The Real Economy

Just who are the white working class?

Marketplace Contributor Jun 27, 2012
The Real Economy

Just who are the white working class?

Marketplace Contributor Jun 27, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Remember the soccer mom? And the Nascar dad? Security moms and office park dads?

We do love our election cycle swing-voter cliches. This year, from the right to the left and all across the media, there’s been a lot of talk about the role of one group:

Montage: White working-class voters. White working-class voters. White working-class voters are so central.

But there’s just one problem: No one can agree on exactly who these people are, or how they’re feeling. Krissy Clark has more from our Wealth and Poverty Desk.

Krissy Clark: When you hear “white working class,” maybe you picture a big guy, wearing:

Michael Heywood: T-shirt and jeans, steel toed boots, that sort of thing.

That’s Michael Heywood of Kelso, Wash., describing himself. Never finished college. Drives a dump truck. Struggles on $40,000 a year. He’s white.

Heywood: And I would definitely consider myself working-class.

Fifty years ago? He’d be a pretty good shoe-in for a Democrat. But now? He’s torn.

Heywood: I am dependent on a lot of government services from food stamps to health care. But on the other hand, I have a lot of conservative ideals.

There’s been a lot of time spent theorizing about guys like Heywood. White, working-class voters who over the last few decades have been eyeing the right. Is it a sign that the country’s divided between Prius-driving liberals and conservatives in pick-up trucks?

Andrew Gelman: Ahhh!

That’s Andrew Gelman, a political science professor at Columbia University.

Gelman: I just get a little frustrated. It’s not the Prius versus the pick-up truck, it’s the Prius versus the Hummer.

The real polarization in politics, Gelman says, doesn’t happen between rich and poor. It happens between different kinds of rich.   Low-income workers still do vote overwhelmingly Democratic, just not blue-collar white guys like Mike Heywood. But, Gelman says, they make-up a much smaller slice of the low income work-force these days, as it turns more female and more diverse.

So, Gelman wonders, why still focus so much on just one working class sub-group?   

Gelman: You know everyone’s vote just counts once, right? A white male vote isn’t more legitimate than a minority vote, or a female vote?

 Still, it is worth paying attention to white, working-class men, says Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. 

Charles Murray: The really interesting thing about voting in the white working class isn’t whether it’s Democrat or Republican. It’s the degree to which it’s declined.

And in a close election, if one party can re-engage those voters, it could make all the difference.

I’m Krissy Clark for Marketplace. 

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