Stop Pretending the Working Class Is Helpless

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Since Donald Trump became president, many elected officials and public intellectuals have joined the populist left and right in arguing that the American working class has been ignored and neglected. A consensus has emerged in Washington that the working class is in crisis — and that a major driver of this crisis is lack of attention from Washington.

To assess this, let’s put the political calculations aside and start with a basic question: Who is the working class? 

As with any attempt to group Americans by class, there is no easy or commonly accepted definition. A recent report (an example of the flurry of activity and concern centered on this group) published by Opportunity America, the American Enterprise Institute (where I work) and the Brookings Institution offers a reasonable answer. 

It defines the working class as consisting of adults between the ages of 25 and 64, who have graduated from high school but who have not completed a four-year college degree, and whose annual household income is greater than that of the bottom 20 percent of the population, but less than the median. For a household with two adults and one child, this amounts to annual income between roughly $30,000 and $69,000. 

According to the report, there are 16 million working-class households, with around 29 million adults and nine million children. 

Is the working class in crisis? Given the tenor of the public conversation, you would be forgiven for thinking that the answer is obviously yes. But let’s explore the question by way of comparison, which the Opportunity America-AEI-Brookings report helpfully facilitates by providing information on both the working class and the bottom 20 percent of households by income. 

A critical data point: Over the past four decades, the average income from wages and salaries for members of the working class has consistently been more than double that of the bottom 20 percent (let’s call them the poor). 

They are employed at much higher rates than the bottom 20 percent, and employment trends among the poor are much more troubling than for the working class. In 2016, 74 percent of working-class men were employed, while only 44 percent of poor men had a job. The situation for women is comparable, with 63 percent of the working class and 36 percent of the poor holding a job. 

The employment rate for working-class men has fallen by 9 percent since 1980. For poor men, it has fallen by a stunning 21 percent. 

As with employment and income, family life for the working class seems much stronger than for the poor. A little over half of the working class are married, compared with 41 percent of the poor. (In 2016, the share of the working class who were married was about the same as what the rate in 1980 for the married poor.) The decline in marriage rates has been reasonably comparable for both groups — 30 percent for the working class and 23 percent for the poor. 

A little over one-third of working-class women with dependent children are solo parenting, and more than half are married. Six in 10 poor mothers are single parents, and only one-third are married.

Members of the working class are more likely than the poor to participate in a service or civic organization and in a school, neighborhood, sports, recreation or community group. They are 25 percent more likely than the poor to participate in a religious organization. 

The alarming increase over the past few years in mortality and morbidity among white, non-Hispanic, middle-aged Americans, caused by alcohol, drugs and suicide and documented by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, is driven both by the poor and the working class (as they are defined here).

None of this necessarily means that the working class is not in crisis. But by these metrics, if it is in crisis, then the poor are a five-alarm emergency. We know from first principles that they should be society’s first obligation. The data from the Opportunity America report reinforces this. 

The report also documents that, contrary to the sense you’d get from the current public conversation, the working class already receives substantial assistance from the government. One-third of this group receives government benefits of some kind. And this figure excludes benefits through the tax system, like the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit, which also substantially accrue to the working class. 

Over the past two decades, an increasing share of the working class has received benefits, growing from 20 percent in 1998 to one-third in 2014. This increase has been much larger than the increase among the poor.

Given the data, the outsized influence the working class is currently exerting on the policy debate is all the more odd. Of 2016’s 323 million Americans, only 38 million were in this group.

Yet leading politicians in both parties, not just the U.S. president, seem willing to back away from global free trade in an (ill-conceived) effort to boost employment prospects for this group, despite the benefits trade provides to all Americans, including members of the working class. Some Republicans want to significantly curtail legal immigration, and justify this goal by pointing to the supposed threat immigrants pose to working class jobs and communities. 

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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of “The U.S. Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy.”

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