“Waitress Moms” and “Stupid White Men”

As Sherry pointed out last week and as comments on her post suggest, people involved in working-class studies define the working class in many different ways. While we still manage to have productive discussions, our definitions shape what we see and what we think matters.

Something similar happened in the mainstream media’s reporting of the Democratic primaries in the Rust Best states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana this past Spring. Most reporters assumed that white working-class people would vote Democratic, but whether the white working class supports the Democrats depends on how you define “working class.” Exit polls defined the working-class as “voters without a bachelor’s degree,” on the one hand, and as “voters with household incomes of less than $50,000,” on the other. Both these definitions have a history, but if we define the working class on the basis of education, it turns out that the white working class is out of sync with Democrats, more so than if we use an income-based approach.

The “voters without a bachelor’s degree” definition comes from nearly a decade of work by public-opinion analyst Ruy Teixeira. In 2000 Ruy’s book with Joel Rogers, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, analyzed the electorate using class, race, gender, and whether people lived in a union household. Recently Teixeira, working with Alan Abramowitz, has deepened that analysis with a broader historical portrait, “The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class.” Though Teixeira’s emphases and his political advice to Democratic politicians has shifted over the past eight years, he’s stuck with that “voters without a bachelor’s degree” definition of the working class, and it yields some interesting, unexpected results. Here’s what I take to be the most important of those results:

  • As a whole, the American working class by this definition is nearly 60% of the electorate. Within the working class, blacks, Latinos, and Asians vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but whites don’t.
  • White working-class voters represent about 45% of the entire electorate, and in the last three presidential elections, only about 40% of them voted for the Democratic candidate.
  • Though middle-class voters vote slightly more Democratic than working-class ones (by this definition), probably the most important conclusion from this line of research is that class is relatively insignificant compared to race, gender and being in a union household. This is the what’s-the-matter-with-Kansas problem: if the white working class voted its economic class interests, Republicans would not keep getting a majority of their votes.
  • The only group of white voters who gave Democrats a majority in the past three presidential elections is white women in union households.
  • No group of white men voted majority Democrat, not even those in union households. Still, being in a union household increases white men’s Democratic vote by 15 to 17 points, to about 48%. Nonunion white men, on the other hand, give scarcely one-third of their vote to Democrats, regardless of class (at least if we define class by education). This is Michael Moore’s stupid-white-men problem.
  • Social class has a substantial effect on white women, however. Middle-class white women vote 5 to 7 points more Democratic than working-class white women do.
  • Nonunion working-class white women, what punditry shorthand calls “waitress moms,” are the key demographic in this year’s election. Close to 20% of the electorate all by themselves, this group of women moved strongly against Democrats in the last three presidential elections – they gave Bill Clinton 47% of their vote, Al Gore 44%, and John Kerry only 38%. If that trend is not reversed, Barack Obama is unlikely to be our next president.

In order to win this year, the Democrats need strong turnouts by minority and union-household voters, but they also need to rally white working-class women. That requires a program that can make a real difference in these women’s lives and grassroots organizing to make sure they know that. The Democrats this year may have such a program. And the grassroots organizing going on this year is unprecedented, both in substance and scope. These will be the subjects of my next two posts.

Jack Metzgar

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8 Responses to “Waitress Moms” and “Stupid White Men”

  1. Roxanne says:

    I do not believe that working class should be determined on how much the person makes, but by what kind of job that they do. They base their votes on their beliefs and how they think will do a better job at running our country. I do believe, however, that race and gender can take a toll on how they vote.

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  2. Bobby Joe Baker says:

    While the working class is split between the Republicans and the Democrats, you can not blame them for the Democrats short comings. All the working class whether they are members of a union household or not, are fully entitled to their opinion and their own stance in our democracy today. They should not be expected to conform to society and vote like the others in the working class.

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  3. Sally Snow says:

    There is no real way to define the working-class. Many years ago, this was easier to define when men worked in poor jobs, or superb jobs- with no middle ground. Today, women have made their way into the workplace, and some men have found their way out, and there is no way to define the working-class. The most effective way to determine how one will vote is by looking at one’s race, gender, income, living conditions, family size, and many more things. The working-class is history.

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  4. Jeanne says:

    Betsy, isn’t education a far better indicator than occupation (for shorthand use)?

    I think it’s too easy for privileged folks to work in seemingly working class jobs. I have a friend who always called himself a carpenter, but he grew up owning class and in fact was really a contractor. This made him a manager, really, rather than a carpenter, even though he had good carpentry skills. And over and over again I hear middle and owning class people call themselves poor.

    It’s not as easy to fake not having a degree (and I don’t know anyone who does that).

    Do you?

    Then again, I only just got my BA at 40, and am not a social scientist. So what do I know!?!🙂

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  5. I can think of a couple other reasons to avoid income as a major indicator of class (besides the issue of voluntary-low-income clergy, non-profit staff, etc., mentioned in these comments.)

    One is that income varies a lot by age. Most people start at a lower income, increase steadily into late middle-age, then decrease in old age. So when you compare households of varied ages, the class picture is muddied. For example, the Census shows that lowest-income quintile has the smallest average number of people in the household. Some people are confused by that; don’t poor families tend to have slightly more children? Yes, but the reason is that the lowest income quintile includes lots of single young adults and lots of elderly widows. Class differences in income can be seen by comparing people of a certain age, but not otherwise.

    Also, for employed Americans of all classes over the last couple decades, income has become more unstable from year to year. People might get a one-shot burst of overtime or consulting work, or a few-month layoff or shortage of work, which makes their annual income temporarily surge up or down. Income averaged over multiple years does correlate with class for a given age of worker, but single-year measures can be deceptive.

    Over-relying on income can have big political implications. Economist Larry Bartels attempted to disprove the conclusions of Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas” by looking at exit poll data broken out by income. Basically he used the data to say that working-class conservatism doesn’t exist. Frank defended his argument by pointing out that income is not synonymous with class. I’m more convinced by his side of the fight.

    There are lots of online recaps of the Frank/Bartels argument; here’s one of them:

    http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2005/12/thomas_frank_an.html

    To me the conclusion is this: whenever possible, combine multiple indicators for class. But when a shorthand single indicator is necessary, stick with education level or occupation.

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  6. Jeanne says:

    Deb,

    That’s because economics is only what shows, so that’s how it’s been defined by those outside the class. It’s a way to simplify something that isn’t simple.

    Economics is the outcome of culture, education and politics. Yes, you can be wealthy without having middle class culture, education or politics, but those folks are few, and disdained by those with inherited wealth. And they often don’t stay wealthy (like folks who win the lottery are often broke within ten years).

    And you can work below your potential if you’re middle or owning class, but that doesn’t make you poor. Ministers can be like this–very well educated but not making a lot of money.

    Thing is, those folks have a choice about making less money. A minister could quit her job and get a posh job consulting or directing a non-profit.

    This is why economics isn’t a good indicator of almost anything.

    There needs to be a change in how academics define it.

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  7. Karen Weyant says:

    I find this discussion interesting — but a little bit confusing, as well. Perhaps I got bogged down a bit with the stats — but do we have a clearer picture of how many members of the working class (with whatever definition we use) don’t vote all? I guess I am speaking from personal experience, but when I worked as a waitress, there was little talk of elections.

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  8. Deb Weaver says:

    I happen to know many many people with four year degrees who make less than $50,000 per year. I also happen to know many working class people without bachelor’s degrees that earn far more than $50,000. I do not think that income is an effective determinant of whether or not someone is working class.

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