Working class in the United States

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In the United States, the concept of a working class remains vaguely defined and is especially contentious. Since many members of the working class, as defined by academic models, are often identified in the vernacular as being middle class, there is considerable ambiguity over the term's meaning. Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl see the working class as the most populous in the United States,[1] while other sociologists such as William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and James Henslin deem the lower middle class slightly more populous.[2][3] In the class models devised by these sociologists, the working class comprises between 30% and 35% of the population, roughly the same percentages as the lower middle class. According to the class model by Dennis Gilbert, the working class comprises those between the 25th and 55th percentile of society. Those in the working class are commonly employed in clerical, retail sales, and low-skill manual labor occupations. Low-level white-collar workers are included in this class.

For purposes of political science, and less scientific or journalistic political analysis, defining the working class as less well educated workers is useful. One can then meaningfully analyze the political opinions and political behavior of, say, the white working class in the United States. In the case of the United States, for example, the white working class is often defined as "white" (i.e. non-Hispanic) workers who have not completed college.[4]

Recent history

Since the 1970s, economic and occupational insecurity have become a major problem for American workers, their families, and their communities. While out-sourcing, the busting and decline of unionization and welfare supports, and the rise of immigration, the prison-industrial complex and unemployment have brought increased competition and considerable economic insecurity to working-class employees in the "traditional" blue collar fields, there is an ever-increasing demand for service personnel, including clerical and retail occupations.[1] Sociologist Gosta Esping-Anderson describes these supervised service occupations as "junk jobs", as they fail to pay living wages in the face of asset and price inflation, they fail to pay benefits, they are often insecure, unstable, or temporary, and they provide little work control and little opportunity for skill development or advancement. In contrast to other expensive countries with higher proportions of quality jobs, the U.S. has developed an economy where two-thirds of jobs do not require or reward higher education; the other one-third of jobs consist largely in managing the junk job workers.[5] Recalling this American labor market reality as well as the high cost of higher education in the US, lower educational attainment can be a rational calculation. The alternative is probably not a better job. It is the junk job, with educational debt added on top. In fact, even if more Americans were to become highly educated, there would be more competition for the relatively few high quality jobs, and those wages would decline. This suggests that the middle and working classes in the US may not be distinct classes, but rather opposing subgroups of the same class.

Despite, or perhaps because of the well-known limitations that the US labor market, inequality—including deep educational inequality, and other structural factors set on social mobility in the US, many commentators find more interesting the idea of class cultures. Education, for example, can pose an especially intransigent barrier in the US, and not just because of gross educational inequality; culture plays some role as well. The middle class is often recognized in the US by educational attainment, which is correlated with (but may not cause) income and wealth, especially for white men. Members of the working class commonly have a high school diploma and many have only some college education. Due to differences between middle and working class cultures, working-class college students may face culture shock upon entering the post-secondary education system, with its "middle class" culture.[6]

Some researchers try to measure the cultural differences between the American middle class and working class, and suggest their ahistorical sources and implications for educational attainment, future income and other life chances. Sociologist Melvin Kohn argues that working-class values emphasize external standards, such as obedience and a strong respect for authority as well as little tolerance for deviance. This is opposed to middle-class individuals who, he says, emphasize internal standards, self-direction, curiosity and a tolerance for non-conformity.[1]

Other social scientists, such as Barbara Jensen, show that middle-class culture tends to be highly individualistic, while working-class culture tends to center around the community.[6] Such cultural value differences are thought to be closely linked to an individual's occupation. Working-class employees tend to be closely supervised and thus emphasize external values and obedience.[citation needed]

Working class culture can be broken down into subgroup tendencies. According to Rubin (1976) there is a differential in social and emotional skills both between working-class men and women and between the blue-color working-class and college-educated workers. Working-class men are characterized by Rubin as taking a rational posture while women are characterized as being more emotional and oriented towards communication of feelings. This constellation of cultural issues has been explored in the popular media, for example, the television shows, Roseanne or All in the Family featuring Archie Bunker and his wife Edith Bunker. These popular television programs also explored generational change and conflict in working-class families. One does need to note, however, that there are great variations in cultural values among the members of all classes and that any statement pertaining to the cultural values of such large social groups needs to be seen as a broad generalization.[1]

Further, if the hypothesis that culture primarily produces class were true, such a non-dialectical, causal relationship pertains more validly in some low-social mobility societies. Scandinavian countries by contrast have discovered that removing structural barriers (and to some extent broadly valorizing working class culture) is effective in increasing social mobility, if not in eradicating social class under capitalism.[citation needed]

Political role of the white working class

According to Thomas B. Edsall, an experienced political commentator, the white working class, defined as non-Hispanic whites who have not completed college, plays a pivotal role in the politics of the United States. This segment of the electorate is large and volatile and its role as swing voters closely tracks the success or failure of Democratic candidates. Selection of Democratic candidates who can relate to the white working class has been difficult; a number of candidates who had support among college-educated Democrats failed to garner sufficient support among white working class voters to win elections.

This segment of the electorate was solidly Democratic during the New Deal but its support of Democratic candidates has steadily eroded to about 50%. It is also diminishing as a portion of the electorate, both due to increased educational opportunities and to increased minority population.[4]

A further refinement by Jonathan Haidt which defines the white working class as "whites without college who are working" is useful for political analysis.[7]

See Reagan Democrats for the segment of the white working class which forms part of the Republican base of support.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. 0-534-50520-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer; Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-36674-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 Thomas B. Edsall (June 17, 2012). "Canaries in the Coal Mine" (Blog by expert). The New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Esping-Anderson, Gosta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Page 207.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Zweig, Michael (2004). What's Class Got To Do With It, American Society in the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Cornell University Press. 0-8014-8899-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Jonathan Haidt (June 17, 2012). "The Working White Working Class Really Is Leaving the Democrats" (Blog by expert). The Righteous Mind. Retrieved June 25, 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Rubin, Lillian Breslow, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family, Basic Books (1976), hardcover ISBN 0-465-09245-4; trade paperback, 268 pages, ISBN 0-465-09724-3
  • Shipler, David K., The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Knopf (2004), hardcover, 322 pages, ISBN 0-375-40890-8
  • Zweig, Michael, Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Cornell University Press (2001), trade paperback, 198 pages, ISBN 0-8014-8727-7
  • "America's Forgotten Majority" Joel Rogers and Ruy Teixeira, The Atlantic June, 2000
  • Joel Townsley Rogers, Joel Rogers, America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, Basic Books (June 2000), hardcover, 232 pages, ISBN 0465083986 ISBN 978-0465083985
  • "White Working Chaos" blog by Thomas B. Edsall in The New York Times June 25, 2012