The shell-shocked white working class

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  • Problems bothering white Americans without a college degree have less to do with immediate economic insecurity than with the collapse of a whole way of life, writes Stephanie Coontz
  • It's been 40 years in the making, she writes

Stephanie Coontz teaches history at Evergreen State College and wrote the newly revised, "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The problems bothering white Americans without a college degree have less to do with immediate economic insecurity or material hardship, although those are widespread, than with the collapse of a whole way of life.

Following World War II, production workers experienced three decades of unprecedented economic and social gains. But since the end of the 1970s, they have seen a nearly unremitting decline in their real wages, working conditions and social status, along with a loss of the interpersonal and work networks that were once the basis of their upward progress and their entire community's stability.
    I think it's fair to say that large segments of the white working-class are feeling shell-shocked.
    One pastor who has ministered to a congregation of whites in post-industrial central Philadelphia and to a rural congregation in Wisconsin said this of his parishioners: "Every time something changed in their lives, it changed for the worse. And I mean just about every stinking time."
    The rise and fall of stability in working-class life explains much that otherwise seems puzzling in the responses to this week's CNN-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. We've heard much about working-class anger. Yet the poll reveals a rather uncomplaining acceptance of what is, in many cases, a far from an easy life.
    Sixty-three percent of white working-class respondents say they are "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with their personal financial situation, even though in the past year 46% of them say they postponed medical or dental care and half took an extra job or added work hours to make ends meet. About 30% of those who are employed face the stress of work shifts that change every week. But 76% say they are optimistic about what's going on in their personal life, and 77% of those who are working believe their jobs are secure.
    However, this willingness to see the upside of difficult living conditions coexists with a deep pessimism about the future, and especially their children's future. Fully half of working-class whites expect their children's lives will be worse than their own. Fewer than one-quarter expect their children to do better.
    Working-class blacks and Hispanics are far more optimistic than their white counterparts, even though the unemployment rate of blacks without a college degree is twice as high as that of whites, as is the percentage of black workers who are working part time although they want full-time jobs.
    On average, blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes and are less likely to own their homes. They lost more ground than whites during the recession and have regained less ground since. Yet 36% of working-class blacks and 48% of working-class Hispanics believe their children will do better than they.
    Another striking difference is that only 45% of whites without a college education, compared to almost 75% of blacks and Hispanics, say their life would be better if they had a four-year college degree. Fifty-one percent of the whites think it would make no difference, and 3% feel it would have made things worse.
    These attitudes stem from the tremendous leap forward that white working-class Americans made in the 1950s and 1960s. People who study race relations in America often talk about white privilege, but this is a relative concept when it comes to the working class. For 200 years, elites had encouraged a sense of white superiority to defuse class resentments and head off interracial class alliances. But as in so many conflicts, the foot soldiers of white dominance seldom got a very large share of the spoils.
    Low-income whites were given preference over minorities in hiring, wages, and promotions (except during strikes, when employers were quick to replace strikers with minorities whom they fired afterward, reinforcing hostility on both sides).
    Yet their relative advantages over workers of other races did not produce a life of privilege for white production workers, who earned low wages with few benefits, faced frequent layoffs and suffered high rates of on-the-job injuries.
    A coal miner's boot remains inside the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker in Manahoy City, Pennsylvania.

    Life got better

    In the decades after World War II, though, life got much better for white male workers and their families. The tremendous growth of unions, along with new government regulations, put a stop to some of the exploitative practices of employers. Meanwhile, from 1950 to 1979, government invested in infrastructure and new technologies at almost twice the rate since 1980, creating rapid blue-collar job growth.
    For the first time, the American Dream came within reach for white blue-collar workers-- a dream not of immense wealth but of the ability to sustain a comfortable family life by working hard and well at your job. Between 1947 and 1973, the real wages of the average young male worker without a college education doubled as he moved from age 25 to 35. In 1959, the average 30-year-old man could pay the mortgage on a median-priced home using only 18% of his gross monthly pay.
    And his wages continued to rise through his working life as new seniority laws prevented aging workers from being displaced or demoted. A man passing from age 40 to 50 saw his earnings increase by another 30 percent.
    Perhaps more important psychologically was that young people in that era could see that they were doing much better than their parents. In 1961, men aged 25 to 29 were, on average, earning four times more in real wages than their fathers at about the same age.

    A different kind of success

    The basis of success in working-class communities was very different from how success is gained by today's mobile professionals. Working-class neighborhoods clustered around sources of employment, within walking distance from the small businesses that depended on them for customers, and often within sight of the homes of the managers who supervised them.
    There was suspicion of strangers, and racial segregation was the norm, but there was less separation by class and income than today. Their bosses often frequented the same churches. Educated professionals had enough close contact with workers to respect the skill and stamina involved in what economists now call "routine" or "semi-skilled" labor.
    At churches, work, and schools, people were enmeshed in stable personal networks that were far from egalitarian but were often the main way young men found a job and small businesses built their base. If you worked hard, respected your place in the social hierarchy, and conformed to community standards, you could expect to get a decent job, have the satisfaction of doing better than your own parents, and see your own kids do better than you.
    Coming out of this tradition, it's no wonder that half of these individuals don't think having a four-year degree would have helped them. Their frame of reference is a world where you didn't need to go to college to do better than your father. It often made more sense to simply follow in his footsteps.
    The erosion of such communities and workplaces has been going on for almost 40 years. Many manufacturing jobs have been lost or outsourced. Most that are still around or have come back now pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits. Between 1947 and 1979, for example, real wages of meatpacking workers increased by an average of 80 percent (to just under $40,000 per year in constant dollars). But from 1979 to 2012, those wages declined by 30%, to about $27,000 a year.
    The old social contract -- and the old social contacts -- have, for good and for ill, ceased to organize work and community life.
    For the past three decades, the average young man without a college degree has consistently done worse than his father. Between 1979 and 2007, young men with a high school degree suffered, on average, a 29% decline in real earnings.
    Humans see things in relative terms. When we assess our present position and prospects, we do so in relation to our past experiences and expectations. Most white working-class Americans are still better off than most black and Hispanic non-college-educated workers, but they have been on a long, demoralizing downward slope. By contrast, although blacks and Hispanics started from a much lower base, they have seen remarkable progress since the early 1960s, despite suffering more than whites during recessions.
    It is not surprising that so many white workers are pessimistic about their future. Even if their changes for the worse leave them better off than many of their black and Hispanic counterparts, people usually focus more on what they've lost rather than on the narrowing edge they may retain over others.

    Why not go to college?

    But why, many ask, aren't lower-income white men flocking to college? It's more complicated than lack of initiative. Ironically, one thing that now holds white working-class men back is the residue of their traditional race and gender bonus: Men who drop out of college initially earn, on average, as much as men who have recently completed their degree.
    The college advantage multiplies over time, but it's tempting -- although self-defeating in the long run -- to start earning as much as Joe the new college grad without foregoing earnings for several years or taking on debt.
    Furthermore, going to college can be risky for people whose parents can't offer substantial support. Older Americans who brag of working their way through college may not realize that between 1975 and 2015, tuition and fees grew by more than 200% at community colleges and at private, nonprofit, four-year colleges and universities -- after accounting for inflation. At public four-year colleges and universities, they grew by nearly 300%.
    In 1979, the average student at a four-year university could pay for tuition by working just 182 hours per year. By 2013, the average student had to work 991 hours. And unlike the early 1970s, most available aid takes the form of loans rather than outright grants.
    A recent study of 3,000 young adults who entered public four-year institutions in Wisconsin found that even with the help of Pell grants, college was still unaffordable. Only half the students received any credential within six years, a long time to put earnings on hold. Almost 40% dropped out, many saddled with debt that put them further behind than when they started.
    Even getting a degree does not guarantee getting a job that allows you to pay off debts. Since 2000, employment of college grads has grown more rapidly in low-earning than high-earning jobs.
    Many liberal politicians have failed to acknowledge those realities, and many conservatives have manipulated them to fan racial resentments. It's not just Trump who's been stirring the pot. Racial fears have been whipped up for years by the same politicians who now piously denounce them. Think Reagan's Welfare Queen, George H. Bush's Willie Horton, Jeb Bush's "free stuff" remarks, and the Clintons' "Super-predators."
    Racism is not the only reason for Trump's popularity. A significant number of Trump supporters say they voted for Obama in 2012, and so far Obama seems to have done better with white working-class voters in Florida, Ohio, and Iowa than Clinton is currently doing.

    Blaming it on race

    But the legacy of racism runs deep, especially in the old Confederacy. And in the absence of a clear acknowledgement of how and why white working-class men and communities have suffered and without any firm commitment to turn that around, many whites have been persuaded to blame their declining fortunes on blacks and immigrants.
    In the 1950s, race outweighed education in determining wage rates. On average, white men with only a high school degree out-earned blacks with a college degree. Today, education outweighs race. But many working-class whites don't yet realize that this is not a result of reversed racial preferences but of new market preferences:
    Studies confirm that employers still favor white men over blacks in most labor markets where applicants have equal education. When nearly identical résumés are sent out, for example, the candidate with a white-sounding name receives more callbacks than the applicant with a black-sounding name.
    Some whites look at the gains of black professionals, formerly held back by legally enforced discrimination, and say that "those people" are taking a job that could be theirs. Yet if educated minorities weren't in the picture, it would be OTHER white people, from more privileged families, taking those jobs. And when liberals respond by framing equal rights as a matter of "compassion" or "tolerance," without mentioning the growing class divide, it's not entirely surprising that sections of the white working class mishear calls for diversity as endorsement of their accelerating marginalization.
    As one young man complained while we were both waiting for relatives receiving treatment in a New Orleans hospital, "everybody talks about the problems of the blacks, the illegals, the gays, the transgenders. But I see a lot more of them getting ahead than white guys like me." And an older woman told me "I actually voted for hope and change, but we haven't gotten it down here, so when Clinton says, 'oh we already ARE great,' she loses me.

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    None of this excuses racist reactions. The tragedy is that in the "good old days" for white Americans without a college degree, their prosperity was less dependent on their unfair advantages over minorities than on a social consensus reaching across both parties that government could and should invest in infrastructure projects that create jobs for working people and enforce policies that protect workers' bargaining power. In the 1960s, when civil-rights activism extended those opportunities and protections to minorities as well as whites, this resulted in increased progress for workers in general and for racial equality.
    The political challenge today is how to acknowledge the legitimate sense of loss and exclusion experienced by white workers while persuading them that reestablishing racial and masculine privileges is a poor substitute for ensuring secure rights for all workers and getting rid of a political decision-making process that is rigged against them by business lobbyists and financial interest groups.
    So far, most of Trump's establishment critics have failed to persuasively explain how they would create well-paying jobs and improve working people's bargaining power. So we see growing numbers of people who think that in a stacked deck, a "wild card" might not be such a bad thing. As a retired deputy sheriff from Montana put it, Trump is "risky" but at least he's looking at things "through a different scope."
    Attacking Trump's unpredictability might even help his cause. The last 40 years have been depressingly predictable for working-class communities and small towns, and Trump's critics need to establish that they too can be "change agents" -- but in a much more substantive way.