All Hollowed Out

The lonely poverty of America’s white working class

Eric Thayer / Reuters

For the last several months, social scientists have been debating the striking findings of a study by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton.* Between 1998 and 2013, Case and Deaton argue, white Americans across multiple age groups experienced large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse—spikes that were so large that, for whites aged 45 to 54, they overwhelmed the dependable modern trend of steadily improving life expectancy. While critics have challenged the magnitude and timing of the rise in middle-age deaths (particularly for men), they and the study’s authors alike seem to agree on some basic points: Problems of mental health and addiction have taken a terrible toll on whites in America—though seemingly not in other wealthy nations—and the least educated among them have fared the worst.

Meanwhile, other recent research has piled on the bad news for those without college degrees. A Pew study released last month found that the size of the middle class—defined by a consistent income range across generations—has shrunk over the last several decades. In part, this is because high-paying jobs for the less educated are vanishing. The study builds on other recent research that finds that almost all the good jobs created since the recession have gone to college graduates.

The workers I interviewed after the recession for my book on unemployment—less-educated factory workers—offer some tentative clues about what might be driving the disquieting trends described by the Case and Deaton study. This is one of the groups hit hardest by the rising inequality and greater risk of unemployment and financial insecurity that have become features of today’s economy, and their experiences put in concrete terms how the economy and culture have become more hostile to workers not lucky enough to be working in posh offices on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.

One man I talked to was 47 years old, the son of a Detroit factory worker who headed into the plants himself. (As is standard in sociology, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) He told me how he recently lost his $11-an-hour job: He was driving a forklift at his company’s plant when he accidentally crashed into a ladder. No one was hurt and nothing was damaged—but he was an at-will worker at a company with no union, and he was fired. Shortly afterward, his wife, who was making $8 an hour at a cleaning company, decided to leave him. The stress of failing to find a job and being alone made him too depressed to eat, and he started taking antidepressants.

When it comes to explaining American economic trends, it is important to remember how critical a role manufacturing and unions have played in the building—and now dismantling—of a strong middle class. For generations, factories provided good jobs to people who never went to college, allowing families—first white ethnic immigrants, and then others—to be upwardly mobile. Bringing together large numbers of people under a single roof, factory jobs were also relatively easy to organize. As the sociologists Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld have argued, unions at their prime helped create a “moral economy” in which wages rose both in firms with unions and those without them, and in which the average worker had a notable voice—however compromised back then by nativism and other exclusionary tendencies—lobbying on their behalf in Washington.

But in the late ’90s—the beginning of the crisis period that Case and Deaton identify—the number of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. dropped dramatically. Intensified by free-trade deals such as NAFTA, the hollowing-out of American industry then was much greater, in terms of the absolute number of jobs lost, than what the country experienced during its first wave of deindustrialization.

Twenty years ago, union membership—in decline since the ’60s—fell to a level not seen since the Great Depression. For various reasons, it became much harder to pursue the sorts of collective action that unions once cultivated throughout the economy—that is, banding together to convince companies and governments to treat employees better. Free trade and automation undercut the bargaining positions of the working class. Political leaders, bankrolled by the wealthy, rolled back the interventionist policies of the New Deal and postwar period. Corporations, once relatively tolerant of unions, tapped a cottage industry of anti-union consultants and adopted unseemly tactics to crush any organizing drives in their workplaces.

As organized labor in this country has withered, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative—a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education and becoming successful on one’s own merit. This works well for some, but for others—especially the two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelor’s degree—it often means getting mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits. These prospects suggest that this is an age of diminished expectations for the working class.

Certainly, it cannot be said enough that African Americans and Latinos continue to fare significantly worse than whites in terms of their overall rates of death and disease, even if the racial gap has narrowed. Indeed, the broader story that many commentators seem to have neglected in recent months is the decline of the working class as a whole. In the decades after World War II, racial minorities were denied many of the jobs, loans, and other resources that allowed the white majority to buy homes and accrue wealth. If the gains of economic growth have gone largely to the rich in recent years, in that earlier period the white working class could count on hefty rises in living standards from generation to generation, and they grew accustomed to that upward trajectory of growing prosperity. When the labor market turned against them, they had the hardest fall.

Any explanation of the ominous trends in the Case and Deaton study is, at the moment, speculative. More research is needed, as social scientists like to say, and there are numerous caveats. For example, while the disappearance of high-paying jobs for those with little education is a large part of the overall story of a shrinking middle class, it can’t wholly account for the uptick of mortality identified in the Case and Deaton study. After all, other countries have not seen similar hikes in deaths, even though manufacturing and (to a lesser extent) union membership have crumbled abroad as well.

Likewise, the groups that have been affected most viciously by these market trends in the U.S., African Americans and Latinos, have not suffered the dramatic increases in death by suicide or substance abuse that whites have. It may be that changes in the economy have affected these workers in different ways. For instance, whites are more likely to be employed in the declining manufacturing sector than African Americans or Hispanics—and for that matter, they’re more likely to live in the rural communities devastated by this most recent, post-NAFTA era of deindustrialization. Furthermore, whites are less likely to be union members than African Americans (though not Asians or Hispanics).

Yet there is clearly more to the despair of the working class than empty wallets and purses. Patches of the social fabric that once supported them, in good times and bad, have frayed. When asked in national surveys about the people with whom they discussed “important matters” in the past six months, those with just a high-school education or less are likelier to say no one (this percentage has risen over the years for college graduates, too). This trend is troubling, given that social isolation is linked to depression and, in turn, suicide and substance abuse.

One form of social support that many in the working class are going without is marriage. I’m reminded of another worker I interviewed, a jobless 54-year-old white woman who used to work at a Ford plant. Her husband left her, she says, when the paychecks stopped coming. “Jesus Christ,” she told him once. “I didn’t think that our relationship was based on the amount of money that I brought in.” Unable to pay her mortgage, she lost her home and had to move in, as she puts it, with a “man friend.” She is depressed, unable to sleep at night, and constantly worried about falling into poverty. “I’m a loser,” she says.

As scholars of family life as politically distinct as Andrew Cherlin and Charles Murray have stressed, college graduates and the less educated have greatly diverged in terms of when and how they partner up and have kids. Nowadays, well-educated couples are much more likely to marry, stay married, and have children within marriage than those with less schooling. The white working class in particular is seeing sharp drops in these indicators—again, not to the levels of nonwhites, but a drastic reversal all the same, and one that has intensified over the last few decades.

A large part of the explanation for this must be that society’s attitudes about the sanctity and permanence of marriage have changed. But it’s important to note that there is an economic dimension to these trends, too—as the frequent separations and divorces I saw among the long-term unemployed made plain to me. Those struggling financially are less likely to follow the traditional path of first comes marriage, then comes a baby. And if they do choose to get married, there is little room for unemployment. As the Detroit man who lost his job told me, he and his wife split up “because she’s working, and … I don’t have any money coming in.” They had been fighting over finances even before he lost his job, he points out, but the arguments grew more heated afterward. In a lone-wolf economy, as sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas have argued, why take a chance on a partner down on his luck when you’re just barely surviving yourself?

The waning of religious belief may be another trend aggravating the modern malaise of the white working class. Since the ’90s, the number of Americans who declare no religious preference on surveys has almost tripled—from 8 percent at the beginning of that decade, to 21 percent in 2014. Whites fall disproportionately into this camp. The religiously unaffiliated are not necessarily secular in their outlook. Many of them are spiritually inclined but skeptical of organized religion—especially its intrusion into politics. However, in the absence of any other source of social support and collective meaning (say, unions), there’s less in the way of psychological protection from the slings and arrows of American society.

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.

Some of the analysis of the Case and Deaton article has focused rightly on recent developments in this country’s drug crisis—namely, the surge in abuse of prescription opioids, and the resurgence in heroin use, notably among whites. There is clearly a pressing need to deal more vigorously with this drug problem and the epidemic of fatal overdoses and liver disease that has affected the poor and working class in particular.

At the same time, it should be said that risky individual behaviors are shaped by broader social conditions. As the researchers Bruce Link and Jo Phelan have argued, effective health interventions need to consider the underlying factors that put people “at risk of risks”—specifically, socioeconomic status and social support. Seeing this big picture is important because blocking one pathway to disease or death—say, opioid abuse—may just lead to people to opt for another deadly means of coping with the pain of their poor life prospects.

One parting observation, then, is that policies to keep people from sinking into poverty and long-term unemployment can make a huge difference. In advanced industrial nations that have stronger social safety nets, the working class is not experiencing the rising death rates that Case and Deaton identified. Abroad, many of the working-class unemployed benefit from a financial backstop of sorts that keeps them from hurtling into the deepest forms of desperation. Here in the U.S. they would too, if only there were such a thing.

* This article originally named one of the co-authors of this paper as Susan Case. We regret the error.