Home > Uncategorized > White Working Class Blues – posted 6/18/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/26/2017

White Working Class Blues – posted 6/18/2017 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/26/2017

Social science research does not often make news. One exception was the study by two Princeton University researchers, Anna Case and Angus Deaton, which showed that middle-aged white Americans were dying younger. In their study, they showed that suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses are an increasing problem for middle-aged white people, aged 45-54.

The trend is uniquely American and it is country-wide. There is not a similar process going on in other advanced industrial countries. It flies against a history of public health improvement.

The rise in mortality is being largely driven by those with a high school degree or less.

Case and Deaton do not attribute the trend to any single factor. They write,

“The deaths of despair come from a long-standing process of cumulative disadvantage for those with less than a college degree. The story is rooted in the labor market, but involves many aspects of life, including health in childhood, marriage, childrearing and religion.”

The researchers concluded that the overall life prospects for white middle-aged people without a BA have declined over time. They state that stagnation in wages and in income have bred a sense of hopelessness.

The story shows a parallel rise in self-reported midlife morbidity. There was a significant decline in the fraction reporting excellent or very good health and a corresponding increase in the fraction reporting fair or poor health. The increase in poor health was matched by increased reports of pain, serious psychological distress, difficulties with activities of daily living and alcohol use.

So what are we to make of this? I see the trend as connected to the loss of the American Dream. The myth was that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. While there always are exceptions, that has not turned out to be true for a huge number.

The trend Case and Deaton describe needs to be situated inside our economy of economic inequality where the top 10%, and especially the 1%, reap all the economic gain. Overall, white working class people have not fared well. The prospects for landing secure, good-paying jobs with benefits have lessened over time. Low-paying, no-benefit jobs are more the norm.

The suicides, the increased alcoholism, the opiate overdoses, like what we have seen in New Hampshire, are all about the hopelessness and grim future prospects.

It does nothing to diminish the fight against racism to acknowledge new trends. So often the dilemma of white working people gets counterposed against Blacks or immigrants. I think it is valid to separate how the white working class has fared. By white working class, I mean those who work for wages whether they are blue collar or white collar. I am not talking about the professional managerial class.

I do not see either political party as speaking to the needs of the white working class. There is a lack of empathy and a cultural distance. It pains me to acknowledge that the Republicans have done a better job appealing to the white working class than Democrats have. Republicans have talked about jobs and they have pursued the white working class vote aggressively. Trump talked about forgotten Americans and it is hard to argue with that. They have been forgotten.

The irony is that prior to the election, the closest Trump ever came to working class people were caddies at his golf courses or possibly food servers at Mar-a-Lago and his other resorts. Trump’s track record with the working class is a history of stiffing contractors and blue collar trades people. He has a history of being a businessman who repeatedly failed to pay his workers and then doggedly fought paying in court.

We are at a watershed moment now for Democrats. Democrats need to step back and reevaluate their program and their message. All the losses should force a reexamination. It is like when your football team keeps losing. At some point, you need to fire the coach. The Democrats keep rehiring the coaches who lose and they fail to recognize the importance of new blood.

They lost the Super Bowl. Are they going to keep doing the same thing?

In the last election, Hillary Clinton could not articulate a persuasive rationale for why her election would improve the lives of working people. More than the Russians or Comey, that was her downfall. Saying she was more qualified than Trump did not cut it with voters. Neither did attacks on Trump’s character, no matter how justified.

Part of what the Democrats need to look at is how they have failed to reach white working class voters across all the states. They should not be losing so badly in rural and small town America. The Clinton campaign was far too ready to write these voters off even though many of them inhabited key battleground states. Her failure to even campaign in places like Wisconsin was inexcusable.

I fault the Party – not just the Clinton campaign. The problem is hardly new. The infamous “basket of deplorables” comment by Clinton did not come out of nowhere. It followed Obama’s 2008 comment about bitter people who cling to their guns or religion. The elitism and condescension have a history in the party.

Attacking Trump is a grossly insufficient strategy.

It may seem obvious but the Democrats need to seek the white working class vote. A good start would be tackling economic inequality. They need to be far bolder in projecting a vision of pro-worker change. Milquetoast ideas of reform are not what is needed now. On the economy, Bernie Sanders was far closer to the program the Democrats should push.

A remedy for much of the despair is a meaningful plan to rebuild America with a 21st century green economy. The Democrats need to credibly argue for a full employment economy, single payer national health insurance and much more affordable housing. Only that kind of powerful plan will break through the cynicism and get the millions who never vote to the polls.

As Democrats work out a new program, they need to keep in mind that two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees. They need to speak to this group, not just those with a BA degree.

The Democratic Party needs a rebirth. Whether that happens, we shall see.

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