The Abandoned White Working Class

It’s time to talk about the white working class again, who have helped produce one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory.

This is not another Donald Trump piece, though. This is an expansion of some things I talked about before, regarding how the working class–especially the white working class–is treated in this country. I want to bring a couple other articles into the mix. First is a new piece from The Guardian, which is a response to the Kevin Williamson screed that I previously critiqued. Chris Arnade draws a vivid portrait:

To say that “nothing happened to them” is stunningly wrong. Over the past 35 years the working class has been devalued, the result of an economic version of the Hunger Games. It has pitted everyone against each other, regardless of where they started. Some contestants, such as business owners, were equipped with the fanciest weapons. The working class only had their hands. They lost and have been left to deal on their own.

The consequences can be seen in nearly every town and rural county and aren’t confined to the industrial north or the hills of Kentucky either. My home town in Florida, a small town built around two orange juice factories, lost its first factory in 1985 and its last in 2005.

In the South Buffalo neighborhood of Lackawanna, homes have yet to recover from the closing of an old steel mill that looms over them. The plant, once one of many, provided the community with jobs and stability. The parts that haven’t been torn down are now used mainly for storage.

In Utica, New York, a boarded-up GE plant that’s been closed for more than 20 years sits behind Mr Nostalgia’s, a boarded-up bar where workers once spent nights. Jobs moved out of state and out of the country. The new jobs don’t pay as well and don’t offer the same benefits, so folks now go to the casino outside of town to try to supplement their income.

This resonated with me at least in part because of my own background. I never always understood my father’s decision to join the Air Force, but in retrospect it was probably the right choice, given the economic trends playing out in the ’80s and ’90s. My parents were raised in Muncie, Indiana, perhaps one of the most studied towns in American history. Its fortunes and trajectories have more or less tracked the country at large. When manufacturing was big, it was big in Muncie, too. When the manufacturing left, Muncie was not spared.

The city, now of about 70,000 people, has long been dominated by a mostly-white working class, in terms of population. Politically, however, its identity has long been conservative. Unions were never particularly popular in Muncie, due in large part to the influence of wealthy business owners who didn’t appreciate the extra cost and hassle unions brought to their organizations. When jobs began moving out of the city in the ’70s and accelerated in the ’80s, there was little organized resistance from workers, many of whom simply lost their jobs with little recourse. When those jobs left–many for Mexico or other countries opened up through free trade agreements–there was nothing of equal stature to replace them.

Over the past ten to fifteen years, Muncie has transitioned into a city focused on healthcare and educational professions. This has been nurtured by the presence of Ball State University, which has a leading educational degree program, and Ball Memorial Hospital–a sizable regional hospital around which numerous other medical service businesses have sprouted. Unfortunately, the skill sets of factory work don’t translate well to education or medical jobs. Production work isn’t service work–they are very different competencies. As the city changed its economic focus, then, many workers were left out in the cold with few or no jobs appropriate to their skills and experience.

Muncie is fortunate in that at least new jobs appeared at all, rather than the entire town being hollowed out by an exodus of employers. Even so, many of those who lost their jobs over the past few decades have never recovered. Most are likely retired now, on disability, or have relocated. In general, there is simply little appreciation or desire for working-class populations, whose once relatively robust incomes have plummeted. Victor Tan Chen of The Atlantic offers a cold truth:

As organized labor in this country has withered, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative—a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education and becoming successful on one’s own merit. This works well for some, but for others—especially the two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelor’s degree—it often means getting mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits. These prospects suggest that this is an age of diminished expectations for the working class.

“Diminished expectations” is, perhaps, understating the situation. For many, the experience is horribly alienating, as Chen elaborates:

Patches of the social fabric that once supported them, in good times and bad, have frayed. When asked in national surveys about the people with whom they discussed “important matters” in the past six months, those with just a high-school education or less are likelier to say no one (this percentage has risen over the years for college graduates, too). This trend is troubling, given that social isolation is linked to depression and, in turn, suicide and substance abuse.

One form of social support that many in the working class are going without is marriage. I’m reminded of another worker I interviewed, a jobless 54-year-old white woman who used to work at a Ford plant. Her husband left her, she says, when the paychecks stopped coming. “Jesus Christ,” she told him once. “I didn’t think that our relationship was based on the amount of money that I brought in.” Unable to pay her mortgage, she lost her home and had to move in, as she puts it, with a “man friend.” She is depressed, unable to sleep at night, and constantly worried about falling into poverty. “I’m a loser,” she says.

This obviously goes much deeper than a lack of work. It’s about the destruction of personal bonds, even one’s sanity. Education ends up being the huge differentiator here:

Nowadays, well-educated couples are much more likely to marry, stay married, and have children within marriage than those with less schooling. The white working class in particular is seeing sharp drops in these indicators—again, not to the levels of nonwhites, but a drastic reversal all the same, and one that has intensified over the last few decades.

This widening gap between the prospects of blue collar and white collar workers is dangerous to the cohesion of the society, and we can see its effects playing out now. The utter dysfunction of the GOP this election cycle can be viewed as a side effect of this trend. People who have reached the limits of their disillusionment have, rather than vote for an establishment choice like Jeb Bush, gone for a candidate who speaks directly to their anxieties. Some may vote for Trump mainly because they want to see the system torn down–they no longer feel they have a stake in it, after all. It’s almost the inverse problem of wealthy free-riders. Those with means can run away if the system falls apart; for those at the bottom, everything already has fallen apart, and they have nowhere to go. In that situation, burning down the system that failed you may seem like the most rational choice.

I have no crystal ball, but I see little reason to believe this election cycle will produce a real working-class revolution. I suspect it will fail, if for no other reason, because the working class has no organization, no resources, and no coherent ideology to drive real change. It seems more likely to me that the working class will only grow more and more marginalized, and that’s a shame.

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James
James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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The Abandoned White Working Class

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