White Americans’ economic hardships and Trump’s big win: What a new report reveals

Then-candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters in Akron, Ohio, in August.
Then-candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters in Akron, Ohio, in August.
(Angelo Merendino / Getty Images)
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The Washington Post

Roughly a third of white working-class Americans said that they have cut back on food or meals in the past year to save money. A similar share said it would be difficult — if not impossible — for them to cover an emergency expense of $400. And among those who live in the same town where they grew up, only 17% said the quality of life there has improved.

Those are a few of the results of a detailed new survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and Atlantic magazine. The report reveals the economic and material hardships afflicting the white working class, one of the report’s authors says, lending insight into why so many people in this group were willing to gamble on Donald Trump, a candidate with no governing experience, in the presidential election.

As many of these voters felt they had little to lose, they were undeterred by Trump’s failure to spell out with any degree of detail how he would deliver on promises that experts repeatedly cautioned were unrealistic, said the research institute’s Dan Cox, one of the authors of the report.


“Many folks — they can’t wait for a white paper, or a 12-point plan. They need help immediately,” Cox said in explaining support for Trump. There was, he said, “a recognition that there was some danger with it too, but that it was, sort of, worth the risk.”

Indeed, when it comes to policy details, the white working class supports many economic proposals associated with Democrats, not Republicans. Fifty-three percent of those surveyed supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and 58% said the rich should pay more in taxes. (Those figures are similar to the results for the general population.)

Global trade was one issue on which Trump may have appealed to many of his voters by deviating from GOP orthodoxy, and by distancing himself from Hillary Clinton, who during the campaign turned against a prominent free-trade agreement that she had previously supported. Among the white working class, 60% said free-trade agreements were mostly harmful.

After Trump’s surprise victory, many observers continue to debate whether economic distress or anxiety about race, immigration and cultural change motivated his supporters. The survey suggests that all of these were important to Trump’s success, but also that a sense of cultural displacement has been an especially powerful component of the president’s appeal among the white working class, Cox said.

Those who agreed that they sometimes felt like a stranger in their own country, or that U.S. culture had to be protected from foreign influences, were much more likely to support Trump, the survey found. “The cultural touchstones were really salient in the election,” Cox said.

At the same time, he added, it is difficult to distinguish among the many motivations of Trump’s supporters, Cox said.


“You can’t completely divorce it from the economic experience of these folks — the fears of economic insecurity,” he said. “That’s certainly in the mix.”

On the whole, about as many white-working class people say they are worse off financially today than they were as children as say they are better off, according to the survey.

The analysis defines the white working class as those who lack a four-year college degree and are paid by the hour or by the job, a definition that excludes many white-collar employees in salaried positions regardless of their education. Retirees were included based on the work they did before they retired, and students were excluded unless they explicitly described themselves as working or lower class in the survey.

The stress of making ends meet from day to day contributes to elevated rates of depression and addiction in white working-class families, Cox said: “It’s really tragic and heartbreaking that that kind of insecurity and stability causes all sorts of problems downstream.”

Among the white working class, 38% said that they or someone in their household had suffered from depression, compared with 26% of white college graduates. Eight percent of white working-class respondents said the same about drug addiction, while the figure for white college graduates was 3%. Alcoholism also appears to be somewhat more prevalent in white working-class households than among white college graduates (12% versus 9%).

Members of the white working class seem to be giving up on the kinds of institutions that have traditionally provided a measure of stability and economic opportunity to American life, particularly colleges and universities. Among white Americans with college degrees, 63% said getting a degree was “a smart investment in the future,” but among the white working class, that figure was just 44%. In this group, a majority (54%) described getting a degree as a risky decision “that may not pay off in the end.”


This group’s skepticism about higher education parallels its detachment from other prominent institutions, including churches. Aside from weddings and funerals, 58% of the white working class goes to church even once a year, the survey shows. Among white college graduates, that figure is 66%.

Members of the white working class are less involved in their communities outside of religion as well. Thirty-six percent said they never participated in secular organizations such as book clubs, sports teams, neighborhood associations or parent-teacher associations. Just 16% of white college graduates said they never took part in these groups.

“It’s sort of been part of the American dream, that you work hard, you get an education, you can get ahead,” Cox said. “The fact that white working-class Americans are less likely to believe that, I think, really shows the dire situation that they believe themselves to be in.”

Less than half of the white working class believes that people who work hard can still get ahead, the survey found, and 61% say the nation’s best days are in the past.

That pessimism contrasts with the feelings of white college graduates — just 43% of whom say the country’s best days are behind it — and with those of people of color. Although black and Latino Americans are often worse off economically than those in the white working class, they have found reasons to be optimistic about the future, Cox said. For instance, 56% of black respondents in the survey and 68% of Latino respondents viewed a college degree as a way to get ahead.

If their bet on Trump doesn’t pay off, Cox said, the president might find the white working class abandoning him. Asked how well they felt Trump understood their communities’ problems, about half the white working class — 51% — answered “not too well” or “not well at all.” Those figures suggest Trump might not have long to deliver.


“It’s unclear how loyal this group will be to him,” Cox said.

Ehrenfreund writes for the Washington Post.