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The despair of the white working class
Posted On: Jun 09, 2016

Americans today say they are generally optimistic about their futures, according to Gallup polling. But one group in particular -- poor white Americans -- has a shockingly dismal view of what the future holds for them. And this pessimism among poor whites goes a long way toward explaining the strange political moment we find ourselves in, one in which Donald Trump surged to the top of the Republican primary ticket by tapping into a deep vein of racial anxiety among the nation's working class.

Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup's data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.

Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.

Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.

The difference in optimism between poor blacks and poor whites is nearly as big as the difference between the poor and the middle class overall: "The average score of poor blacks is large enough to eliminate the difference in optimism about the future between being poor and being middle class (e.g. removing the large negative effect of poverty)," Graham found.

In short, poor whites aren't just poor: They're also in a state of despair.

Graham says this optimism deficit could have devastating consequences. "Individuals with high levels of well-being have better outcomes; they believe in their futures and invest in them," she writes. "In contrast, those without hope for their futures typically do not make such investments."

Poor whites' despair may partly be a response to certain social and economic trends. Death rates for middle-age whites have been essentially flat over the past 20 years, while mortality rates for other ethnic groupsplummeted. Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin has found that although working-class blacks are generally better-off economically today than their parents were, working-class whites are generally worse off.

Cherlin writes that when it comes to assessing quality of life, people tend to compare themselves to "reference groups" -- "How am I doing compared to others around me?" The past 30 or 40 years have seen striking economic and health gains for non-white families -- in part, this is a result of the rolling back of discriminatory policies that kept minorities locked out of middle-class life. But working-class whites may look back and see no similar pattern of gains, in part because they weren't as broadly discriminated against in the first place.

Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of "a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers," Graham said in an email. "Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have ... they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they."

And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.

If you're a working-class white American, in other words, it may seem as though you are stuck with a losing hand in a bleak zero-sum game: Minorities are getting richer. The rich are getting richer. They're all doing so at your expense, and it's difficult to imagine things being any different in the future.

Enter, then, a candidate like Donald Trump -- one who promises to "make America great again," and who speaks what may seem like refreshingly blunt truths about people who don't look like you and people who make more money than you.

It's important to note that most Trump supporters are generally not working-class Americans. As of last month, the median household income for a Trump voter in the Republican primaries was $72,000, well above that of the average U.S. household, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. Still, for those white-working class Americans behind the Republican front-runner, a populist candidate such as Trump may come to represent something they haven't experienced in a long time: hope.

Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post


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