But this new American skepticism doesn’t only affect the relatively young, and it isn’t confined to the overeducated yet underemployed, either.
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This spring, the researchers Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson at Princeton University, Andrew Cherlin at Johns Hopkins, and Robert Francis, now at Whitworth University, published a paper based on lengthy interviews conducted from 2000 to 2013 with older, low-income men without a college degree in black and white working-class neighborhoods in the Boston, Charleston, Chicago, and Philadelphia areas.
At first blush, these men seem completely different from the younger, more liberal, more educated group in the WSJ/NBC survey. The white working class, in particular, is Trump’s bedrock, whereas Millennials and Gen Z form the heartwood of his opposition. But many of these men—having been disconnected from the stable, unionized, pension-paying jobs of their fathers—reject the diseased state of America’s institutions in ways that Millennials might find relatable.
First, these low-income working-class men are turning away from organized religion even faster than Millennials and Gen Z. Since the 1970s, church attendance among white men without a college degree has fallen even more than among white college graduates, according to the paper. They remain deeply spiritual without being traditionally devout, avoiding church and preferring instead to browse the internet and libraries for makeshift pieces of a religious self. “They [are] attempting to renegotiate their relationship with religion by picking and choosing elements of various religious traditions they found appealing,” the authors write.
Second, their detachment from religion flows from a feeling that elites have lost their credibility. “Mistrust of religious leaders was often cited as a reason for eschewing a childhood faith,” the authors write, and “some viewed clergy as little more than scam artists.” Francis told me that his research has uncovered a similar distrust among the working class for political elites—hardly a surprise, given the fact that white members of this group broke hard for a president who delights in skewering elite sentiment.
Third, many poor working-class men now reject the nuclear family, in their own way. Their marriage rates have declined in lockstep with their church attendance. But the authors note that a number of these men were eager to have close relationships with their children, even when they had little relationship with their mothers. While many of them had given up on romance, they saw opportunities to have relationships with their kids as a way of fixing their own mistakes, thus giving back to their communities “in ways that they believe[d] can make the world a better place.”
Finally, as the older working class and younger generations struggle to renegotiate their attachments to faith, family, and community, they face similar challenges with regard to their mental health. Anxiety, depression, and suicidality have increased to unprecedented levels among young people. Meanwhile, deaths from drugs and suicide—so-called deaths of despair, which are concentrated in the white working class—have soared in the past two decades, recently reaching the highest levels ever recorded by the federal government. Across generations, Americans seem to be suffering from, and dying of, new levels of loneliness in an age of crumbling institutions.