America’s white working class is nothing like the stereotypes we’ve been told. Trust me, I’m part of it

Real Americans wear boots.
Real Americans wear boots.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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The 2016 election saw the creation of many different narratives, including the idea that the white working class is some sort of mythical, salt-of-the-earth, oppressed group that hails mostly from the countryside and believes America has left it behind. Factually inaccurate and personally insulting, the perpetuation of this stereotype has obscured the diverse and nuanced socioeconomic plight of working-class Americans, especially the urban working class—and relatedly, how to actually help them.

Time and again, the media ignored the facts of my family’s situation and focused solely on our geographic location; with the whisk of a pen we had become part of an out of touch, urban elite, even as we struggled to make ends meet. 

Besides stereotyping large swathes of America, this flawed narrative has distracted us from a more honest and nuanced exploration of economic mobility and hardship in the post-recession US.

I grew up in a blue collar Irish Catholic family. My grandfather was a Korean vet and former Merchant Marine. Once he returned home to Brooklyn for good, he worked as a union bridge painter and later operated his own one-man business painting people’s homes. My father was also a union man, working for several decades cleaning and maintaining many of the buildings that dot the Manhattan skyline. For a time, this included the Twin Towers of pre-9/11 New York City. He often worked the graveyard shift, where his unkempt clothes and hard-edged mannerisms remained mostly out of sight of the well-dressed men (and a very few women) who made their fortunes inside those same skyscrapers—men like America’s next president, Donald J Trump. My relatives didn’t have much more than an eighth grade education, but they were hard workers brimming with grit and pride.

As for me, I was mostly raised by my grandparents in their two-bedroom apartment in the racially diverse Sunset Park neighborhood. In the summers, we often didn’t have running water—and certainly no air conditioning—making temperatures inside close to unbearable. In the winter, it wasn’t uncommon for the heat to fail. The space was also prone to invasions of cockroaches and later on, bed bugs.

Indeed, for most of my life, I have belonged to the white working class, like my father and his father before him. But this familial identity was erased last year in the interest of constructing a convenient if flawed narrative about Trump voters. Indeed, the phrase was conjured up so often in November and December that it began to take on some sort of mystical reverence among much of the media.

Sometimes, the term is used to describe the working poor or, more simply, poor whites. In other articles, it was used to describe blue-collar whites, who tend not to have college degrees. Overall, the white working class is portrayed as a population endemic to small town or rural America, existing primarily in either Appalachia or midwestern swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin that shifted from purple to red on November 8. 

“While the concerns of rural whites are real, they are really a drop in the bucket compared with the poverty-alleviating and education needs of urban whites and especially, urban minorities,” says William Frey, senior fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute.

Consider this: Between 2010 and 2014, extremely poor neighborhoods increased by 45%, an increase that amounts to 14 million more people. And yet, it was metro areas that experienced the most significant increases in extremely poor neighborhoods, as well as in the number of households living under the poverty line. Moreover, the nation’s 100 largest metro areas are home to 70% of all poor individuals living in extremely poor neighborhoods. Not only that, but many more poor people reside in large metro areas (15.1%), as opposed to their small metro area (13.7%) or rural community (7.1%) counterparts.

Meanwhile, poverty rates in the Midwest and the Northeast were found to be almost exactly the same in 2012—at 13.3% and 13.6%, respectively, according to Brookings. More specific to the stereotype of the “white working class” being a rural or small town phenomenon, while cities are depicted as being home to mostly rich and highly educated elites, a Washington Post analysis of recent Census data revealed that metro areas actually contain many more white working class adults without degrees—approximately 62 million in total—than white adults with bachelor’s degrees living in the same metropolitan areas (only 37 million).

As Brookings analyst Frey implies, poverty levels are far more variable when analyzed through race, rather than geography. Poor Hispanics and poor African Americans are more than three to five times as likely as poor whites to live in concentrated poverty. In general, the poverty rate was 26.2% for African Americans and 23.6% for Hispanics, compared to only 10.1% for whites in 2014, as reported by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center.

Despite these statistics, the media depictions of the white working class have given rise to a narrative that supports white exceptionalism while simultaneously ignoring, and thereby erasing, a large segment of its demographic: urban whites.

More importantly, this willful ignorance helps us avoid acknowledging how race and class collide and intersect. For instance, one study published in 2014 and conducted by Johns Hopkins and the Baltimore Education Research Consortium traced the experiences of approximately 800 children from 20 different public school systems in Baltimore for more than 25 years, starting when the subjects entered first grade in 1982. Half of these children came from low-income families, of which 40% were white. Both the white and African American children from this sub-group had similar socio-economic circumstances and educational experiences growing up side by side. But the white males had significantly better job outcomes than the other survey participants did as adults—signifying racial privilege prevails even among the similarly economically oppressed.

“[P]oor whites have a decided advantage in terms of their labor market prospects, an advantage over not just black men, but also lower income women of both races,” says Karl Alexander, a professor emeritus of sociology at Johns Hopkins, a lead researcher on the study, and the co-author of a book based on its findings.

But it also seems urban whites might be somewhat more aware of their racial privilege than whites living in more culturally isolated rural areas. Polls by the Pew Research Center show that urban whites are much more likely than rural whites to believe that black people are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system. We are also less likely to blame immigrants for job shortages and wage stagnation. This isn’t to say that racism doesn’t exist among urban whites, nor does this mean that all rural whites harbor racist or xenophobic sentiments. But when coupled with genuine poverty statistics, it does offer at least some evidence that racial resentments, rather than economic anxieties, might have been more of a motivational factor for supposedly white working class Trump voters living in the pivotal midwestern region in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

What I know for sure is that those who reside in rural areas or the Rust Belt don’t have a more legitimate claim to the working class label than their urban or Northeastern counterparts. Similarly, the financial plights experienced by poverty-stricken whites in the US, regardless of region, aren’t more profound or more deserving of the spotlight than those experienced by people of color. Ultimately, this confusion will make it that much harder to actually come up with a plan that will help us—all of us.