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‘Alienated, Aggrieved, and Profoundly Distrustful’

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin explores white, working-class discontent


Andrew Cherlin
Sociologist Andrew Cherlin explored how the white working class has changed over the past several decades.

The writing was on the wall as early as 2014 for why working-class whites might throw their support behind Donald Trump, the Republican candidate and now president-elect, according to Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin.

In a lecture before the presidential election, Cherlin said their deep economic distress has left them feeling “alienated, aggrieved, and profoundly distrustful,” foreshadowing how working-class white votes helped flip traditionally “blue” states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to “red” on November 8.

An expert on family policy and children’s well-being, Cherlin explored “The Economy, the Family, and Working-Class Discontent” in front of more than 80 people as IPR’s Fall 2016 Distinguished Public Policy Lecturer on October 26 in Evanston.

White, Working-Class Politics

“There is a huge educational divide among whites in support for Secretary Clinton versus Mr. Trump,” he said. “How can we understand this? I think we need to look at what’s happened to the working class over the last few decades.”

Already in 2014, Cherlin suggested how attitudes of the white working-class foreshadowed Trump’s election. In opinion data collected through the General Social Survey (GSS), working-class whites revealed they were more likely than those of other social classes to want the number of immigrants reduced and to believe that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. 

They were also less likely to be proud of American democracy today, and compared with better-off whites, working-class whites had less confidence in Congress, banks, K–12 schools and universities, and major companies.

“[The ‘worse-off’ whites] seemed primed in 2014 to be receptive to Trump’s 2016 campaign themes,” Cherlin said.

But it would be a mistake to think of the white working class as one homogenous group of traditional “values voters,” Cherlin pointed out. Those who are the most “Trump-issue friendly” do not fit the traditional molds of the politically or socially conservative: They are not Tea Party supporters or Oklahoma evangelicals.

“They seem to accept the idea that the government should help people—although they might think that help is going to the wrong people right now,” Cherlin continued, in comparing their beliefs with those who are better off. He added that new economic policies might lead to changed political loyalties among working-class whites.

Economic Attitudes of the White Working Class

Cherlin proposed using reference group theory—or how views depend on people comparing themselves to others—to determine how people feel they are doing economically, rather than relying on reports of income levels. 

“What matters ... is how adults feel about their standard of living compared to the lives their parents led,” Cherlin said. “Not just how much money you make, but how much money you thought you would make. Not just what job you have, but what job you thought you’d have.”

In the 2014 GSS, 20 percent of whites without a college degree said they were doing much, or somewhat worse, than their parents were at their age. Since 2000, the percentage of respondents who said their standard of living is better than their parents’ has dropped. 

Cherlin connected these responses to larger economic issues. Whites who identified themselves as worse off than their parents were less likely to have worked 50 or more weeks in the past year, more likely to have been unemployed in the previous 10 years, and more likely to have earned less than $25,000 in the past year.

But not all groups were less likely to feel better off than their parents. In 2014, about 70 percent of Hispanics and 65 percent of African-Americans said their standard of living was much, or somewhat, better than that of their parents. The percentage of their positive responses to this question remained relatively stable over time; while for whites, it fell about 15 percentage points between 2000 and 2014.

Marriage and Families

In the mid-1990s, Cherlin formed an interdisciplinary group to study U.S. welfare reform following passage of the 1996 Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) that President Bill Clinton signed into law. The resulting Three-City Study, in which IPR developmental psychologist Lindsay Chase-Lansdale was also involved, investigated how the reforms affected the well-being of low-income children and families. 

Drawing on this and other research on families, Cherlin examined why working-class whites are far less likely to be married than those from a higher socioeconomic group. Just 27 percent of survey respondents who said they were worse off than their parents were currently married. Meanwhile, the percentage of women who have children outside of marriage increased, particularly among working-class women living with their partner.

Is this a response to poorer job opportunities? Cherlin explained that surveys show almost everyone would like to get married, but that working-class whites will not until they have the “economic wherewithal” to make a marriage last.

He also cited his 2016 study in the American Sociological Review that found men and women in areas with more working-class, well-paying jobs are more likely to marry before having their first child. But due to globalization and automation, the United States has seen a decline in jobs for high school graduates that pay above-poverty wages. “The factories have moved away,” Cherlin said.

The changes experienced by the white working class are therefore an economic issue, according to Cherlin. Right now, working-class whites, in particular single males, “seem to be floating away from the rest of society. Living alone, not going to church, not getting married—drifting away from the college-educated middle class,” he said.

His suggestion? Improving the situation of those who sit in the middle of the labor market could help politicians “bring the working class back into the mainstream.”

"The presidential election reminds us about the importance of inequality in current American society,” said IPR Director David Figlio, an education economist. “At the Institute for Policy Research, we have dozens of scholars focused on understanding the causes and consequences of inequality, and proposing possible policy solutions to help the people affected. Andy Cherlin's talk is an excellent complement to this work."

Andrew Cherlin is the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the author of Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America (Russell Sage Foundation, 2014).

To view a video of the complete talk, go to https://youtu.be/F1UbAyYFQZM.

Photo credit: J. Ziv