The working class is more upbeat than most 2020 candidates think

A seemingly infinite amount of commentary since the 2016 presidential election has focused on working class voters and their interests. The numerous 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are vying for the working class bona fides needed to win in the heartland. How well do they understand the working class people whose votes they seek?

Most commentary portray the working class in the United States as economically disenfranchised and alienated from the American dream, and that they are upset about it. A recent survey I conducted with my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute paints a somewhat different picture. The survey asks a wide range of questions about the American dream, community life, civic engagement, and loneliness.

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It turns out that working class Americans are as upbeat as their more affluent peers about the economy and pretty bullish on the American dream. They are more distrustful than upper middle class Americans but less pessimistic about the direction of the country and their communities than often reported. There are lessons in these findings for presidential candidates.

I refer to the working class as people with a high school degree but less than a four year college degree and earnings between the 20th and 50th income percentiles, a definition developed by an American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, and Opportunity America working group in 2018. The working class is more economically optimistic than commonly reported. When asked if they expect to be financially better off, worse off, or about the same a year from now, three in 10 working class Americans say better off, only slightly less than people with higher incomes.

Less than 10 percent expect to be worse off. Working class minorities are more bullish than whites, with 37 percent of minorities saying that they will be better off a year from now, compared to 27 percent of whites. By comparison, 31 percent of more affluent whites expect to be better off, meaning that a greater share of working class minorities are more optimistic about their financial future than richer whites.

Working class Americans feel similarly to non-working class Americans about the state of the country and their communities, yet with some interesting differences. Working class minorities are more likely to say they are somewhat or very satisfied with the direction of the country than their more affluent same race respondents. The white working class that has received so much attention since 2016 is less negative about the country than more affluent whites, as more than 14 percent of working class whites report being “very dissatisfied” with how things are going in the country, compared to 26 percent of more affluent whites.

None of this means that life is rosy for the working class, but 76 percent of them are still getting by or living comfortably on their present income, compared to 89 percent of more affluent Americans. Perhaps this explains why the working class is bullish about the American dream, which various commentators seem to announce is dead on nearly a weekly basis.

To be sure, a greater share of working class people at 25 percent believe the dream is out of reach than non-working class people at 14 percent. However, 45 percent of the working class believe they are on the way to achieving the American dream, and another 28 percent believe they have already achieved it. Working class minorities are also more likely than whites to say they are on the way to achieving the dream.

On many issues, working class Americans have more in common with their more affluent counterparts than not. For instance, 70 percent are somewhat or very satisfied with their communities, compared to 78 percent of more affluent respondents. They talk with and help neighbors at similar rates as other Americans. Moreover, 41 percent of both groups say it is “extremely important” for government to grow the economy. Nearly identical shares at about 36 percent of both groups believe that government has a responsibility to help people get ahead who want to.

Working class people and affluent Americans differ most on the issue of trust. Only 29 percent of the working class believe you can trust most people most of the time, compared to 49 percent of wealthier people. They are also less trustful of institutions including the media, the police, and all levels of government than more affluent Americans. In addition, working class people are more likely to experience loneliness and feel like no one knows them well, which is related to lower trust levels.

The lesson for presidential candidates hoping to pave inroads with working class Americans is that lower income workers believe in the United States but not in them. They distrust elites, which includes anyone running for office these days. But they trust basic American institutions and think the American dream is real. Assuming that working class people are pessimistic about the United States is a losing strategy.

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute. He served as deputy chief of staff for policy to Indiana Governor Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceMike Pence delivers West Point commencement address Dozens of graduates walk out in protest of Pence address Trudeau on tariff deal: Canadian and US businesses can get back to 'working constructively together' MORE and special assistant for domestic policy to President George Bush, and policy adviser to Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith.