Andrew J. Cherlin is professor of public policy in the sociology department at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family.”
Lost in the debate over the middle-class tax policies that President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address is the puzzling disappearance from our political language of a once-common term: working class. Suddenly, no one in politics seems willing to use those words, as if calling someone working class were an insult. Their absence makes it harder to discuss measures that might help the large and beleaguered group that this descriptor still fits.
In his State of the Union addresses, Obama has used the term middle class 28 times. But he has never said “working class” except in 2011, when he described Vice President Biden, who was seated behind him, as “a working-class kid from Scranton.” In last month’s address, the president argued that his proposals would benefit “every middle-class and low-income family with young children” — as if there were no one in between. But in fact millions of families fall between the college-educated middle class and the poor. They tend to be headed by people who have a diploma but not a bachelor’s degree: In 2014, among all families with children under age 18, 54 percent were headed by an adult who had the first but not the second.
A generation or two ago, those in this category supported their families by taking the industrial jobs that were plentiful, or by marrying someone who did. Today’s working class, in contrast, competes for the diminishing number of blue-collar jobs that haven’t yet been automated or outsourced. To lump these people together with the college-educated is to create a group that is so broad as to be meaningless.
When asked, few Americans will volunteer that they are in the working class, but many accept it once they are presented with the term. The 2012 General Social Survey asked a national sample of adults whether they would say they belong in “the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class.” Forty-four percent chose working class and 44 percent chose middle class.
To be sure, the working-class label has long been mildly pejorative. In television series of earlier decades, such as “The Honeymooners” and “All in the Family,” the working-class man was sometimes depicted as a buffoon or bigot. Today, as the college-educated middle class has expanded and factory work has declined, the working class has come to be seen as encompassing those who haven’t made it economically. And if you are not upwardly mobile in America, many people think it’s your own fault. In a 2012 Pew Research Center national survey, 38 percent thought that poverty was caused by a lack of individual effort, 46 percent said it was due to circumstances beyond a person’s control, and 11 percent thought both factors were involved. Politicians may prefer to call working-class families by the class position they aspire to rather than the one they hold.
Whatever the reason, the disappearance of the working class from political discourse means that little attention gets paid to assistance that could be targeted to working-class young adults. Decent-paying professions exist for the non-college-educated, such as medical technicians in the growing health industry and operators of computer-controlled machines in high-tech factories. However, we need to better train young adults for the skills needed for jobs such as these. Many experts urge that we provide more work-based teaching in career-oriented high schools, in apprenticeships and in community college partnerships with local firms. Committing to this path requires giving up the American dream of a four-year college education for all, a goal that is worthy in the abstract but may not always be in the best interests of the working class.
The working class has also been hit hard by the decline of the labor movement: Just 7 percent of private-sector workers now belong to unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet high rates of union membership in the past appear to have lifted wages not just for members but also for non-union workers. To help the working class, government should take measures designed to bolster unions rather than weaken them, as has been the recent trend in many jurisdictions. The working class would also benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, which was worth 22 percent less in purchasing power in 2012 than in 1970.
Admittedly, none of these steps would do much for the college-educated middle class, who already have bachelor’s degrees, usually work for salaries rather than union wages and earn well above the minimum. Helping the struggling working class requires that we develop policies aimed at them. Why can’t we say so?