This sort of isolation was common among the people I talked to. Many said their faith was helping them get through their ongoing troubles, yet they rarely or never went to church. Some felt ashamed to be around people because they were out of work. For others, their religious belief was somewhat a source of self-help, rather than a source of community. For example, one of the workers I interviewed said that being out of work for so long had filled him with a constant rage. To calm his mind, every night he would pick up his Bible and read a dozen verses. He had given up on the church and what he described as its superficial ways. “I want to go to hear the Word—I don’t want to go to see what you’re wearing,” says the man, 53 and from Flint, Michigan. The other way he copes is going outside for a smoke.
For this man and many like him, there is no one to talk to, no one to rely on. “Nowadays, you got people you really can’t trust, man,” he says. “You can’t call everybody your friend.” As the ties that bind them to others have unraveled, the working class has become an ever lonelier crowd.
The larger context of this isolation and alienation is America’s culture of individualism. It, too, can worsen the despair. Taken to an extreme, self-reliance becomes a cudgel: Those who falter and fail have only themselves to blame. They should have gotten more education. They should have been more prepared. On this score, too, the U.S. deviates from other wealthy nations. America’s frontier spirit of rugged individualism is strong, and it manifests itself differently by race and education level, too. White Americans, for instance, are more likely to see success as the result of individual effort than African Americans are (though not Hispanics). The less educated, particularly less-educated whites, also share this view to a disproportionate degree.
In Stayin’ Alive, his powerful history of the “last days” of the working class, the historian Jefferson Cowie describes how the proud blue-collar identity of previous generations disintegrated during the ’70s. “Liberty has largely been reduced to an ideology that promises economic and cultural refuge from the long arm of the state,” he writes, “while seemingly lost to history is the logic that culminated under the New Deal: that genuine freedom could only happen within a context of economic security.” As working-class solidarity receded, an identity built on racial tribalism often swept in.
With that in mind, it’s interesting that Americans tout the importance of getting an education—an inherently individualistic strategy—as the pathway to success. This view was the ideological backbone of the Clinton administration policies put forth in the ’90s, with their individual training accounts and lifetime-learning credits. To this day, the supreme value of education remains one of the few things that Americans of all persuasions (presidential candidates included) can agree on. But this sort of zeal can lead to the view that those who have less education—the working class—are truly to blame for their dire straits. While many of them will go on to obtain more education, many others will not—because they can’t afford it, aren’t good students, or just (as some of my workers said) prefer working with their hands. But if they don’t collect the educational degrees needed for today’s good jobs, they are made to feel that they have failed in a fundamental way.