The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If you’ve ever described people as ‘white working class,’ read this

A supporter of Donald Trump stands during a rally on Sept. 17, 2015 in Rochester, N.H. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Somehow America's largest demographic group caught the country by surprise this year.

The white working class has received enormous attention since Election Day thanks to its critical role in electing Donald Trump the next president. Exit polls show he won this group — defined as white adults over 25 without a four-year degree — by an overwhelming margin of 39 percentage points.

Census data show that 42 percent of American are part of the white working class, bigger than any other single group.

Yet although this demographic acted with surprising uniformity on Election Day — few other groups swung so far toward a particular party's direction since 2012 — it is far from monolithic. And it is certainly doesn't match the stereotype of the rural, blue-collar worker that has often been cited as a typical member of the white working class.

Here are seven key facts about this group that capture how socioeconomically diverse it actually is.

1. The majority of white Americans are working-class, and nearly half have more than a high-school education

The 90 million white adults without a college degree far exceeds the 51 million white adults who have at least a bachelor's degree. Of those without a college degree—the white working class—about 39 million, or 43 percent, have some college or an associate's degree. Another 41 million have only a high-school diploma, and the remaining 9 million do not have a diploma.

White workers without a degree earn more than workers of other races and ethnicities with similar levels of education, according to the bureau.

For instance, the median white worker with only a high-school diploma makes $706 in an ordinary week (compared to a worker with a bachelor's degree, who earns $1,154 a week). Among Latinos, the median worker with only a high-school diploma makes $611 — the same as the median Asian worker in this category. For black workers with only a high-school education, the figure is $578.

A significant number of people in the white working class are either unemployed or not looking for work. Among men between the ages of 25 and 54 — prime working age — only about 79 percent are working; another 5 percent are unemployed, and 16 percent are not working or looking for a job, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

In contrast, 93 percent of white men with a four-year college degree are working. The pattern is similar for women.

2. They live in cities and suburbs, not primarily in rural America

While it is true that the white working class outnumbers white graduates in rural America — and the election did highlight a huge urban-versus-rural divide — many of them also live in and around cities.

A Post analysis of Census data shows that there are 62 million working-class white adults living in the metropolitan footprint of a large city with a population of over 250,000. There are just 37 million white adults with bachelor's degrees living in these metropolitan areas.

Many working-class whites might live in outlying counties, but their neighborhoods are still intimately connected with the economic and social life of the nearby city. Metropolitan areas are defined as regions in which at least a quarter of a county's population commutes to the city or elsewhere in the metropolitan area for work.

3. Few of them have blue-collar jobs

According to a Post analysis of Census data, white workers with less than a four-year degree most commonly hold jobs as store managers, cashiers, salespeople and administrative assistants. Many work in food service as servers or cooks. Some are nurses. There are a number of blue-collar workers in trades outside of manufacturing, such as trucking and construction.

White workers who do have bachelor's degrees are more likely to be teachers, accountants and lawyers.

4. A few use opioids, but far more use marijuana

study published last year by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton focused national attention on opioid abuse among the white working class. The study showed that the number of white Americans with no more than a high-school diploma dying from poisonings, including drug overdoses, increased five-fold from 1999 to 2013.

These numbers are troubling, but opioid use remains relatively rare among the white working class despite the increase.

Only about 2 percent of white respondents between the ages of 25 and 54 without a bachelor's degree use heroin or prescription painkillers not for medical purposes, according to a Post analysis of a Department of Health and Human Services survey. About half as many whites with a degree used these drugs.

Marijuana is more popular, especially among the white working class. About 11 percent of respondents without a bachelor's degree reported getting high at least once in the past month. The figure was 7 percent among white respondents with a degree.

Alcoholism is also a greater danger among the white working class. Those with no more than a high-school diploma are nearly six times more likely to die of chronic cirrhosis of the liver than those with at least a bachelor's degree, Case and Deaton report.

5. They are not culturally conservative

While Donald Trump's marital history and crude language were prominent features of the campaign, the white working class doesn't tend to be especially sensitive to these cultural issues as much as traditional conservatives are. On the whole, the white working class attends church about as frequently as the general population, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

Over the last few decades, members of the white working class have also become less likely to be married. As this chart from economists Shelly Lundberg and Robert A. Pollak shows, marriage rates have fallen for whites without a college degree. About 55 percent of white men and 60 percent of women with no more than a high school diploma are married, compared to about 70 percent of men and women with four-year college degrees.

6. Being white matters to many of them

Members of the white working class identify more strongly with their race. About 40 percent of the white working class said that being white was "very" or "extremely" important to their identity, compared to about 29 percent of whites with four-year college degrees, according to a Post analysis of a January poll from the American National Election Studies project.

The two groups are equally patriotic, however. The same poll showed that, regardless of their educational background, about 70 percent of whites say that being American is "very" or "extremely" important to their identity.

7. They don't believe education will make them better off

Even though data shows that whites without a bachelor's degree earn less, on average, than their more-educated counterparts, many members of the white working class are not hopeful about the power of education to improve their lives.

About 51 percent say that their lives would be no different if they had a four-year college degree, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation/CNN poll. Only 45 percent believed that a bachelor's degree would benefit them. In contrast, 73 percent of the black working class and 74 percent of Hispanic working class said they thought having a four-year college degree would make their lives better.

Overall, members of the white working class say that they're doing okay. When asked if they felt "happy" about their lives, about 79 percent said yes, compared to 87 percent of college-educated whites. There's a happiness gap there, but the majority of the working class — no matter their race or ethnicity — are staying on the sunny side.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the data on the of use heroin and prescription painkillers for non-medical purposes. The share using these drugs is 2 percent among white adults between the ages of 25 and 54, not 25 and 24. 

Additionally, an earlier version of one of the charts accompanying this article was mislabeled. The number of white, working-class Americans living in small towns with populations less than 20,000 is 2.4 million, not 23.7 million. This version has been corrected.