The truth about the white working class: A mosaic of their own

Washington CNN  — 

On the surface, Ann Bryant and Jennifer Gibson could not be more alike.

Both are white women without college degrees. Both live in North Carolina. Both think America’s best days are ahead of it.

But their shared optimism stems from sharply different assessments of the country’s current state of affairs. Bryant, a retired nurse who says she lives comfortably in New Bern, North Carolina, sees an improving economy, neighbors whose children are purchasing their first homes and general prosperity. She also says she will probably vote for Hillary Clinton.

“I see improvement in people’s wages,” said Bryant, who declined to give her age except to say that she is a senior citizen.

“The way they dress. When I go to the grocery store, I see people with big baskets of food. People look like they’re doing well. I just think that things are better all the way around.”

For her part, Gibson, 63, sees a country overrun by immigrants and refugees with alien values, living on the dole, taking jobs and benefits away from native-born Americans.

She says political leaders in Washington are out of touch with the concerns of people like her and that her optimism for the future is based on her belief that Donald Trump will win the presidency.

“Right now everything is in one hell of a mess, and I believe that Trump is going to come in and clean things up,” she said.

Far from a monolith

The white working class, which forms the core of Trump’s support, is often treated as a monolithic entity, both in its beliefs and its images. But an extensive survey of whites with less than a four-year college degree conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation paints a picture of an often-ignored demographic that belies the stereotypic images of Midwestern steel workers toting lunch pails to work, or golden-hearted cashiers working at Walmart or laid-off coal miners in Appalachia sitting around, chugging beer and seething in resentment.

What the poll discovered is that, as much as the white working class differs in attitudes and experience from college-educated whites and from working-class blacks and Hispanics, it presents an intriguing mosaic within its demographic group.

Far from being monolithic, the white working class has sharp divisions based on age, geography, income, gender and religion. These differences show up in their views towards immigration and racial and ethnic diversity; optimism about the direction of their lives and their children’s future; their opinion about government or their support for Donald Trump.

“We went into this poll trying to keep an open mind and not look at the white working class as a monolithic group,” said Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

For example, urban-dwelling members of the white working class are more optimistic about America’s future than their counterparts in rural areas. Almost three-quarters of working-class whites younger than 30 who were surveyed believe increasing racial and ethnic diversity is enriching the country’s culture, while about half of those older than 65 who were surveyed do.

Southern whites who have not attended college are twice as likely as those in other regions to say they have been negatively impacted by undocumented immigrants taking jobs in their community.

Southern working-class whites are the most pessimistic about the country’s future. Only 37% of working-class whites in the South who were surveyed believe the country’s “best days are ahead of us,” compared to nearly half those in the West and 52% in the Northeast. Evangelical Christians and those living in rural areas tend to be the most downcast about the future.

About 60% of working-class whites surveyed who say they are evangelical Christians say the country’s best days are behind us, compared to 42% of Catholics, 53% of mainline Protestants and 42% who say they have no religion.

Similarly, 41% of those surveyed living in urban areas say America’s best days are behind us, while nearly 60% of those in rural areas feel that way.

Wanting more from the government

Differences also show up strongly with regard to the anger that the white working class feels toward government. The survey found 69% of those earning less than $30,000 say the federal government is not doing enough to help them and people like them. That’s more than twice the 31% of those earning $75,000 or more who feel that way.

“You can go back the last 50 years and it’s always the same,” says Tim Bequette, 56, a retired truck driver who lives on disability in Farmington, Missouri. “Politicians make all kinds of promises. But when they get elected they only pay attention to people who have money. If you’ve got money, you can get what you want. If you don’t have money, nothing happens.”

Ironically, or perhaps due to the fact that their incomes are lower, a larger percentage of people, 63%, who receive at least one government benefit, excluding Social Security and Medicare, say the government isn’t doing enough for them. That’s compared to the 47% who feel that way even though they receive no government aid.

Fully 71% of rural working-class whites blame the government for economic problems facing the working class, compared to 51% of working-class whites who live in cities. Rage at the government is felt most acutely by older white working-class men. Nearly 80% of the men over than age of 50 who were surveyed say the government bares all or most of the blame for the problems facing the white working class. About 53% of women in that age group who were polled agree.

But despite the anger expressed toward the government and the pessimism about the country’s future, majorities of working-class whites surveyed – regardless of age, income, region, religion and gender – say they are satisfied with their personal financial situation.

Related: The economy stinks but I’m OK

“I’m pretty happy overall with the place that I am,” said Amanda, 28, who lives in Overton, Texas, and only wants to be identified by her first name. “I have a low mortgage. My kids are going to good schools. My job is relatively stable.”

Chad Fritz, 42, says he is not concerned about immigrants. “Trade deals concern me more,” he says. “I’m more concerned about losing jobs than people taking jobs, which is what many people say immigrants do. But I feel the jobs they’re taking are jobs Americans don’t really want to do. I don’t want to go pick apples and oranges, and those are the type of jobs immigrants are doing.”

Fritz lives in Delaware, Ohio. He is a stay-at-home dad, taking care of his one-year-old son during the week while his wife works as a CPA in nearby Columbus. On many weekends he works as a glass blower.

The Columbus metro area is an economic powerhouse with low unemployment, rising home prices and high median incomes. Fritz acknowledges that the strength of the local economy influences his attitude.

“Columbus is a growing city,” he said. “It’s booming. It’s doing very well. There are lots of jobs. I might have a different view if I lived somewhere else.”

The politics of the white working class

While support for Trump is relatively strong across the board among working-class whites, there are significant differences among different groups.

Men over the age of 50 are among the Republican nominee’s strongest backers with 68% of voters in this group saying they would consider voting for him, compared to 51% of women who are 50 years or older.

Rural (68%), suburban (66%) and Southern (70%) working-class white voters voice support for Trump in larger numbers than urban dwellers (49%) and those living in the West (54%) and Midwest (53%). And 78% of working-class white voters surveyed who say immigrants are a burden on the country say they would consider voting for him, compared to 38% who of those who believe immigrants strengthen the country.

Amanda, of Overton, Texas, and Ann Bryant say they are supporting Clinton. Bequette and Jennifer Gibson back Trump. Chad Fritz is undecided, but doesn’t like either Trump or Clinton. He is trying to decide between Green Party nominee Jill Stein and the Libertarian candidate (Gary Johnson), whose name he couldn’t remember.

Working-class whites are clearly more hostile to immigration and the nation’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

Respondents were asked which comes closer to their view: that immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, or immigrants are a burden on the country because they take our jobs, housing and health care. Nearly half (47%) of those surveyed say it’s the latter.

More than half (55%) say they think the government should try to deport all people living in the country illegally.

Also, compared to college-educated whites or black or Hispanic working-class people, working-class whites are more likely to say immigrants from Muslim countries increase the risk of terrorist attacks or that recent immigrants from Latin America take jobs away from Americans or add to the crime problem.

“Obama agreed to let all them refugees come in and give them a place to live,” said Bequette, the retired truck driver. “Yet you see hundreds of thousands of Vietnam vets living on the streets. The politicians are more worried about being politically correct and about what other countries think about us than they do Americans.”

But that hostility is not shared equally across the board.

Sixty-one percent of rural white working-class surveyed say the government should try to deport all those in the country illegally, compared to 49% of urban dwellers.

Moreover, compared to other religions, evangelical Christians are more likely to say that increasing diversity is threatening, rather than enriching American culture; believe that immigrants from Muslim countries increase the risk of terrorism, add to the crime problem, and take jobs away from Americans; and are less likely to say that these immigrants are “basically good, honest people.”

“Half the people coming in are young men,” Gibson, who describes herself as Pentecostal, says of Muslim refugees. “I feel sorry for the women and children. We need to make a place for them over there. The guys? I don’t feel sorry for them at all. They need to turn their asses around and pick up a gun and fight for their country. Our guys are fighting for their country. They should too, instead of running over here.”

Fritz, who says he has no problems with immigrants, says he was raised Catholic but hasn’t been to church in 20 years. “I’m not a church-type person,” he says. “But, from a sense of morals, I like to think I have Christian values.”