Home > Uncategorized > Class struggles in America (6 graphs)

Class struggles in America (6 graphs)

from David Ruccio

Almost five years ago, I suggested we start calling things by their correct names.

Take the working-class—people who are forced to have the freedom to sell their labor power for a wage. We refer to them as members of the middle-class (which needs to be “rebuilt“) and working families (who need to be helped) or, now as workers’ wages stagnate and the real value of the minimum wage declines, as the “feral underclass” (especially in theUK, in the aftermath of the riots) or the working-age poor (as in the recent AP report on the demographic composition of those living in poverty [ht: ja]).*

What’s the problem with calling it as it is? What are we afraid of? It’s the working-class, and its member are becoming increasingly impoverished. People who work for a living, or want a full-time job but can’t find one (whether or not they’re actively looking for one, since it’s getting increasingly difficult to find a decent job), represent nearly 3 out of 5 poor people. . .

So, from now on, in political and economic discourse, let’s call things by their correct names. The vast majority of people in the United States are members of the working-class. And they’re getting shafted.

Well, it seems, Americans are still struggling with the notion of the working-class (and of class more generally).

The best Donald Trump was able to come up with were “the great miners and steel workers of our country.” (Really? Trump wants to send American workers back into the mines and steel mills? Those jobs are mostly gone, and that’s a good thing.) Even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders weren’t able to refer to the working-class, preferring instead to use terms like “working people,” “hard-working families,” “workers,” and “working families”—although, in their case, when counterposed to corporate profits and CEOs, it was pretty clear they were referring to the growing class divide in the United States.

As Tamara Draut [ht: ja] explains, the American working-class is in fact changing.

the blue-collar, hard-hat, mostly male archetype of the great post-war prosperity — is long gone. In its place is a new working class whose jobs are in the now massive sectors of our serving and caring economy. And so far, neither Trump nor Clinton have talked about this new working class, which is much more female and racially diverse than the one of my dad’s generation. With Trump’s racially charged and nativistic rhetoric, he’s offering red meat to a group of Americans who have every right to be angry — but not at the villains Trump has served up.


“Long gone” may be an exaggeration. There are still more than 12 million workers employed in manufacturing in the United States (out of a total of 150 million employed people). And, according to the Economic Policy Institute (pdf), the American working class (which they define as people with less than a bachelor’s degree) is still a majority non-Hispanic white.* (It is projected to become majority people of color in 2032.)


What we have, then, is an increasingly diverse working-class that together, “regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender,” has been receiving wages that fall far short of increases in productivity for more than three decades.


The result, as I showed earlier this month, is that

the average income of the bottom 90 percent fell between 1979 and 2015 (from $34.6 thousand to $33.2 thousand), while the average income of the top 10 percent rose (from $149.1 thousand to $273.8 thousand) and that of the top 1 percent soared (from $370.2 thousand to over $1 million).

That dramatic rise in inequality—along with, as Dustin Guastella explains, “the rise of precarious labor, the proletarianization of white-collar work, the rise in real unemployment, [and] the persistence of underemployment—are what have propelled class issues back into the public debate.

gen-y-us-millenials-slide-1 gen-y-us-millenials-slide-1


That combination is certainly what has convinced Millenials, the members of Generation Y, to see themselves less as middle-class and more as working-class. They may be better educated than their predecessors and for the most part they’re not working in traditional working-class jobs (like manufacturing or other blue-collar tasks) but their low wages and precarious employment make them identify with the working-class—”a feat in and of itself considering the narrow American cultural understanding for who qualifies as working class.”


The fact is, as many Americans self-identify as working-class as they do middle-class, which is “striking given how uncommon the term working class seems to be in both the media and political speech these days.”

As I argued a year and a half ago,

Our political language has served to ignore the working-class status of most so-called middle-class Americans and, as a result, to confine the working-class (understood as workers without a college education), when it is mentioned at all, to a relatively small segment of the population. In other words, the working-class has come to be defined as the working-poor and the middle-class as something else.

As I see it, we’ll get a more accurate representation of our economic and political landscape if we redefine what we mean by the working-class. The fact is, what others understand to be working-class and middle-class actually have a lot in common. They may have different levels of education (high school, a year or two of college, and a four-year college degree), different color collars (blue, pink, and white), and work in different sectors (manufacturing and services, private and public) but they’re all pretty much in the same boat: they are forced to sell their ability to work to someone else in order to make enough money to support themselves and their families. That’s a very large part of the population. It basically excludes two relatively small groups: the capitalists at the top (who get the profits) and managers and supervisors (who manage the labor of others and get a cut of the profits).

So, we’re talking about 80 or so percent of Americans who, in one way or another, are members of the working-class.

They know it and we know it—even as mainstream economists, politicians (both liberal and conservative), and social surveys downplay or deny the existence of a large and increasingly distressed American working-class.

The next question then is, what kind of language are we going to use to characterize the not-working-class, the class that takes and otherwise lives off the surplus produced by the working-class? Right now, we have the “upper class” and, more recently, the “1 percent” and the “billionaire class.” Clearly, we need something better, a term that describes not just the rung at the top of the income ladder but a place in relation to that of the working-class, thus giving us a pair of positions that define the central relationship within the current economic system.

It’s going to take more than a bit of struggle. But, once we have that term, we’ll be well on our way to calling things by their correct (class) names.


*And that’s one of the reasons the presidential race right now is so close. Trump leads among white registered voters without a college degree, a significant portion of the working-class, by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.

  1. graccibros
    July 28, 2016 at 9:22 pm

    David, thanks so much for this posting. Two minutes ago, I just sent this commentary off to a private Email group who have been sharing thoughts on the two conventions:

    “After reading Thomas Edsall’s NY Times column this morning, which was built around the non-rational side of politics, but never mentioned George Lakoff and “framing,” unfairly I think, I wanted to share this brief clip from the movie Gettysburg.

    It depicts General Robert E. Lee, portrayed by Martin Sheen being swept up by spontaneous outpouring of adulation, worship even, before the final day of the three day battle. Now the strange thing is that in the filming of this 1993 movie, this scene was not in the script, and unfolded genuinely from the re-enactors playing the Confederate troops, who began cheering and were caught up in crowd behavior – and perhaps Sheen’s own charisma in his role. He has a marvelously lost, adrift look on his face as this happened in front of him. Obviously I think something similar is happening with the support for Trump. Lee historically, and he is well-played by Sheen, is a decent and honorable man fighting for a terrible cause, and most agree he was not in good form at Gettysburg. General Longstreet, played by Tom Berenger comes across as more humane and strategically adept.

    I guess thinking of this is my way of a delayed reaction to Joe Biden and the President’s speech, wondering two things: do they understand the pain of middle class Americans, and especially working class ones as well that has formed the deep layer beneath this whole political year, the hot political magma below the surface; and are they capable of putting the Democratic response in a psychological place to deal with it. I haven’t seen it yet in all the comfortable upper-middle class speaking I’ve seen at this convention. Bernie at least had the tone and facial expressions, and body language to go with is message. Even he, however, faltered when he refused to be honest about how unhappy the democratic left was, deeply disappointed in President Obama, and rightly so. He should have just said it. These cheerleaders, adrift on that American sea of exceptionalism that doesn’t understand what even Nixon did, who recognized he was going to be the manger of American decline demarcated by the loss in Vietnam and by our going off the gold standard in 1971-1973, a rational economic move with none-the-less deep symbolic meaning. Wallace-Nixon-Trump is a progression, and a measure of that decline, whatever these patriotic defenders were marshalling to convince their bewildered citizens otherwise.

    One last observation: I haven’t watched it all in Philadelphia, but no one I heard even mentioned the New Deal and FDR until that poignant moment when Sanders’ brother made his choked-with emotion- motion about who their parents supported and how proud they would be of Bernie’s accomplishments…

    Joe Biden has been awarded the “Joe working class” defender role by the media, and he pushes it at the rhetorical level until I’m sick of it, meanwhile the truth is in the missing policies and what I just wrote, and the ghost-like role played, the faint Greek Chorus assignment of the AFL-CIO, so far offstage they can’t even be heard, much less seen, as I’ve been noting in Labor Day’s “Missing in Action” essays of my own for so long I’ve lost count.

    But take a look at those Confederate Civil war enactors faces, what they’re saying…at some point something more than just a re-enactors role was surfacing under those awful flags, the Stars and Bars: the return of the repressed. This is what “Deer Hunting with Jesus” was all about (a book by the late Joe Bageant): the deep, abiding alienation of poor whites, spreading now to the middle class, who simply are not comprehended by the 20% income demographic, the meritocracy which has taken over the Democratic Party, and who mostly work for corporate America, having their own illusions about that. That avenger has unfortunately come back in real life to head one of our parties. “

  2. July 29, 2016 at 11:48 am

    All of what happened to the American working class was intended. In fact, it was the price deemed reasonable to make the change to the “beautiful and magnificently effective” neoclassical economy. The working class were the dinosaurs destroyed by the finanicalization asteroid and left to die where they fell. I don’t believe 70s and 80s economists and policy makers believed an American working class was either necessary or would survive past the end of the century. All such work would be outsourced, with the US taking the role of the financial giant of the world economy. Not one of these folks saw the rise of China as and industrial and financial power, or the extreme hatred the changes in the US would lead to. Just another example of neoclassical failure. Nothing new there. But these events also revealed just how out of touch most economists are with their regional and national economies, and particularly with the world’s economy. But it’s really unfair to expect Democratic politicians to resist all this and make the “good” fight for the working class. A fight that up to now wasn’t even taken seriously by any policy advisers to the Party and certainly was not winnable or a road to political success. Politicians have to be elected and re-elected. This fight wasn’t the way to achieve either. But this just allowed the anger of the working class to build and build. A class that these politicians had been told by “smart” folks did not exist after 2000. Have not seen or heard about a more disturbing and disastrous policy process since the years leading up to the American Civil War. We may be screwed beyond all possible relief. If this leads to the election of Trump as President we have begun the denouement for the US. There is no up after this begins. Only down. And China and Russia are waiting.

  3. reallyniceguy2014
    July 29, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    Spot on.

    There are two kinds of people;

    those who inherited enough private income to live on

    those who haven’t and have to get an income to survive.

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