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Politics

Working class must break free of caricatures and speak for itself

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- Let's play a quick association game: When you hear the term "working class," what word springs to mind?

If you thought "white," as in "the white working class," you guessed correctly.

Since Donald Trump's election to the presidency, a million think pieces, reports, polls and news analyses have dissected whether white working-class voters elected him because of their anxiety about being culturally displaced by people of color.

The net effect has been to create the illusion that all the people in the so-called working class are, by default, white.

Not so.

According to a new issue brief from the Center for American Progress, "For some, including President Trump during his campaign, 'working class' has effectively become shorthand for white male workers in the goods-producing industries of manufacturing, construction and mining. But in reality, the U.S. working class -- defined for this analysis as participants in the labor force with less than a four-year college degree -- is more diverse than ever and growing more so."

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Alex Rowell, the author of the brief, says that even though policy makers talk about industrial work when they refer to the working class, "it has never made up the majority of U.S. working-class jobs."

Industrial jobs peaked in 1960, when they made up 37 percent of working-class positions. But these jobs have been in decline for years, and they began vanishing even faster after 1980. So, for nearly four decades, the working class has been mainly toiling in the service industry -- today, 76 percent, versus 21 percent who work in manufacturing, construction and mining.

The working class is also less white than it used to be. About 75 years ago, according to the Center for American Progress, the share of whites in the working class was roughly the same as the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the country. Today, whites make up 64 percent of the overall adult population but only 59 percent of the working class. African-Americans make up 14 percent and Hispanics make up 21 percent.

Lastly, the share of women in the working class has gone up since 1966, from 33 percent to 46 percent.

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