Optimism is plummeting
among working-class whites, but it is holding steady for minorities. What does this great divergence in hopefulness mean for the 2012 presidential election?
They dream in water, cotton, and brick. One of them is losing hope.
Not Tierra, who is black, and whose nursing ambitions could be delayed by another brutal electric bill. Not Ambar, a Latina and an aspiring lawyer who just lost the only home she ever knew.
Dave. Who is white, and who thought, finally, he'd made it. Who broke his back for a dream--a pension, a getaway cottage, security--that seems to be wavering in the Lake Erie haze.
He grew up in Detroit, where the upward mobility of the American middle class could be seen every Friday afternoon. Factory workers, driving cars they'd built, crowded I-75, heading north to their cottages. That was the deal that Dave Miller signed up for when he dropped out of Wayne State University and followed his dad into the firefighting ranks. The deal was supposed to include decent wages, health insurance, tuition, retirement, mortgages, and maybe, with overtime pay, a boat and a house on the lake--a physical reminder that hard work still pays like it always did.
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"Here's the ticket! Twenty-five years, a pension, health care, and nine working days a month--that's how they sold it," Dave says. Nobody mentioned going 10 years without a raise; or starting a construction company on the side to make ends meet; or wondering if he shouldn't just sell the little lake cottage that his hard work bought, because he struggles just to make it up there.
Nobody said that one day Dave, 41, would sit around a table with five other white firefighters and admit, to nods of approval, that his hope for his kids' future "takes a hit when shit goes sour." It is 5 p.m. on a Thursday. He was supposed to escape to the lake 36 hours ago. He feels like he is running out of time.
It is early in the evening on a Monday in South Carolina when Tierra Stewart, 22, leaves the maroon tents where her extended family has passed the day barbecuing and catching up. She loads her 3-year-old boy into her aunt's Jeep, damp blades of grass clinging to his white high-tops. Her cousin points the car down the highway away from their small hometown and back to the little house that Tierra shares with her son, Quay.
There is a $300 electric bill waiting for her there, the second one in a row. Both have been surprises, far more than she expected when she moved into the house this summer. To pay one electric bill--just that bill--Tierra will work eight straight days in two jobs, caring for senior citizens and disabled people. She knows that one more unexpectedly large bill, or one more problem with the car that has already broken down once this year, would devastate her fragile finances. But still, she dreams.
Tierra dreams of becoming a nurse; of wearing cotton hospital scrubs; of traveling outside of South Carolina. She wants to own a house and a car. She wants to earn at least $15 an hour--an annual salary of about $31,000. "I've never made more than $13 an hour," she says. "Thirty thousand would be good for me." She has grand plans for the sleepy boy in the backseat. "He will go off to college," she says. "I don't want him to be here pining on any women, his mom neither. I want him to be somebody. I want him to be successful."
It is mid-morning on a Thursday on the lower west side of Chicago, and the late summer air blows in a chill. Ambar Gonzalez pulls a gray hooded sweatshirt over her sweater. She navigates her neighborhood from the passenger side of a rental car. She is 25, and she has never lived anywhere but this neighborhood. There is my grammar school, she says. There is the school where my friends went. There is the coal plant; I think it gave me my asthma. There is my church. They just washed the bricks. It's even more gorgeous inside. Turn here.
Suddenly the voice that crackled with possibilities during breakfast--a job downtown! law school in Washington, D.C.!--deadens. She is back on a block that she crosses only if she's riding with friends and they forget where they are. There it is on the corner: weather-beaten yellow brick, with red-and-white awnings. It's the home she grew up in, the one that the economy made it impossible for her family to keep. "Turn," she says.
The house appears again, this time on the left. Freckles tighten around her light brown eyes. Do you ever think about buying it back? "Yes," she says, instantly. "Even if I don't live there, I want it to be my house." It gives her direction: She will leave, she will learn, she will win the job that will bring her back to claim the cradle of her middle-class dreams.
THE GREAT DIVERGENCE
Like Dave, Tierra, and Ambar, others in America's working class still dream of a better life and the totems--the cottage, the uniform, the house--that represent it, even in the grips of an economy that has snuffed so many hopes. The dreams vary with the color of the dreamers' skin, though not in the way you'd expect.
The Great Recession and the weak recovery have soaked working-class Americans across racial and generational lines. But the groups who suffered most, amazingly, are the ones who remain most hopeful that life will improve for them and for their children. Optimism is plummeting among working-class whites but holding steady for minorities, a divergence that risks inflaming racial tensions. It could also sway the 2012 presidential election.
Census figures show that all American workers slid backward in the past few years. Median income fell by 6.4 percent between 2007 and 2010, to the lowest level in 13 years (adjusted for inflation). African-American incomes fell by more than 10 percent, and Latino incomes fell 7.2 percent. White incomes dropped less, by 5.4 percent. In 2010, income for blacks and Latinos remained 40 and 30 percent lower, respectively, than the median income for whites. Hispanics lost two-thirds of their household wealth between 2005 and 2009, and blacks lost more than half, according to the Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends project. Whites lost less than a fifth of theirs.
Yet polls suggest that far more minorities than whites believe they are still advancing toward their economic dreams. Latinos and blacks remain more than twice as likely to say that today's children will have more opportunity than they did, according to an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll conducted this summer. Minorities are also far more likely than whites to say that their own economic opportunity exceeds their parents'.
This "optimism gap"--the reason that Tierra and Ambar see the bright side while Dave loses faith, in the face of similar adversity--is a function of economic direction, not circumstance, according to polls and economic research. Minorities are steadily pushing their way into the middle class, which was once the province of whites. In 1979, whites constituted more than 80 percent of the earners whose income fell between the 30th and 70th percentiles, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by the liberal Economic Policy Institute. By 2010, whites had fallen below 68 percent of that middle-income group. Over the same period, the black share grew from 10 percent to 12 percent; the Latino share nearly tripled, from 5.4 percent to 14.4 percent.
The shift was most pronounced over the past decade, when 1.7 million Latinos joined the middle class and 1.5 million whites fell out.
A poll this spring by the Pew Economic Mobility Project underscored how minorities and whites see their divergent economic trajectories. Whites earning between $25,000 and $75,000 per year were more than twice as likely as blacks in the same income range--and nearly twice as likely as Latinos--to say they had already achieved the American Dream. Some three in five working-class blacks and Latinos say they haven't yet reached that dream but that they expect to in their lifetimes. Just over one in three whites say the same. A majority of Latinos and a plurality of African-Americans say they expect to be making enough money 10 years from now to live the lifestyle they desire. A majority of whites say they don't expect to be there.
Working-class whites, in other words, are already more prosperous and secure than working-class minorities, but they're less optimistic because they don't believe they're climbing anymore--they're simply trying to hold on to what they've got. Whites today seem to think that the middle-class security their parents and grandparents achieved may be crumbling beneath them. Minorities seem ready to accept the idea that their ascent, while steeper at the moment, will nevertheless deliver them to the middle class someday.
The stories of three families--one white, one black, one Latino--help to explain why.