Working-class, white men see incomes drop: How is that changing America?

The income gap between white college-educated men and white high school graduates is widening, says study released by Sentier Research. How is that inequality gap a force for change in American society?

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Jason Stenquist works on the factory floor of RoMan Manufacturing on June 7, 2016 in Wyoming, Mich.

Income levels among white men without a college education have dropped by nine percent over the past two decades, according to a new study by Sentier Research, contributing to ongoing concerns about the working class in America.

The study, which examined income levels among white college and high school graduates found that although income is climbing for those with a college education or better, working-class white men are being left behind.

This widening gap in income and purchasing power for such a large slice of American society has had a sweeping effect on everything from social trends to politics to life expectancy, and disaffected members of the white working class are making their feelings known.

“You have men who see themselves as the primary wage earners for their families, but jobs that can support that no longer exist,” says Ileen DeVault, the director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, “and the jobs available working at McDonalds or as a personal caretaker are not appealing or well paid enough. It makes white working class men feel more attacked.”

Sentier researchers examined and compared wage and salary income per individual for college graduates as well as high school graduates in two different age cohorts, and found that while high school graduates overall saw their incomes drop by nine percent between 1996 and 2014, white male college graduates saw their incomes rise by 23 percent over the same period.

“These numbers really serve to generate a lot more thought about the notion of who the working class are,” study author John Coder tells The Christian Science Monitor by phone, adding that the report presents a stark picture of growing income inequality due to varying education levels.

The trend began in the 1970s, experts say, as unionized manufacturing jobs moved overseas or became automated. Since that time, more jobs have been added, but many of them are personal caretaker positions, or retail and service work, all of which are relatively low paid and are known for having poor job benefits. 

Michigan State economics professor Charles Ballard tells the Monitor that part of the problem is the awareness of what once was possible for white working class men. In Michigan, he says, factory workers in the 1960s could expect to own a home, multiple cars, and maybe even a cottage by the lake. Today, those jobs simply don’t exist.

“There’s a generation of American men who look at their fathers, who had middle- and upper-class lifestyles with only a high school diploma, and they can’t do that now,” Dr. Ballard says.

Mr. Coder tells the Monitor that the study’s results also reflect individuals who fell out of the labor market during the last recession and have yet to return. Some experts say that this workforce disengagement affects their participation in society.

“When white men disconnect from the workforce, they also disconnect from social institutions,” Georgetown University professor of public policy Harry Holzer tells the Monitor, “which can lead to unstable or nonexistent marriages or drug problems like the opioid epidemic. We’re seeing things in the white male population now that we saw in the African-American population decades ago.”

And as we have seen this election cycle, widening income gaps among such a large voting demographic have also had an impact on American politics.

Politicians have been isolating the working class white vote since income levels began to decline for workers without a college education in the 1970s, a trend that has only become worse as the gap widens between the unskilled and skilled working classes. 

“Just as important in the political shifts we are witnessing are the efforts made by the Republican Party since the 1970s to separate out the white working class from other sectors,” Cornell's Dr. DeVault says.

By targeting working class individuals whose jobs are under threat, politicians can use divisive racial rhetoric to make a scapegoat of other groups for “taking working class jobs,” such as minority groups or immigrants, when in reality, many of those groups experience the same difficulties, according to DeVault.

It is this fear and feeling of being left behind that has led so many white, working-class voters to support Republican candidate Donald Trump, known for his tough stance on undocumented immigrants and international trade efforts.

While the outlook remains dim, DeVault says, there are at least some points of light. As the United States modernizes and becomes increasingly environmentally conscious, there may be more blue-collar jobs in infrastructure rebuilding, retrofitting older buildings to be more energy efficient, and working in new "green" industries such as solar power.

Efforts to reform disability insurance and raising the minimum wage can also help white, working-class men. Yet, as Sentier’s study shows, the biggest battleground might just be that of the classroom, where additional education can make tens of thousands of dollars worth of difference in earning potential.

Currently, however, the cost of education makes the goal of college education unrealistic for many, and can limit opportunity for those who have been edged out of a well-paying manufacturing job, but face the choice of supporting a family or going back to school.

In short, experts say, something has got to give.

“These people are unhappy, and they are making that increasingly clear,” says Georgetown's Dr. Holzer.

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