The Unraveling of White Working-Class America

grandpa

My maternal grandfather, a milkman, died 21 years ago today.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, journalists Bob Davis and Gary Fields have written a very interesting piece about the decline of working-class community in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is titled “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Arises.”  This piece needs to be read alongside the Jedidiah Purdy piece that we posted on last week.  Populist voters are not just hillbillies and tea partiers, they are also members of the white ethnic working class–the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in this country in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

Davis and Fields argue that “Donald Trump gets strong support where churches, civic groups and safety nets are in trouble.”  It is yet another version of the argument Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam made in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Here is a taste:

The buckling of social institutions fundamental to American civic life is deepening a sense of pessimism and disorientation, while adding fuel to this year’s rise of political populists like Donald Trump  and Bernie Sanders.

Here and across the U.S., key measures of civic engagement ranging from church attendance to civic-group membership to bowling-league participation to union activity are slipping. Unlocked doors have given way to anxiety about strangers. In Reading, tension between longtime white residents and Hispanic newcomers has added to the unease.

Read the entire piece here.

This makes perfect sense to me, although I can only speak anecdotally. I grew up in white working class America.  I am the son of a general contractor and a housewife.  I am the grandson of a milkman and a Teamster.  My extended family are (or were) plumbers, carpenters, police officers, linemen, mechanics, tavern-owners, beer distributors, backhoe operators, secretaries, and housewives.  My mother’s side of the family built our local volunteer fire company. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of bowling trophies I earned from the Saturday morning leagues I participated in as a kid.  We spent our Labor Days, Memorial Days, and July 4ths with one another–throwing horseshoes, playing softball, swimming in an above-ground pool, solving the problems of the world over hot dogs and beer, and going to parades and town carnivals that featured ferris wheels and other rides mounted on trucks.

It was a good childhood, although I now know that my parents shielded me, my brothers, and my sister from the hardships.  It was also a pretty white upbringing.  I think there were one or two African Americans in my graduating class.  I don’t remember any Latino classmates.  My elders were suspicious of newcomers who did not look like us. As a young boy this attitude was hard to ignore.  The real divisions in my community were class-based.  I lived in the older, more working-class part of town.  The other side of town was decidedly upper-middle class and professional.

The world of my childhood no longer exists.  Sure, some of my family still live in the North Jersey town where I grew up, but they will be the first to tell you that it is a very different place.  The working class community of my youth has been replaced by new housing developments–lots of so-called McMansions–filled with white collar immigrants from non-western countries.  (This is largely because the school system in my home town remains very strong).  The small Cape Cods and split-levels that still dot the landscape look like they are remnants of some strange universe that existed long ago.  Most of my extended family is gone.  My grandparents’ generation–the generation that helped build this town–has passed away.  Some of my parents’ generation is still around, but others have retired and moved elsewhere.  They probably feel the loss harder than anyone.

Most of my extended family–especially my parents and their siblings, siblings-in-laws, and friends are probably going to pull the lever for Trump in November for the same reasons that the people in Reading, Pennsylvania will be voting for Trump.  Some really like Trump.  Others are voting for him because they hate Hillary and especially hate Obama.  Many of them are Christians and thus believe that a vote for Trump will help them bring back (through Supreme Court nominations) the morality of the Christian nation that has been lost.  Or at least this is what they are told by their favorite conservative talk radio hosts.  But a vote for Trump, they believe, will also bring back jobs and in some small way restore the sense of community that they have lost.

3 thoughts on “The Unraveling of White Working-Class America

  1. I found similar themes in Putnam’s new “Our Kids” and in Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart”.

    I’m not 100 percent sold on this, though. There’s the danger it’s old (me) white males putting a golden glow on the past, or rootless academics misjudging the extent of actual community. The Post has a weekly real estate series called “Where We Live”, in which they write about small communities in the DC area (sometimes subdivisions or developments or whatever). It’s interesting how often they describe a real community (a couple hundred houses) that’s got some history.

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  2. It’s the modern conceit that a nation is no more than the sum of its systems, laws and government. That you can’t plunk down any random assortment of people in close geographical proximity and call it a community should be self-obvious, but comes as news to some of this nation’s elite.

    The downside of diversity
    A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life. What happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth?

    http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/08/05/the_downside_of_diversity/
    2007:

    IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

    Indeed, “Stronger Together” is Hillary’s pitch. However…

    But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite.

    Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

    “The extent of the effect is shocking,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

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