class. While income and company postion certainly take precedence when determining one’s social class, we must take into account how that person stands in relation to those living in the same area and their personal feelings. While they still may be working class, there are different levels of every social class for them to be compared to. The media and our own personal bias also help to lead us to labeling others as belonging to a particular social class. The factory worker might be more dedicated than the factory owner, but they are still of inferior social standing, unfortunately. This article was informative and extremely well written.

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  15. heather says:

    I FEEL THAT SOME TIMES IT DOES NOT MATTER ON HOW MUCH YOU MAKE ITS HOW YOU SPEND IT. SO HOW CAN YOU ACTUALLY DECEIDE WHO IS WORKING CLASS AND WHO IS MIDDLE . I ALSO THINK IN YOUNGSTOWN THERE IS VERY FEW MIDDLE CLASS AND ALOT OF WORKING CLASS AND SOME WORKING CLASS STRUGGLE WAY MORE THAN OTHERS. AS FOR EDUCATION AND HOW THEY SAY THE SUCCESS RATES ARE VARIES I DO BELIEVE THAT YOUR PARENTS HAVE A BIG PART OF WHO YOU BECOME BUT YOU HAVE TO ASK WHY DI YOUR PARENTS NOT GO TO SCOOL OR WHY DID THEY AND GO FROM THERE. ALSO DO YOU WANT TO SUCEED IN LIFE

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  16. Kai B says:

    Where you fit in the class structure depends on the nature of the work you do as well as how much money you earn, how much wealth you have, and how much control you have over other people’s labor.

    I will go ahead and add on to Jeanne’s comments on this aspect of the topic. I also grew up in working class before moving up to middle class. I believe the distinction between the former and latter goes beyond economics. It also has to do with culture, attitudes, mannerisms, norms, and so forth. I think there is a clear distinction between the two.

    It seems, from my experience, that working class citizens have a more “instant gratification” attitude and less “long term savings” mentality. In moving from one class up to the next, I realized this. Also, middle class citizens work harder for advancement and working class citizens may feel “stuck” or even “content” with their place in the world and are less likely to seek changing their “stars”. I do not intend for this to sound critical of the working class because I believe that many actually are hard workers. Nor do I intend to overgeneralize my assumptions because there are those in the working class who do save, seek advancement, and because of circumstances beyond their control are unable to do so.

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  17. Josette Brian says:

    I think that the working class is not just those who work and barely get by, or the poor. I think it is very true that people that have more money have more opportunites to go to or graduate from college, thus haveing the opportunity to make a good sum of money, and thus having the opportinity to continue the legacy of allowing their kin to follow in their footsteps. All in all, i believe that it is only fair to consider anyone who works, part of working class.

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  18. Shawn Patric says:

    My definition of the working class is not the owners of the companys that we work for, it is not the managers either, my definition of the working class is the minimum wage workers. Most minimum wage employees work harder then any manager or boss.

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  19. Johnny says:

    I feel that the working class cannot be defined purely by income or occupation. There are many minimum wage workers that may not take home as much as some “middle class” households, but are still in better shape financially. Many middle class American are in large amounts of debt. I think that the term “working class” should refer to each individual’s personal financial status rather than their income.

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  20. jaxson says:

    I believe that the elite are not so elite due to the fact that it is the working class that keeps our economy alive. In all reality, if one were to look at the work ethics behind the elite, they would find one of us (the working class) doing the majority of the work for them.

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  21. jimmy says:

    So the question that is asked here is, what is the working class? This is a very trick question because that working class can’t be defined under just one catagory. It could be alot of things, such as a truck driver, waiteress, sale person.It just depends on your salary, how much wealth you have, and how much control you have over other people’s labor.Based off on this you will be able to decide what class a person is under.

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  22. Jeanne says:

    Where you fit in the class structure depends on the nature of the work you do as well as how much money you earn, how much wealth you have, and how much control you have over other people’s labor.

    The folks who define class (those acting in the educated class, even if they themselves grew up poor or working class) always say that economics is the primary definition.

    I see economics as the literal tip of the iceberg–most of that which is visible, but without all the other stuff, it wouldn’t exist. Economics is the outward product of all the other things: education, culture and politics.

    I grew up and spent my 20s as a working class person. Then I met my partner and married into wealth. But folks still treat me as if I were working class.

    So outwardly, by your definition, I would be owning class. But what of the ways I get treated by middle class folks (as someone to be bossed around, dismissed as ignorant, etc.)?

    If you look at economics LAST, as the product of all those other things, I think it would be more productive and enlightening.

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  23. Cathy Chovan says:

    I enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and really appreciate spaces such as this because they cultivate mindfulness by allowing people to speak freely.

    My passion is based on issues connected with social justice and free will which are both deeply intertwined with economic privilege. Discussing how our identity is socioeconomic and complex can be a taboo topic because of our American hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil attitudes used empower our self interest and privilege.

    It’s been interesting watching discussions over the up coming election and how class doesn’t seem to be addressed enough in combination with race, gender, sexuality and our social hierarchy. Rather it seems to have been a set-up for working-class “whites” and their decision on who will be elected which ignored the complexity of what working-class is.

    It has appeared to me that the working-class poor (regardless of ethnicity/race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) continue not to be heard by our politicians, middle, and upper class. More interesting are the folks who are not fiscally middle class (but identify as middle class) and their willingness work against their own economic interest by voting in leaders who have used ethnic minorities and homophobia to foster a hostile environment which leads to misdirected frustrations over economic struggles. The recent shooting at a Tenn. Unitarian church might be an example of this.

    The use of exploiting people’s identities to empower isolation among working-class groups seems to be a historic theme we have yet to transcend with the exception of acculturation. I do not view assimilation as a means of empowerment because it still leaves a bottom, but I have found that within fields of social services and the academic world of social justice and psychology assimilation is often viewed as a good path to empower “minorities”. It appears this attitude is where the middle class state of mind might fit in; after all it’s better to be near the top than the bottom in any social paradigm.

    Ultimately, when we discuss class we can’t forget all the nasty “isms” that foster capitalism, which makes me think of Clara Fraser (Activist) when she wrote:

    “Capitalism is the all-embracing social context, the all-embracing social content, and the all-embracing social cause and beneficiary of every form of oppression and exploitation today. This common context creates the parallels and the similarities between all of us despite our superficial differences of color, sex, and age, and sexuality. Capitalism is the core that engenders the intersections of all of our struggles, and all of our lives, and all of our problems.”

    I think the only way we will transcend the nasty ness of “capital” is to foster new “isms” such as pluralism (to un-polarize our government) and egalitarianism (to over come hierarchy) and this will come from a multicultural perspective not an assimilated one.

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  24. Jason D. says:

    Here’s a link my partner found after I forwarded your new blog to her:
    http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/national/20050515_CLASS_GRAPHIC/index_01.html

    I can sense some serious problems with the NY Times chart, but I’d be interested in your opinions. Maybe in another blog post?

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  25. Victor Paananen says:

    I dont know how that yellow smiley face got into my message above. My usual bad typing , I suppose.

    I dunno. I sort of feel that the time has come to break the news to the “middle class” that they are actually working-class.

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  26. Karen Weyant says:

    Thanks for the new blog! I enjoyed reading the first entry and the different perspectives coming from those who have added comments. Jeanne, I am reading Limbo right now, and while I have read other books about those who come from working-class backgrounds entering the “academic” world, nothing has hit home like Limbo!

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  27. Jeanne says:

    Thanks for starting this blog! And I am very much looking forward to hearing more from you (and quoting you on my own blog). I’ll also add you to my list of favorite blogs. I’m really really hoping it gets updated more frequently than the Worker Portraits blog, which has only an initial post from February 2008.

    I do have a couple of comments.

    1. Wow, your list of contributors is impressive. I’m so glad to see so much going on in academia around social class issues. I’m wondering, though, if you’ve considered having people who are right now working class be contributors (and not just those of us who grew up working class but have in some ways stepped outside of our class upbringing).

    2. Jackie, have you read Al Lubrano’s book Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams? It primarily discusses the discomfort people raised working class feel working and living in the middle and owning class worlds. It definitely spoke to my condition and I think it will yours too. If it hasn’t already.

    3. Greg: you’re right. But the tricky thing is that the owning class has duped the middle class into believing they’re not really working class. The middle class has been given this idea that they are the social standard bearers, and has given them a special place in society: to manage the working class.

    They’re never ever going to get it.

    That’s why it’s important to work in and among middle class folks to make them aware that their work is only making other people richer and more comfortable.

    Telling them what you just said is just going to poo-poo your ideas as Socialist or Communist.

    Thanks again for starting this blog!

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  28. Victor Paananen says:

    I want to endorse both Greg Giorgio’s definition of working-class (“Do you have a boss and work for wages? Then you are working-class, period.”) and his warning about the virtually meaningless label “middle class” (“Middle class is a ruling class construct used to divide us.”). The political season now upon us is a good time to watch politicians use the term “middle class” to discourage working people from asserting their real class interests as the producers of all wealth.

    Congratulations on the new blog, Sherry!

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  29. Greg Giorgio says:

    While I can’t really argue with the figures and
    analysis of Sherry’s piece, I think we need to
    stop thinking in terms of gradations of workers
    in the greater society. I don’t care if you’re
    washing dishes or teaching graduate courses.
    Do you have a boss and work for wages? Then you are working class, period. Middle class is a
    ruling class construct used to divide us. Working class identity implies a role and a
    responsibility we should honor and be proud of. I feel that the whole middle class cultural identity is a slippery slope for workers who often hide behind the trappings of what middle class has come to mean and which side they are really on when their class is attacked by the
    variables in the conomy and the sure busts and
    booms of an economic system built on greed
    and exploitation. Yes, the working class should matter more than ever but not, in my view,
    because of the upcoming election’s implications primarily. Rather because the working class is
    the source of all wealth , potentially the real transforming force for justice that we have never realized to its fullest extent.

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  30. Jackie Barton says:

    I do love another opportunity to see Sherry at work! I would like to see more on how we’re defining class for ourselves as mobile Americans who move up and down the educational and income ladders.

    As the daughter of a nurse and a truck driver and a product of YSU, I found myself completely flummoxed by issues of class when I went off to a graduate school with vast highfalutin connections. More and more Americans, be they immigrants or children of long-time working class families, are going off to be first generation college students and finding themselves as classless in a way. Are you upper middle class because of your graduate degrees, professional careers, and comfortable salaries? Or are you working class because you came to that end through working long hours and still identify with the blue collar life of your youth?

    What about high-income folks who drive $60,000 vehicles that happen to be pick-up trucks and who feel more deeply aligned with NASCAR and country music than wine drinking and travel to Europe?

    And what IS middle class, really? It functions now as the class we all claim but can’t define. And yet somehow we all know it’s shrinking.

    It’s a messy thing, class in America.

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  31. Alisa Balestra says:

    Last semester I taught a course on the white working-class to first-year students at Miami University, where I am a Ph.D. student focusing on the work of multi-ethnic working-class women writers. Part of my objective in teaching this course was to help upper- and upper-middle class students understand the complexity of working-class life in America. My students left our course realizing that “collars” are misleading, and that class involves more than economic conditions or the amount of money one has (though these things are certainly important). With the help of a wide variety of “working-class texts,” my students left my class thinking that working-class people are more than anonymous hands.

    As a first-generation college student myself, and as someone who grew up working-class in Youngstown, it was important for me to impress upon those of class privilege that “working-class” is not synonymous with “white trash,” even if writers like Dorothy Allison and comedians like Roseanne Barr reclaim “white trash” identities for white and working-class people.

    I look forward to reading this blog. Thanks to the CWCS for its important and necessary work in and outside the academy.

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  32. Paul Kobulnicky says:

    I grew up working class and now I am middle class so I’ve seen both sides. From that perspective I’d add one more distinction … control. People who join the middle class begin to feel that they are much more in control of their own lives than members of the working class who see others as having that control. Perhaps that is why members of the working class focus on the group more than the individual since they feel that they have little control over their lives as individuals.

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