The Corner

Economy & Business

Is the Working Class in Crisis?

There is a growing consensus that the working class is in crisis following years of difficult economic change and due in part to their being ignored by Washington. This view has been considerably strengthened in the conservative movement and within the Republican party by the election of President Trump.

This narrative has important consequences. For example, it contributes to the pushback against global free trade on the political right, with some on the right arguing that even if free trade helps the overall economy and increases the rate of economic growth, the costs it inflicts on the ailing working class and the communities in which its members live justifies some steps towards protectionism. Motivated in part by concern over the working class, some conservatives are going so far as to downplay the importance of growth altogether. And this view of the working class has created some sympathy for class-based politics, and for a narrative of victimhood about this group.

As I discuss in my latest Bloomberg column, I am struggling to find empirical support for this narrative when the working class is compared to lower-income Americans.

Over the past four decades, the average wage-and-salary income for the working class has consistently been more than double that of the poor. In 2016, 74 percent of working-class men were employed, compared to 44 percent of poor men. The rate of employment for the working class has fallen by 9 percent since 1980, compared to a drop of 21 percent among poor men. Both groups have seen significant drops in marriage rates. One-third of working-class women are single mothers, compared to 60 percent of poor mothers. Members of the working class are 25 percent more likely than the poor to participate in a religious organization.

And the working class has not been ignored by Washington. One-third of the working class receives a government benefit of some kind. This figure does not include spending through the tax system — earnings subsidies (the EITC) and the child tax credit — which also substantially accrue to the benefit of the working class.

I conclude my column:

Though the group’s struggles are real, the working class is not made of candy glass. By definition, its members are not poor, and by important metrics they are faring better than the poor. They are not helpless victims of economic change, and should not be treated or discussed as such.

They deserve policies that provide on-ramps to the middle class, but little actual evidence suggests they should drive the policy agenda of either political party. Leaders should stop feeding them a narrative of victimhood and grievance. And at least some of the conversation about them should include how they can better help themselves.

I flesh this out more over at Bloomberg. Particularly on a subject as important as this, your comments are very welcome.

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