Who the white working class is...and isn't

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The problem with easy characterizations, however, is that they not only reduce complex communities to stereotypes and sound bites – they’re also quite frequently wrong. Those of us in the social change movement business swim against this tide as we work for our long-term goals to help all who seek the American dream.



An illuminating recent study by the Public Religion Research Institute demonstrates that more members of the American white working class identify more with the values of center-left political movements than with those of the Tea Party; in fact, white working-class Americans are no more likely to identify with the values of the Tea Party than they are to identify with the values of the Labor Movement.
 


For some time now, there’s been a tendency to dismiss the Labor Movement, to say that unions and the values of organized labor are being hounded off the stage, but the PRRI study offers clear indications that this is not the case.
 


A close look at the survey shows that the single biggest factor in determining the attachment of the white working class to either the Tea Party or Labor Movement is geography. In the battleground states of the Midwest, for example, where there is a rich history of union representation, about 4-in-10 working-class whites continue to feel that the Labor Movement represents their core values.
 


Like anyone else, non-college-educated hourly workers want to feel that their voices are heard and their needs recognized. The fact that organized labor exists to amplify those voices and serve as a counter-balance to big business continues to speak to many in the white working class, even as unions’ historical gains are eroded.



Indeed, while most Tea Party-identified politicians emphasize a demand for lower taxes, 62 percent of working-class whites would like to see taxes raised for those who earn more than $1 million. Seventy percent feel the American economy is unfairly weighted toward the wealthy, and more than three-quarters of the white working class say that the outsourcing of jobs is one of the top reasons for America’s current economic woes. These are the kinds of statements one might hear at a union hall, not a Tea Party rally.
 


What is perhaps most interesting about the continued attachment to organized labor is the fact that unions ask more of their members than do other political movements. On the whole, the Labor Movement calls for a level of involvement – from paying dues to negotiating working conditions – that requires a deeper level of personal buy-in than does the Tea Party, or, on the left, the Occupy Movement. To identify with organized labor is to be invested in a process that affects one’s work environment every single day.


 
Yet we very rarely see any of this reflected in our national discourse. There is, rather, a tendency to give coverage to the country’s extremes, whether they be the Tea Party or Occupy. The left claims that non-college-educated whites vote against their economic interest, and the right claims they’ve lost their faith and work ethic, all without looking at the facts that indicate a much more complicated reality.



To be sure, a majority of the white working class do conform to certain expectations. They report greater attendance at evangelical churches, for instance, and three-quarters believe that the poor have become too dependent on government programs. This dovetailing with conventional wisdom is especially true in America’s South, where union density is weakest. But over all, the white working-class sector of the electorate is surprisingly diverse, and the PRRI study drives home the folly of relying on accepted stereotypes.



Pigeonholing millions of people is never a good idea – individuals tend to demand their autonomy, no matter how we expect them to act – but it seems particularly unwise in the lead-up to an election, or in the drafting of policy.



About a third of America’s white working class say the Tea Party shares their values – but equal numbers say the Labor Movement shares their values. 



If we want to understand the needs and expectations of this much-discussed sector of the electorate, we would be wise to discuss them as they really are, not as we have imagined, or even feared, them to be.



As we look beyond this election to the unfinished business of health care, poverty and education, we must endeavor to further understand ourselves and each other.
 


Greer is the president and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.