Politics & Policy

The Policies Working-Class Voters Think Could Help Them Get Ahead

(Dreamstime image: Andrei Zveaghintev)
A focus group in Ohio wants to see their ‘real problems’ addressed.

Editor’s Note: This piece was reprinted with permission from family-studies.org.

Less than three weeks after the election, we assembled a focus group of working-class parents and asked them this question: What might the Trump administration do to help working-class families? As we discussed in Part I, the young, working-class parents in our focus group discussed the challenges they face: living paycheck-to-paycheck, feeling penalized for earning more, not being able to afford a home, or wanting to spend more time with their children but having to work full-time or pursue more education. In light of their challenges, the participants — most of them Trump supporters — indicated support for some form of paid parental leave, lower payroll taxes, and fair scheduling legislation.

In this piece, we discuss their reactions to two other proposals — the “success sequence” and marriage penalties in means-tested programs — as well as offer some concluding thoughts. (Note: This post and yesterday’s post are part of our IFS report, Work-Family Policy in Trump’s America: Insights from a Focus Group of Working-Class Millennial Parents in Ohio.)

Follow the “Success Sequence”

Brookings fellows Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins have suggested that Congress fund a marketing campaign to promote the “success sequence” to encourage young people to finish school, get a job, get married, then have children — and in that order.

A young man who had a child when he was a young teen was the first to respond to this idea:

Long story short, I had a kid very young. I was chasing around girls. I thought that was the main idea, just going after women….So I did that and at 14, 15, I had my son. I learned hard. Luckily, I stayed away from drugs, all that bad stuff. But now I’m building this from the ground up. I tell [my son] all the time, the more valuable you are, the more you’re worth. Finish school, go to college, get a career — then women. And that’s the order it’s gotta go. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.

The part-time McDonald’s worker, who had her first son before marriage, said that she liked the part about getting married then having kids, but she wasn’t sure about the first half of the sequence. “Let’s face it,” she said, “not all kids go to college.”

She pointed out that she tried to attend college, “and I failed miserably.” As a result, she and her husband agreed that they would never push their kids to attend college. Plus, she pointed out, not everyone who attends college gets a great job. When another participant pointed out that, “It says school, it doesn’t mean college,” she continued:

There’s this incessant pressure to go to college because you have to go to college because you have to get a good job. And a lot of people who go to college aren’t getting the good jobs that they were promised when they went in.

“I’m in that boat,” said the factory worker.

“Yep,” added the stay-at-home mom.

The part-time McDonald’s worker said she’d suggest finding a job you like, then attending school to help you further in that career.

The daycare worker had another objection: “I did it in that exact order and it didn’t work for me.” She explained,

I finished school, I had a trade in my junior and senior year, and I got a job after graduating. I got that job that I went to school for, but I had to pay for continued education to keep that licensing, which I couldn’t afford and stuff. And then I got married, and then I had my children, but I was going from job to job because I was just trying to get by. It didn’t necessarily work for me, even though I got married.

It didn’t work for her, she said, because she couldn’t afford the annual $300 to $500 she said that it cost to keep her cosmetology license. At this point, she didn’t see how she could get her cosmetology license back because she owed about $3,500 for the continued education she had missed.

“I think there should be one step in front of ‘finish school’ and that one step should be, ‘Think about your future,’” added the warehouse team leader.

“Yeah, I kinda like that,” said the part-time McDonald’s worker.

The stay-at-home mom suggested that people should be encouraged to think about attending a trade school.

“But that doesn’t always work out for everybody,” the daycare worker pointed out. “What they want to do and go for doesn’t always turn out to be what they thought it was going to be.”

“I think there should be something like the old career days,” said the hospital registrar. “And it’s not like ‘Career Days’ after school. No, you bring career day during school, and you have people sit down and you force the kids to go through, and if this seems interesting to you, talk to them, ask them questions.”

“Shadow them,” agreed the stay-at-home mom.

The hospital registrar said that while helping high-school students think about their desired career was nothing new, it needed to be implemented better. She explained,

I feel like they should implement it more. If you want kids to go to school, or you want them to find a job, okay fine. Help them more. Help us help our kids understand. [One participant] just said what she’s going to school for, and I had to shake my head like, ‘What the crap are you talking about?’ Because I don’t understand it. I don’t know what that is.

The participant to whom she was referring was attending an adult education program to become an electromechanical PLC technician, a high-demand job with promising pay upon receiving a certification. But despite the field’s attractiveness, the hospital registrar said that she had never heard of it.

A couple of participants concluded that schools should hold a “Career Week,” and encourage students to shadow people in their desired field.

Finally, the daycare worker suggested that schools should make a concerted effort to offer financial education so that “then everyone would know what to do with their money.”


Eliminate Marriage Penalties in Public Assistance Programs

We presented the hypothetical scenario of a three-person Ohio family that receives Medicaid. Under 2016 Ohio guidelines, a person in a cohabiting relationship and living with a child unrelated to one of the partners is eligible to receive Medicaid if she makes less than about $21,000 a year. But if that cohabiting adult with a $15,000 annual income marries her cohabiting partner with a $15,000 annual income, she would lose Medicaid because she got married. But if lawmakers doubled the income threshold for eligibility for married couples, the person in our example would still be eligible for Medicaid after marrying.

We asked participants what they thought about that proposal?

“I agree because that story you just told is me and my husband,” said the hospital registrar, who had recently married. She received Medicaid now, but she said that once she told the Medicaid office that she was now married, “they’re going to take my insurance away.”

“You could get divorced and get a raise,” the factory worker pointed out.

Another participant said she had been encouraged to do exactly that in order to be eligible for public assistance.

My dad has told me on plenty of occasions—as much as he loves my husband—‘You know, you could get more help if you divorced your husband and became a single mom. You’re more eligible to get help that way.’ That’s stupid! Why penalize people who want to get married and make families together by telling them that just because they’re married and they make too much money that they can’t get the help that they desperately need?

Nine of the 10 participants wanted to see lawmakers consider proposals to eliminate the marriage penalties in public assistance.

Conclusion: Addressing “Real Problems”

Together with the responses of participants that we reported in our first post in this two-part series, this focus group of mostly Trump supporters reveals support for an agenda that includes plans from both Republicans and Democrats:

  • provide some form of paid parental leave
  • reduce payroll taxes
  • ensure fairer scheduling for many service-industry workers
  • consider a marketing campaign to promote a version of the “success sequence” to young people
  • eliminate marriage penalties in public assistance programs

In conclusion, we think the following points are worth highlighting.

First, participants value public assistance and lower payroll taxes and other work-family policies precisely for their potential to help them become economically independent and self-sufficient. They recognize that some may need a basic level of assistance before they can achieve stability.

As one participant said, he didn’t like the rule that “the more you make, the more we take,” because it points the incentives toward working and earning less. This isn’t helpful when the goal is to eventually help people provide for themselves. A student who recently quit his assembly-line job in a factory in order to pursue an advanced manufacturing certification put it this way: “Long-term goal is to self-sustain farm way down the road. That’s where I want to be.” His cohabiting girlfriend receives housing assistance, but they’re eager to move into their own home, and they wish they could keep more of their own money and public assistance for a longer time precisely so they can be in a position to leave public housing. Others voiced similar sentiments. As a stay-at-home mom said, “Just let us run our own lives with less taxes.”

Second, the conversation revealed a consensus that could bridge political and racial divides. The policies that participants encouraged the Trump administration and Congress to consider are policies that could empower working- and middle-class families of all kinds to achieve greater stability: African-Americans and Hispanics, single parents and cohabiting couples, stay-at-home parents, and working parents. When encouraged to discuss realities in their lives and to explore policies in light of those challenges, participants eagerly engaged in a rich and substantive discussion, embracing policies that could appeal to a diverse array of Americans.

Third, while we need more research, the voices of the young adults in this focus group challenge one narrative about working-class Trump supporters: that they are only interested in policies poised to divide the nation, and that they want their political leaders to choose ideology over compromise. Instead, our focus group of mostly Trump supporters indicated that they may support the bipartisan “deal-making” that President-elect Trump promises.

Finally, future research would do well to further explore a comment by one focus group participant: better financial education for young people. As a coalition of scholars and leaders pointed out in a 2008 report, “The United States is experiencing a growing polarization in access to institutional opportunities to save and build wealth.” They pointed out that while “a pro-thrift sector” of institutions still exists, they are “no longer broadly democratic in [their] reach.” It’s possible that, with the help of key institutions, the kind of striving, working-class families represented in our focus group could be empowered to tackle debt, access responsible wealth-building institutions, and achieve a renewed financial start — beginning with their current earnings.

For instance, one participant in the focus group, a factory worker with an annual income of about $50,000 (“before taxes,” he pointed out) reported that he and his wife were able to buy a modest new home and pay off nearly $50,000 in automobile and student loan debts. However, other similarly-aged participants in dual-earning households and with similarly-sized families reported difficulty covering monthly rent and couldn’t envision buying a new home within 10 years. What accounts for the difference between their outcomes? It may be that, as one participant suggested, the consumer culture that influences most of us makes economic independence even more difficult to achieve.

However, it’s also true that the participant who achieved this measure of financial stability reported working 60-70 hours every week — essentially a dual-earner income — thus sacrificing family time. And even after all those years of sacrifice and intense work, he reported that he and his wife still “barely make it”: In order to save money, he didn’t eat breakfast and spent only about $1 on his lunches. Should that really be the price that working families must pay in order to achieve stability? Finally, we should also note that that participant is employed in a unionized workplace, which offers protections that most working-class young adults no longer have.


At the end of the focus group, the advanced manufacturing student put in his last word:

For people who voted the past couple elections, sure we’ve heard the main things that we all bicker about, immigration and abortion and things like that . . . But yet I haven’t heard any of this — I haven’t heard real problems.

“They hide it,” said another participant.

“So why are we not hearing this?” the student asked again. “Why are we not getting us good candidates to get the real problems [addressed]?”

Many people will (rightly) dispute the notion that hot-button issues like immigration and abortion aren’t “real problems” in America that should be addressed. But his comment also reveals an opportunity for the Trump administration and Congress: If you craft an agenda that addresses the realities of many working- and middle-class families, they may finally feel that their voices are being heard.

Note: The 10 participants in the focus group represent seven couples in southern Ohio: six married and one cohabiting. They are all high-school-educated, white, Millennial parents who have working-class jobs. We did not screen for participants’ support of any particular presidential candidate, but when asked at the focus group, most revealed that they had voted for Donald Trump, though at least two participants did not vote. We knew most of the individuals already, whether through our research in southern Ohio or through our neighborhood, and have developed friendships with many of them.

—Amber and David Lapp are research fellows with the Institute for Family Studies.


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