Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

I learned two things when I opened White Working Class.  One, I am a class migrant (“someone who has moved from one class to another”).  Two, apparently I’m not working class at all, and never was.  Williams curiously defines “working class” to mean middle class.

She defines working class as: “Americans . . . with household incomes above the bottom third but below the top 20%.”  She adds in as well “families with higher incomes but no college graduates,” highlighting the increasing relevance of education to class in America.  This results in a range of family incomes from $41,005 to $131,962.  Williams has a point when she says that almost all Americans consider themselves middle class.  But calling couples who make $130,000 a year “working class” is silly.  Williams contrasts the working class with “elites,” i.e., “Americans with household incomes in the top 20% and at least one member who is a college graduate.”  This elite is largely a professional and managerial elite (PME).

By this measure I was only working class for a brief few years between grad school and law school.  Otherwise I have been poor or elite my entire life.

(I don’t like Williams’ definition, but for the purposes of this post, when I say “working class,” I mean working class as she defines it.)

Williams was motivated to write this book by attempts to answer “the kinds of questions people tend to ask me in blunt private moments.  Questions like, ‘Why doesn’t the working class get with it and go to college?’ and ‘Why don’t they just move to where the jobs are?’”  I will focus on those two questions first.


College and the Working Class

One reason members of the working class don’t go to college is that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to go to college, because a college degree isn’t a sufficiently useful credential for every job.  Our public policies, and especially the public discourse in the news, is almost obsessively focused on college.  This reflects the biases of policymakers—college graduates almost to a man and woman—and of the elites who have an outsized influence public policy, rather than the economic reality.  Even today, only around a third of adult Americans have a college degree. 

A college degree is less valuable for members of the working class.  They lack the social capital to maximize their investment: “Working-class kids worry they might end up with a first-class degree and still fail to get a job because they don’t know the unwritten social codes of professional life.”  And we have evidence that class bias matters.  For example, Williams writes about a study showing that top law firms responded to subtle clues as to social class in resumes (it was probably a mistake to list “old time music” as an interest when I was applying to law firm jobs).

College is a risk.  Williams points out that “an increasing number of male college grads end up in low- or medium- skilled jobs” and that between 15 and 20% of “college graduates earn less than does the average high-school graduate.”  (I would have liked to learn who these people are and whether they are more likely to come from the PME or the working class.)  This after college tuition has risen at well above the rate of inflation for decades.

The working class values devalues a college education because so many of the jobs it opens up are “pencil pusher” jobs that the working class doesn’t value.  The working class does value, on the other hand, the farmers who feed the country and the oil workers who keep the economy moving.  They have a point.

And working class high school students are sometimes steered away from top-tier schools.  My guidance counselor did even though she knew my grades were good enough for a top-tier school.

But, still, the “rigid, highly supervised jobs” of the working class “often are boring, repetitive, or both, which makes the work psychologically challenging.”  This is nothing new, although there are fewer of them.  There are, of course, more interesting and remunerative jobs available.  But we have increasingly walled off jobs with occupational licensure.  And we culturally denigrated the skilled trades (now facing a labor shortage).  We killed vocational training because it made elites uncomfortable.  Up-credentialing—requiring an expensive college or master’s degree where unnecessary—created an unnecessary bias toward families with money and the cognitive elite.


Economic Mobility

Why don’t members of the working class move to where the jobs are?  They have in the past—heck, look at the name of my blog!  But when they moved, they largely moved as family units.

The professional and managerial elite and the working class build networks in fundamentally different ways.  The large “entrepreneurial networks” elites work assiduously to build, largely for the professional benefits, are seen as insincere by the working class (the working class values sincerity; “[t]he professional elite values irony and polish”).  I take naturally to building those networks, but I have a bad habit of mistaking them for something other than the transactional relationships they are.

The working class, on the other hand, rely on “clique networks,” “where everybody knows everyone else and ties run deep.”  My mom moved to my hometown as a pre-teen; she was married to my dad a couple years before she became “one of them.”  But almost twenty years after my dad died one of us she remains.  (One of the people we met up with the other month when we took the baby down was my uncle’s ex-wife, despite them being long since divorced and my uncle and cousins long since dead.)  These “clique networks” (there is a certain class bias baked right into the names, by the way) provide “material help with child car and home improvements—things wealthier families buy.”  This makes working class families less mobile, because clique networks are valuable, local, and cannot easily be recreated.

“Moving for a job doesn’t strike the professional elite as odd, because the professional elite relies heavily on work to shape identity.”  The working class sees it very differently.  People from back home care little about my job.  There seemed to be a general sense (before we had our daughter), that any professional success was at least canceled out by a failure to stay at home or start a family.  There is, after all, “the question of what moving away might imply: that you care more about your job than your community.”  Family is a priority to the working class in a way that it is not to the elite.  You might see that as necessary to the functioning of the “clique networks”; I would also argue that it is morally superior.


Institutions, or “Little Platoons”

Blue collar families embrace institutions that promote the traits they value, like stability and self-discipline.  Especially religion.  (This is an area is which Williams’ odd definition of working class can be a bit misleading.  According to Pew, the annual household income tranche most likely to attend religious services at least once a week is $50,000 to $99,999.  And Williams may make too much of the difference.  The range from the lowest tranche ($100,000+) to the highest tranche is only from 30% to 37%.)

Another institution promoting stability and self-discipline is the military, which “provides a reset button—a proxy for being brought up in a stable and ordered environment.”  Another way to look at it is as the literal military platoon being a Burkean platoon—one that recruits and pays.

(Williams frequently cites J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, by the way, a book I will get to in the near-ish future.)

Williams sees the working class as having a “communitarian streak” that “manifests itself in other, clearly laudable ways.  Households earning $50,000 to $75,000 give away far more of their discretionary income (7.6%) than do households earning $100,000 or more (4.2%).”  Presumably this undercounts, because it doesn’t include informal charity (including non-monetary charity) through clique networks.

Along with the extended family, these institutions provide the backbone of civil society.  Williams’ “working class” should be lauded for keeping them going, especially since Charles Murray’s work shows civic engagement has dropped sharply and most of all among the actual poor.


Class Cluelessness

“Class consciousness” has been replaced by “class cluelessness” and “class callousness.”  Elites went from honoring the working class to scorning it.  Largely for reasons Charles Murray lays out in Coming Apart, I think (another books I will review in the near-ish future).

This leads to an intense bias in public discourse (which is dominated by elites) toward elite values as opposed to working class values.  Williams tends to share at least some of that.  She carefully documents the working class but talks about them like a bug through glass.  There is a lot to be said for working class values, and not just on family.  “[W]hen asked what traits they admire, both black and white working-class Americans mention moral traits, in contrast to elites, who derive self-worth more from merit than morality.”

Part of overcoming the growing class divide in America is elites recognizing that elite folkways are just that, not “good taste.”


The 2016 Election, Sex, and Race

Some of the strongest parts of the book deal with the 2016 election.

Hillary’s campaign was class-clueless because it focused on shattering the glass ceiling and “[s]hattering the glass ceiling means giving privileged women access to the high-level jobs now held almost exclusively by privileged men.”  (It also wouldn’t exactly be a great step forward for the working man or woman for political power to pass between spouses.)  Married working class women instead responded to the weakness in the blue collar job market on which their husbands relied.

Elites and the working class see sex and race in different ways.  “For working-class women, becoming a homemaker signals a rise in status, not only for herself but for her entire family.  But for PME women, becoming a stay-at-home mother entails a fall in status, from investment banker to ‘just a homemaker.’”  The treatment of sexism is also class-coded.  “When it comes to gender equality, elite men tend to talk the talk but don’t walk the walk; working-class men walk the walk but don’t talk the talk.  For example, the average working-class man is less likely to espouse egalitarian [rhetoric] than his professional-class counterpart; but he spends more time caring for his children than does his elite counterpart.”  But public discourse focuses on the former over the latter.

Williams also points out, quite correctly, that PME and working class whites express racism in different ways, ways that reflect their own relative values: the PME construe people of color as lacking in merit and the working class construe people of color as lacking in morality.  The anti-racism norms of the PME, though, focus on the sort of racism more common among the working class.

Working class views on success also partially (very partially) explain why Trump is (and has been, going back well before his political career) popular with the working class.  They distrust the professional and managerial elite but admire business owners.  “For many in the working class, becoming a member of the professional class is an ambiguous achievement—you have more money, yes, but you also have to adopt new folkways, like two-facedness.”  This is something I have struggled with, and in many ways it is as constraining as “boring” and “repetitive” working class jobs.  Owning a business, on the other hand, represents a freedom from that.  And real estate is seen (incorrectly) as more real and valuable than wealth made up of shares in the residual earnings of a corporation.


Williams’ Prescriptions

Less worthwhile is the prescriptive section.  Williams certainly has her political and ideological bias, and your view of this section will probably depend in large part on your own priors.

I don’t share Williams’ priors, but it is silly to act as if there is a level of anti-government propaganda that is insurmountable by a media, public education system, higher education system, and the bureaucracy itself that are largely dominated by the Left.  More likely?  The working class are unimpressed by their interactions with government, they see public resources siphoned off for the benefit of the elite, and they have just enough money to pay taxes and for those taxes to hurt.

Williams says some very sensible stuff.  “Rather than turning the climate change debate into a fight over the authority of science, why not enlist the support of farmers who see the changes on the ground as desertification sets in?”  But doesn’t that also mean talking to the people affected by onerous regulations directed at combatting climate change?  Working class Americans would tend to respect the traditionalism and work ethic they share with immigrants.  But “working-class whites, themselves disciplined by rules, tend to disapprove of those who don’t follow them.”  And the national discourse focuses on illegal immigration, which saps support for legal immigration.

“Means-tested programs inadvertently set the ‘have-a-littles’ against the ‘have-nots.’”  True welfare stands in contrast with programs tied to work, which working class people see as “an income that a person deserves and has basically worked for.”  Given how those programs have been sold, that makes sense.  Williams is wrong, then, to echo the oft-repeated mockery of Tea Party members demanding that government take its “hands off our Medicare!”  Medicare is billed as being something we pay for through our payroll taxes.

I won’t belabor my various policy disagreements with Williams.  In part because it is a bit of a moot point.  “The working class—of all races—has been asked to swallow a lot of economic pain while elites have focused on noneconomic issues: this is the first generation in American history to experience lifetime downward mobility compared with people their age a decade before.”


The Economic Divide and Conclusion

There was a big economic shift over the past several decades.  “The typical white working-class household income doubled” between 1945 and 1975 but has been stagnant since.  During that period, “professional-elite wages . . . increased dramatically, while the wages of high school educated men fell 47%.”  The malaise looks much worse when you get beyond wages.  “The percentage of men so discouraged they are not looking for work has tripled.”  The number of white children living in poor neighborhoods has increased sharply.  And “[w]hite working-class men now are dying younger than they did a generation ago.”

Williams describes disability as the “most valuable” program for the working class, but it is impossible to ascribe the drastic increase in disabled—1 in 4 working-age adults are on disability in Hale County, Alabama—as reasonably related to actual disability rates given changes in work and in medical care.  Disability instead operates as a crude form of welfare with extremely negative cultural effects (see my review of Night Comes to the Cumberlands).

It is one thing to criticize working class men for failing to adapt to a changing market, but PME men are doing so from the perch of high-status, high-paying jobs in healthy professions.

Williams notes that the working class have shifted from elite folkways to those of the poor when it comes to having children before marriage.  Williams sees “the decline in marriage as a symptom of the working class’s economic decline—not, as some argue, its cause.”  Charles Murray disagrees, as do I.  People can be poor as shit and happily married—ask my mom.  There is a deeper issue here.

Williams’ political prescriptions are off.  On the other hand, her calls for elites to better understand and appreciate the working class and their values are more than welcome.  But while the populist rebellion against elites is very real and is rooted in valid complaints (and of which Trump is merely an opportunist), the issues with the working class are largely cultural issues.  Issues that cannot be fixed politically, because government cannot fix culture (though it can break it), and issues that cannot be fixed by elites, because people from outside a culture cannot fix that culture (although the informational role of outside observers is vital).

There is also great value here, as in Coming Apart, in focusing on white Americans.  Public discourse in American tends to ineluctably be shaped by race, and not without reason.  But it can obscure real issues.  The problems of the black working class, or the Hispanic working class, are not that different than the problems of the white working class.  But, as Williams shows, in the US the Left tends to talk about the white working class the same way that the Right talks about the non-white working class, and neither are helpful.

The biggest takeaway is that education is increasingly driving both the definition and importance of class in America.  This is a big deal.  We don’t sufficiently understand what it means, and we aren’t worrying enough about it.

I have more I could say, but this review is already way too long as it is, and these are themes that I will be returning to repeatedly here at Hillbilly Highways.  Feel free to sound off or ask questions in the comments.

4 of 5 Stars.


Disclosure: I received a review copy of White Working Class via NetGalley.


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15 thoughts on “Nonfiction: White Working Class by Joan Williams

  1. So much here, and thank you for it. One thing that tripped my trigger: “But for PME women, becoming a stay-at-home mother entails a fall in status, from investment banker to ‘just a homemaker.’”

    My mother loathed much of what passed for “feminism” because of this. She was a very creative person who chose to be a homemaker (when that was an economically viable choice) and raised four children, one of whom was very severely handicapped. She resented a movement that purported to be about “choice” for women, yet denigrated her choice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Restricting people’s choices grates against my libertarian priors, especially under the guise of be in favor of choice.

      To put it another way, my wife is more of a traditionalist than I am. Am I to explain to her why she is wrong?

      Williams has plenty to say on the subject. For people of modest means, staying home is about the husband making enough money that both parents don’t HAVE to work to get by. The mother is making a choice to forego work so she can spend time on more important things.

      I am an elite in this, I am afraid. As much as it means to me to have been the primary caregiver while juggling work this summer, I will be happy to shuttle no-angel off to daycare so I return real focus to work again once the fall semester starts.


  2. When I was in college, I drove a truck for a glass company in L.A. The glaziers were union journeymen and master tradesmen. Working at the Toyota headquarters on one job, we were subjected to preening verbal jibes from fat cubicle monkeys who could not hope to approach the level of skill and knowledge that the glaziers possessed — in a variety of arenas. One, for example, was an ace drummer and sound engineer.

    Being young and aggressive, my initial reaction was anger. But then it suddenly became clear to me what was going on: These “men” were terribly intimidated and felt compelled to assert their supposedly superior status in front of the women who worked there. Once that was understood, the fun began…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Private sector unionization is an area in which my views have softened, if only because of unions potential to serve as Burkean platoons.

      We are really crazy in the way we devalue skilled trades as a society. My dad was good–extremely good–with his hands. He only had a tech school degree picked up in his 40s, but I can’t even begin to approach his abilities in that area. Being a class migrant gives a certain amount of perspective.


  3. Matthew

    Most of the female checkers when I worked at a grocery store would have loved to have a choice whether or not to work. They may have chosen to work anyway, but it’s a nice position to be in. Feminists who look down on housewives and anti-feminists who tell women they have to be housewives always come from an elite background.

    The tendency to look down on the skilled trades is disturbing. Those jobs are necessary for society. Probably more so than a lot of white collar work.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Is there any hope of changing the word “college” to mean “post high school education from phlebotomy to philosophy”?

    Public universities complain of lowered funding but only educate a tiny slice of the state. Meanwhile, Obama toured the country with a plan to increase funding for community college—which includes lots of vocational training—and no one paid any attention.

    What if we combined them? What if every single high school graduate was admitted to State U, where he could do six months and get a med tech certificate, 3 years (including one year apprenticeship) and be an electrician, or 5 years and be an engineer?

    Kids who fail out of engineering could be plumbers instead of communications majors.

    Do non-college whites resent the whole idea too much? Would it lower the status of English professors too much?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, we definitely undervalue our community colleges. And when we do talk about community colleges, it tends to be as bridge schools for 4-year universities rather than in regards to their also valuable role providing terminal degrees.

      4-year university professors would never go for combining 4-year universities with community colleges because it would lower their status. I understand that the state of Idaho forces Boise State University to play the role of community college as well (how many universities have a truck driving school?), much to the consternation of the BSU people and to the glee of the University of Idaho people. 4-year university professors even have an incentive to bottleneck the community college-to-4-year university pipeline because community colleges take students away from freshman and sophomore classes (and humanities programs really, really need those freshmen and sophomore students these days).

      One advantage to the current community college system is that it provides easy access–not just cheap but local–to both technical training and university-level courses for the working class. So I wouldn’t want to shut down community colleges. 4-year universities should probably partner more with community colleges rather than investing in separate satellite campuses, but, again, you run into the status problem.


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