The 2016 election is about class. “For the first time in a generation, the working class is front and center in an election cycle,” one MarketWatch writer proclaimed. Commentators fret that Hillary Clinton has “lost” the working class and that Donald Trump has risen to prominence on the backs of “white trash.” (Never mind that Trump voters are, on average, wealthier than Clinton’s constituency.) Bernie Sanders even calls himself the working class candidate. This demonstrates just how fuzzy this category is — though Sanders advocates for the working class, he has spent his career in politics, not manual or wage labor. There are lots of other misconceptions about class in America, too. Here, we debunk five.
Working class is white and male.
Trump is often credited with engaging the working class. He “won with the working class voters the GOP forgot,” blared one Breitbart column. Meanwhile, “Hillary is losing white working Joes,” proclaimed the Toronto Star. Even Sanders argued that Democrats had allowed Republicans “to capture the votes of the majority of working people in this country.”
Of course, that’s true only if you ignore Asians, Latinos and African Americans. “Factor them into the population of ‘working people,’” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes, “and Democrats win that group, handily.”
This gets at something important: America has never housed some monolithic entity called the “working class.” As early as 1791, Alexander Hamilton argued that those best suited for factory work were women and children, which became the norm in textile mills until child labor laws were passed in the 20th century. Chinese workers built the Transcontinental Railroad; immigrants labored in the Ohio steel industry; whites and blacks toiled side by side in 20th-century Louisiana sawmills.
Today’s working class is even more diverse. A recent study found that more than half of all Hispanics and African Americans identify as working class. Additionally, about 50 percent of women see themselves as working class. Another report predicted that people of color will make up the majority of the American working class by 2032.
Most don’t notice class differences.
When surveyed, the vast majority of Americans say they are either middle class or working class. Indeed, political scientist Charles Murray found that Americans have traditionally refused to call themselves rich or poor. This, he wrote in his book “Coming Apart,” “reflected a national conceit that had prevailed from the beginning of the nation: America didn’t have classes, or, to the extent that it did, Americans should act as if we didn’t.” The desire to erase class divisions goes all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, who believed that the North American continent would flatten classes into a “happy mediocrity.”
In truth, though, the United States has always been a stratified country. In Franklin’s time, people were sorted into three classes: “better,” “middling” and “meaner.” The people at the bottom were seen as coarse, vulgar, unfinished — composed of baser materials. Thomas Jefferson described the upper echelon of the Virginia planter class as pure-blood aristocrats; those who married beneath their station produced children who were “half-breeds.”
In the 19th century, Alabama lawyer and author Daniel Hundley defined class in ancestral terms, laying out seven different options. At the top, he placed an inherited aristocracy, descendants of royal Cavalier blood. At the bottom was “white trash,” heirs of the wretched poor dumped in the American colonies.
Today, record inequality divides the rich and the poor. Our country’s wealthy “1 percent” takes home 20 percent of all pretax income, double their 1980 share. For most middle-class and lower-income families, income has either stagnated or fallen. In short, Americans have not escaped class hierarchies, but reinvented them generation by generation.
Class mobility is uniquely American.
Since America’s founding, its politicians have promised a society unbound by class. Jefferson once said that America had “no paupers.” Facing down Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, Vice President Richard Nixon claimed in 1959 that the United States was a “classless society.” Even President Obama described the idea that each generation should be wealthier than the one before as a “founding precept” of the American Dream.
Indeed, Americans are more optimistic about their chances of getting ahead than people in other places. But in reality, it’s harder to rise above your class in the United States than in just about any other developed country; economic mobility is much more possible in places like Japan, Germany and Australia. Socialist author Michael Harrington captured this devastating reality in his 1962 book “The Other America”: The poor were poor, he wrote, because “they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents.”
With talent and hard work, you can rise.
It’s a tale as old as Horatio Alger: Anyone can make it in America, no matter their upbringing. As CNN put the notion , “Through hard work and perseverance, even the poorest people can make it to middle class or above.”
But actually, it’s hard to rise above your income level. In cities such as Atlanta, New York and Washington, a child raised in a poor family has a less than 10 percent chance of becoming wealthy in his or her lifetime. It’s not much better in other parts of the country.
There are lots of reasons. Our education-funding system perpetuates inequality. Children in poor families more frequently attend poorer schools and receive fewer enrichment opportunities. As a result, they’re less likely to attend college and earn a degree. Data shows that children from families with incomes of at least $120,000 score much better on the SATs than those from households earning $20,000 or less.
Sociologists have also found that parents’ wealth is one of the best predictors of a child’s economic success. Rich families are more likely to own property and to pass wealth on to their offspring. In America, land ownership is one of the best ways to preserve wealth — and share it with the next generation. As the economist Joseph Stiglitz said in his book “The Great Divide”: “America is no longer the land of opportunity that it (and others) like to think it is. . . . To a large extent, the American Dream is a myth.”
Class oppression less than racial oppression.
This is a common trope. As Sanders said at a debate this spring: “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.” Other commentators have said that black middle-class families are worse off than poor white ones.
They’re dead wrong. Americans have a long history of making life harder for the poor, no matter their race. Jim Crow’s infamous poll tax divested poor whites as well as poor blacks of the right to vote. During the New Deal, Southern politicians (except Huey Long) refused to extend Social Security to farm laborers, discriminating against blacks and whites alike. Even our current tax policies penalize the poor. In 2009, the top 1 percent of earners paid 5.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the poorest 20 percent paid 10.9 percent.
Class power takes many forms. Its enduring force, its ability to project hatred toward the lower classes, was best summed up by two presidents 175 years apart. In 1790, then-Vice President John Adams argued that Americans not only scrambled to get ahead; they needed someone to disparage. “There must be one, indeed, who is the last and lowest of the human species,” he wrote. Lyndon Johnson came to the same conclusion in explaining the racism of poor whites: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Nancy Isenberg, a history professor at Louisiana State University, is author of “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.”