The Very Real Death of White Working-Class America

The NEw Deal labor policies of Frankline Deleno Roosevelt were a mixed bag, but his understanding the needs of those who work is sorely missing in 21st-century America.

The New Deal labor policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt were a mixed bag, but his recognition of the Forgotten Man is sorely missing in 21st-century America.

On June 28, 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the nation in one of his regular “Fireside Chats.” The Great Depression had left millions of Americans languishing in unemployment and despair, and with these circumstances heavy on his mind, FDR used his Fireside Chats to offer some level of comfort by informing the citizenry on the progress of his New Deal recovery plan.

On that particularly sweltering late June day, the subject was, among other things, conservative criticisms of Roosevelt’s policies. After rattling off some parched statistics about how his programs were boosting the economic recovery, FDR ceased the dusty policy wonkery and went right for the emotional jugular. “The simplest way for each of you to judge recovery lies in the plain facts of your own individual situation,” the President stated. “Are you better off than you were last year? Are your debts less burdensome? Is your bank account more secure? Are your working conditions better? Is your faith in your own individual future more firmly grounded?”

By emphasizing that the New Deal’s effect on Americans’ personal well-being bore little resemblance to the iron-heeled socialist dictatorship so often invoked by Republican trolls and their Big-Business allies, FDR tried to let workers know they weren’t forgotten, even as determined forces sought to stifle economic recovery in the name of preserving status-quo capitalist power structures. “In the working out of a great national program which seeks the primary good of the greater number, it is true that the toes of some people are being stepped on and are going to be stepped on,” the President noted. “But these toes belong to the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches or both by some short cut which is harmful to the greater good.” The message was simple: if the greater good didn’t include the forgotten (white) American worker, it was no good at all.

Fast-forward 81 years. Neoliberal global capitalism has not only forgotten about the white working class, it’s literally killing them. In a 2015 paper, Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton’s distinguished Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs identify an alarming increase in the mortality rate of white, middle-aged, less-educated, working-class Americans. Even more disturbing is the cause of this increased mortality rate: a lethal cocktail of depression, drugs, alcohol, and suicide.

In a column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat notes that both the Right and Left will use these findings to boost their respective ideological positions. Conservatives, Douthat writes, will point to the mortality rate shock as “the latest indictment of modern liberalism’s mix of moral permissiveness and welfare-state paternalism” that’s undermining family values and work ethic and breeding a public health crisis. Liberals, by contrast, will argue that working-class whites have “fallen victim, not to dependency and libertinism, but to a punishing economic climate — stagnant wages, a fraying safety net, and Republican economic policies that redistribute wealth upward.” Douthat himself comes down somewhere in the center. “Liberals are right to emphasize the economic component to the working class’s crisis,” he writes, but he also laments the loss of “the sense of meaning and purpose that blue-collar white Americans derived from the nexus of work, faith and family until very recently.”

In America today, being white and working class is dangerous to your health.

In America today, being white and working class is dangerous to your mental and spiritual health.

Staking out a cautious middle position is fine, but Douthat omits a key discussion in Case and Deaton’s paper: the erosion of economic insecurity in America to a larger extent than in other parts of the industrialized world. Case and Deaton don’t have a clear-cut answer for the rise in working-class white mortality rates, but they have some theories:

Although the epidemic of pain, suicide, and drug overdoses preceded the financial crisis, ties to economic insecurity are possible. After the productivity slowdown in the early 1970s, and with widening income inequality, many of the baby-boom generation are the first to find, in midlife, that they will not be better off than were their parents. Growth in real median earnings has been slow for this group, especially those with only a high school education.

Of course, growth in real median incomes has slowed around the globe, even in countries with stronger safety nets than good ole’ ‘Murica. Nonetheless, the United States is different in that its capitalism-at-all-costs culture fetishizes the stockbroker over the worker:

The United States has moved primarily to defined-contribution pension plans with associated stock market risk, whereas, in Europe, defined-benefit pensions are still the norm. Future financial insecurity may weigh more heavily on US workers, if they perceive stock market risk harder to manage than earnings risk, or if they have contributed inadequately to defined-contribution plans.

In other words, in America, you can put your trust in a financial sector that promises you “ownership.” But understand that the financial sector’s heaving, vein-mapped, stretch-marked gut is getting ever more bloated on what used to be your pensions, and its needled fangs are sucking the remaining platelet nectar out of your wages. Freedom!!!

I grew up in the working-class town of Hubbard, Ohio, a blue-collar bedroom community within the greater Youngstown, Ohio area. You’ve heard of Youngstown, right? It’s one of the most economically depressed cities in the United Statesa prototypical Rust Belt former steel town whose smoke-stacked single-industry lifeblood dried up during the general process of deindustrialization that turned huge swathes of the American Midwest into a Mad Max-style wasteland in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet working-class, primarily white towns like Hubbard that ringed Youngstown survived and (however inelegantly) persevered. That perseverance, however, is starting to fray at the seams. The same forces that turned Youngstown into an economic dead zone haven’t abated; in fact, they’ve increased, and history is no longer the white working class’s nebulous ally.

Bolstered by a diffused cultural mixture of faith, family, and working-class grit, the mostly white residents of towns like Hubbard, Ohio could take some refuge in the historical tradition that enshrines the white (usually male) blue-collar worker as a prototypical symbol of American authenticity. After all, when “universal” suffrage became a reality during the Jacksonian Era of the 1820s, “universal” meant that working class, non-property holding white males could vote, while blacks, women, and other groups couldn’t. To be “universal” in America has often meant to be white and working class, at least in the sense that even the elites couldn’t claim to be as authentically American as those factory workers and tillers of the soil whom Andrew Jackson believed were the soul of American democracy.

Over the course of the last few decades, the financial elites have continued to gnaw at the sinewy carcass of the American economy like a pack of rabid hyenas. Nevertheless, white workers in the modern, post-deindustrialized landscape continued to hang steadfast onto the American dream — the notion that good jobs, a stable future, and place for the family would always be attainable so long as you worked hard and believed that God had a special place in His notoriously capricious heart for the “real” America.

Shuttered steel works in Youngstown, Ohio, the poster-child for the failed working-class American dream.

Shuttered steel works in Youngstown, Ohio, the poster-child for the failed working-class American dream.

Which brings us back to the rising mortality rates of the same group of people who populate towns like Hubbard, Ohio. If the 30-plus year conservative cultural and economic experiment has shown us nothing else, it has shown that the American Dream is now more of a pipe dream, even for that most “authentic” group of “real” Americans, the white working class. Decent jobs continue to dissipate like mist on the Mahoning River, while wages and pensions continue to fall deeper into the bottomless pit of cut-to-the-bone, race-to-to-the-bottom economic downsizing enforced in the name of “flexibility” and “efficiency.” Thus, whiteness has lost much – though not all — of its economic privilege, especially for those white people who work with their hands.

Case and Deaton note that blacks and Hispanics, two other traditionally working-class groups, haven’t experienced the same increase in mortality rates as working-class whites. Perhaps this is because, historically, blacks and Hispanics have had no white privilege to lose. They’ve known both economic hardship and cultural rejection in a way that even the most downtrodden blue-collar whites couldn’t be expected to relate to.

Commenting on the white working class mortality shock, The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher writes that, “white people do not know how to suffer successfully.” By this he means that because whiteness has, for the entirety of U.S. history, served as a point of distinction and supremacy in contrast to the non-whiteness of blacks, Native Americans, and other racialized minority groups who existed outside of “mainstream” society, the loss of whiteness as an economic benefit comes as a real and legitimate shock. Simply put: you don’t recognize a privilege ‘til it’s gone.

Yet puzzlingly, Dreher thinks that economic hardships are draining working-class whites’ desire to go to church, which, in turn, is contributing to a rise in depression, alienation, and self-medication. Referencing a study by sociologist Brad Wilcox, Dreher notes that:

The changes in the American economy over the past few decades have worked to alienate working-class whites from religious life because of the way the white working class connects its sense of self, and of justice, to the ability to be rewarded for hard work, being honest, playing by the rules, and delaying gratification. When this formula fails, they don’t know how to deal with it.

This explanation smacks of wanting to both have your cake and not get sick from the obvious sugar overdose that comes with inhaling a sickly combination of bleached flour, lard, and genetically modified, intestine-coating corn syrup. Dreher can’t quite cop to the possibility that unbridled capitalism might be draining working-class communities of financial stability, and that this phenomenon just might cause an epidemic of stress, demoralization, resentment, alienation, and depression among people for whom the American Dream is turning out to be a nightmare. Instead, Dreher contends that working-class whites are killing themselves because they lack the initiative to darken the door of the local house of worship.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Conservatives are loath to link social problems to their cherished secular religion of free-market capitalism. Even less hard-line conservatives like Dreher, who writes some of the most penetrating and brilliant analysis of modern American culture you’ll come across, fall into this trap. Thus, they’ll perform astounding feats of mental gymnastics trying to find other reasons for working-class social problems that DON’T have anything to do with the fact that the destabilizing forces of scorched-earth global capitalism are turning making a living into suffering and dying.

Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told blue-collar workers to believe in America, even if they couldn't rely on America's economic system.

Former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told blue-collar workers to believe in America, even if they couldn’t rely on America’s economic system.

Among the most notorious of these offenders is Charles Murray, an odious social Darwinist who masquerades as a legitimate social scientist by riding a seemingly endless wave of right-wing think tank dollars. Murray is most (in)famous for his 1996 book The Bell Curve, in which he argues that white people are smarter than black people because white people have bigger brains. Yep. You heard me.

In his 2012 book, Coming Part: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray argues that since the 1960s, a nefarious cabal of liberal “elites” have taken control of American culture and, through their libertine disregard for faith, family, and tradition, cultivated a general decline in the American work ethic. This disregard for work and tradition has infected working-class white communities and sapped the blue-collar will to persevere in the face of increasing economic hardships. The fact that those increasing economic hardships – as opposed to some vaguely articulated cultural decline – might better explain white working-class problems never occurs to Murray. After all, recognizing the role that capitalism plays in disrupting the bedrock traditions that conservatives claim to revere is tantamount to admitting that Ronald Reagan didn’t single-handedly crush the Soviet Union with a tube sock stuffed full of jelly beans.

Conservatives pay plenty of lip service to the “forgotten man” (except for Donald Trump, who thinks the forgotten man’s wages are too high), but they can’t in good faith match the authentic concern that leaders like FDR had for the laboring classes. To do so would mean stepping on the toes of “the comparative few who seek to retain or to gain position or riches.” Roosevelt, however imperfectly, fought the “comparative few” in the name of the forgotten man. By contrast, conservatives, both then and now, either speak for, or ARE the comparative few. Hence, the Right is happy to play to the forgotten white man’s prejudices – to make the forgotten white man think that minorities, gays, feminists, atheists, socialists, etc. are to blame for the troubles in America’s working-class communities.

When it comes to pointing out how free-market capitalism has rendered the forgotten man even more forgotten, however, the Right is a thousand wolves in a thousand sheep’s costumes. In working-class communities across America, from Hubbard, Ohio to Chino, California, the loss of job opportunities, the erosion of stable incomes, and the punishing cost of medical care have made living a decent life terribly indecent. Going to church regularly and maintaining “traditional” values are meaningless exercises in a world where the source of your next meal and the money for your child’s operation are as difficult to locate as the sense of pride that comes with being gainfully employed. America’s working-class communities, white or otherwise, deserve better. They deserve not to be forgotten.

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