States of inequality

Political polarization and the US working class

Amid the shock and horror following Donald Trump’s election, mainstream news outlets all sounded the same alarm: White workers had gotten their “revenge.” The headlines were stunningly similar: “How Trump Won: The Revenge of WorkingClass Whites”1; “The Revenge of the White Man”2; “Revenge of the Forgotten Class”3; “Revenge of the Rural Voter”4; “Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites.”5

In this way, the mainstream media created the liberal postelection narrative, parroting Democratic Party leaders frantically seeking to blame someone (other than themselves) for Hillary Clinton’s loss. They settled on the slice of white voters in key Midwestern states who voted for Trump. Many Clinton supporters were openly contemptuous of the so-called white working class, also disparagingly labeled “low information voters.”6 The Daily Kos, for example, wrote: “Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for.”7

The mainstream media’s “white working-class revenge” account was soon proven, however, to be factually incorrect. Perhaps most importantly, the typical Trump voter was middle class, not working class. Trump supporters in the 2016 primaries earned an average of $72,000 per year, well above the national median household income of $55,775—indicating a solid middle-class component among Trump’s core backers. Trump voters in the general election mirrored this income distribution, with two-thirds earning above the national median income.8

The Washington Post reversed its previous claim on June 5, 2017 with the headline, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class.” Based on the American National Election Study of the actual voting figures (rather than morning-after speculation), the article concluded, “White non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That’s a far cry from the working-class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined.”9 But unlike the Posts’s screaming working-class revenge headline immediately after the election, the new story was rolled out quietly—without admitting the Post’s own culpability in peddling such a misleading analysis based on shoddy evidence. For this reason, most people still assume that white working-class voters are the reason Trump sailed to victory in 2016.

Just weeks after the election, early studies of voting data had already begun to disprove the claims of a white working-class outpouring for Trump. After studying the exit poll data in the Rust Belt states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio—which all went to Trump—academic researchers Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr concluded, “Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the Rust Belt collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party. Trump did not really flip white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. Mostly, Democrats lost them.”10

Voting analyst Nate Cohn further substantiated their conclusion: Voter turnout fell significantly among people of color nationwide—and among Black residents in swing-state cities including Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. In Detroit alone, turnout fell by 14 percent.11 Voter participation in one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods, District 15, which is 84 percent Black, declined by 19.5 percent between 2012 and 2016. As one nonvoting resident told the New York Times, “I don’t feel bad. Milwaukee is tired. Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”12

The real story of the 2016 election is the sharp political polarization that allowed both Sanders and Trump to attract mass popular support during the primary season. The bulk of the mainstream media, with their fleeting attention span, failed to appreciate this fact in their election postmortem. Although Sanders spoke from the left and Trump from the right, both candidates acknowledged the failures of the political status quo, which no other politician had done for many decades.

Some commentators criticized the Clinton campaign for purportedly front-loading “identity politics” (i.e., championing the rights of the oppressed)—speculating that this alienated white voters with “economic anxiety” who then had no choice but to reject Clinton and turn to Trump. Columbia University professor Mark Lilla put it perhaps the most crudely in the New York Times: “America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.”13

The mainstream debate thus counterposed “class” politics to so-called “identity” politics—as if combating class inequality and fighting racism, sexism, transphobia, and other forms of oppression are necessarily mutually exclusive. It also left hanging the issue of whether Clinton was a genuine fighter against oppression, or just cynically chasing the votes that her campaign mistakenly calculated would win her a majority in the Electoral College.

The working class is no longer (if it ever was) predominantly white and male, even though this remains the caricature. People of color will very soon become the majority in the US population, and are already close to 50 percent among younger generations.14 Moreover, people of color have always been disproportionately represented within the working class and the poor, due to the economic consequences of racism. While white male workers have suffered enormously in recent decades, Black people and other oppressed sectors of the working class have suffered yet more.

Today’s working class is multiracial, made up of multiple genders and nationalities, and many people with a variety of disabilities. Because of this, combatting oppression is a working-class issue, and will be vital to rebuilding a fighting class-based movement. There is no reason to counterpose oppression and exploitation, when solidarity between all workers will advance the entire working class and all its oppressed members—if the movement champions the rights of all those who suffer oppression.

The electoral consequences of polarization

Most in the media failed to ask the most important questions about the 2016 election before concluding that the white working class, especially in the “flyover country” of the Midwest, has become a bastion of reaction. How many of these same people voted for Obama four years earlier? Millions of them did, a fact the Clinton campaign discovered months before the November election. As Cohn described, “The [Clinton] campaign looked back to respondents who were contacted in 2012, and found large numbers of white working-class voters who had backed Mr. Obama were now supporting Mr. Trump.”15

It is also the case that self-described socialist Bernie Sanders experienced a groundswell of support in the Midwest during the 2016 primaries—winning the Michigan, West Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin primaries—which all went to Trump in the general election. The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey concluded that 12 percent of Sanders’s primary supporters ended up voting for Trump last November. While this is a small portion overall, Newsweek writer Jason Le Miere reported, “In each of the three states that ultimately swung the election for Trump—Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton was smaller than the number of Sanders voters who gave him their vote.”16 The centerpiece of Sanders’s campaign message was that the Democratic Party establishment had sacrificed the interests of the working-class majority at the altar of its corporate donors. Unfortunately, Sanders ran as a Democrat—and the party’s powerbrokers had anointed Clinton as their neoliberal candidate from the beginning. There is no way to know what a Sanders versus Trump contest would have produced, but it is very likely that Sanders would have energized Democratic voters in ways that Clinton could not in the general election.

The 2016 election elevated voting for “the lesser of two evils” to a new level, as Clinton and Trump were the two most unpopular candidates in decades—and undoubtedly many voters and nonvoters alike considered the election as a choice of which road to take to hell. The 2016 election merely highlighted how the Democrats had frittered away their traditional voting base over a period of decades—taking their votes for granted yet offering less than nothing in return, even as working-class living standards plummeted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

Democrats for the leisure class

Bill and Hillary Clinton were among the key architects of the Democratic Party’s open embrace of neoliberalism, beginning in 1985 with the founding of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), shifting the party and its loyalists steadily rightward in the process. The Rev. Jesse Jackson once called the DLC “Democrats for the Leisure Class,” and with good reason: its board of trustees, made up of major donors, included Koch Industries, Aetna, and Coca-Cola, while its executive board included Enron, AIG, Texaco, Chevron, and AT&T, among other corporate giants. The DLC spawned a generation of “New Democrats” to carry out its mission—reshaping the Democratic Party as (more openly) probusiness and much less liberal.17 As Robert Dreyfuss described in The American Prospect, “The DLC thundered against the ‘liberal fundamentalism’ of the party’s base—unionists, blacks, feminists, Greens, and cause groups generally.”18 The DLC closed finally its doors in 2011 on the verge of bankruptcy, but it had already succeeded in its mission. The Clinton Foundation acquired its papers, in a fitting conclusion.

The New Democrats had assumed that they could maintain the party’s voting base by offering a “Republican-lite” alternative as the “lesser evil” at the voting booth. But as the decades passed, the Democrats’ voting base gradually hollowed out among those whose suffering steadily worsened, especially among young people facing bleak futures. And many so-called low information voters were nevertheless very much aware that mainstream Democrats had long ago turned their backs on them in search of a higher­income constituency.

Together, the Clintons personify neoliberalism and its path of destruction for workers. In his 1996 State of the Union Address, Bill Clinton stole the Republican Party’s thunder, declaring, “The era of big government is over.” Reagan had invented the racist myth of the welfare queen, but it was Bill Clinton who ended “welfare as we know it.” He also oversaw the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth in the name of the racist “War on Drugs”—while Hillary Clinton demonized young Black men with the racially charged term “super-predator” to bolster her husband’s efforts. Trump called for building a one-thousand-mile wall at the Mexican border, but Bill Clinton had already built a three-hundred-mile security “smart fence” in the 1990s, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama voted for a seven-hundred-mile fence in 2006 when they were in the Senate.

Hillary Clinton voted in favor of the PATRIOT Act, which enabled the massive roundup and deportation of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 but did not generate a single charge of terrorism. Throughout her political career, she has without exception strongly supported US military intervention abroad, including the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, still wreaking death and destruction in those countries with no end in sight. Indeed, just hours before the Trump administration announced it had launched fifty-nine cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield in April 2017, Clinton had argued that the US “should take out [Assad’s] air fields.”19

Hillary Clinton’s dilemma with would-be voters in 2016

Surely, many would-be Democratic voters viewed Hillary Clinton with skepticism in 2016, since the Clintons’ record is well known. Perhaps her scripted commitment to Black Lives Matter activists seemed both insincere and hypocritical, as did her support for immigrants’ rights. The hundreds of thousands of dollars she earned giving speeches to Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street vultures could not have sat well with those who lost their homes and jobs during the financial crisis, while those same bankers not only got bailed out, but were rewarded with huge bonuses in the years that followed.

Clinton demonstrated just how out of touch she was with the working-class and once solidly Democratic base when she announced at a West Virginia campaign stop that she planned to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”—without offering new training or help finding new jobs for those coal miners whose lives have been upended by job loss.20 As Cohn observed, “In retrospect, the scale of the Democratic collapse in coal country was a harbinger of just how far the Democrats would fall in their old strongholds once they forfeited the mantle of working-class interests.”21

Nature abhors a vacuum, as the old saying goes. The same dictum holds true in politics, and a left—or even a genuinely liberal—flank has been missing in mainstream US politics for decades, in large part because of the rightward shift of the Democratic Party helmed by the Clintons. Once Sanders was out of the picture and Clinton became the Democratic Party candidate in 2016, the vacuum was filled by Trump among millions who could not stomach to vote for another Clinton. As left-wing author Michael Parenti observed after watching many hours of Trump’s speeches, “Contrary to how he was portrayed in the mainstream media Trump did not talk only of walls, immigration bans, and deportations. In fact he usually didn’t spend much time on those themes.” Mainly, Trump talked about bringing lost jobs back.22

There is no doubt that Trump fed the racism and sexism that already exists among large swathes of the US population, but he, like Sanders, was also addressing the burning issue that Clinton ignored: the economic hardship of the working class, which has accelerated since the economic recovery began in earnest in 2010. Both these factors undoubtedly played a role in Trump’s popularity. But it is also the case that roughly 28 percent of Latinx and 27 percent of Asian votes went to Trump, according to exit polls.23 Within the confines of the two-party system, voters are not given the opportunity to vote for their ideal candidate, but rather must settle for whom they perceive as the least harmful.

Clinton did, of course, win the popular vote by nearly three million yet lost the election. Yet, even after her surprise loss, Clinton accepted the results without questioning the legitimacy of the Electoral College—a holdover from slavery, originally designed to give disproportionate weight to Southern slave states in elections by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person. This speaks volumes about the Democrats’ commitment to preserving the political and social status quo that ultimately benefits both major parties, even when they lose elections.24 That status quo includes the power-sharing arrangement between the Democrats and Republicans, devised to prevent third parties from gaining a toehold. Voters unhappy with the state of politics are therefore given no choice other than to “kick the bums out”—only to replace them with the bums from the other party. The two-party system and its limited choices go a long way toward explaining why voters are used to backing candidates with whom they disagree on many issues, often as a vote against the other candidate. Perhaps for this reason, voter turnout in the United States is historically low overall.

Nonvoters and why they matter

Instead of focusing on white voters in swing states who voted for Trump, the media should have paid closer attention to the many millions of people who did not vote—who far outnumber those sectors of the population who voted for either Clinton or Trump in 2016—and as a group tend to hold more liberal views than the rest of the population. This would give a much more accurate sense of the political leanings of the US population, especially those in the working class.

Voter turnout is strongly correlated to class position—extremely high among the wealthiest Americans and falling steadily as incomes decline. Policy analyst Sean McElwee showed that fewer than half of those with incomes of $20,000 or less voted in 2012, while those from households earning more than $75,000 voted at a rate of 77 percent.25 In 2008, fully 99 percent of those in the top 1 and 0.1 percent of incomes voted. As he summarized, “Since the end of World War II, voter turnout has never risen above 65 percent of the electorate. Disproportionately, these non-voting citizens are low-income, young, less educated and people of color.”26

It is also worth bearing in mind the large number of voting-age people not allowed to vote, who are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately made up of Black people and other people of color. The poor make up 55 percent of those who are not allowed to vote in presidential elections—including convicted felons, immigrants, and those residing in the so-called territories of the US.27

Fully four million people who are US citizens but live in US territories, including Puerto Rico, are ruled by the US government but denied the right to vote for president.28 In the past, these territories were more accurately labeled colonies.29 In addition, 6.1 million Americans are barred from voting because of a prior felony conviction. One in every thirteen African Americans has lost their voting rights for this reason.30 The 2016 election was also the first since the Supreme Court struck down key protections of the Voting Rights Act, leading to a surge in voting restrictions, including voter ID requirements, that have been shown to depress the votes of Black, Latinx, poor, and transgender people.

In 2014, McElwee documented why those who have the right to vote decide not to do so—and how this large sector of society leans left of the political mainstream. There are many reasons why low-income people face practical difficulties in exercising this legal right, including difficulty in getting time off work, childcare responsibilities, lack of transportation, and long waiting lines, among other reasons. But 41 percent of nonvoters also said, “My vote doesn’t make a difference anyway,” while 59 percent said, “Nothing ever gets done; it’s a bunch of empty promises.”31 Likewise, Rev. Charles Williams, pastor of King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit and president of the National Action Network of Michigan, said that in 2016, especially among “young people and millennials,” he heard, “I feel like I’m just voting for the lesser of two evils. That doesn’t give you the push to vote.”32

McElwee’s findings also confirmed that nonvoters tend to favor in much larger numbers policies that “make union organizing easier” and provide “more federal assistance for schools,” and agree that “government should guarantee jobs” and “provide health insurance.” Moreover, “while likely voters in the 2012 presidential election split 47 percent in favor of Obama and 47 percent in favor of Romney, 59 percent of nonvoters supported Obama and only 24 percent supported Romney.”33

When the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA surveyed those Obama voters who switched to Trump, along with those who abstained from voting in 2016, it reported in May 2017 that Hillary Clinton had “a Wall Street problem,” and she was completely out of touch with the economic problems ordinary people faced. As the Washington Post reported, “A shockingly large percentage of these Obama-Trump voters said Democrats’ economic policies will favor the wealthy—twice the percentage that said the same about Trump,” while 53 percent said their vote was “more a vote against Clinton” than a vote for Trump. The pollsters concluded that “drop-off voters are decidedly anti­Trump,” describing former Obama voters who didn’t make it to the polls on Election Day.34 Meanwhile, Obama, in a move that underlines the Democrats’ “problem” with ordinary people, accepted a fee of $400,000 for a single speaking engagement with Wall Street’s Cantor Fitzgerald soon after leaving office.

Unequal States of America

The United States is strewn with the wreckage of neoliberalism, its landscape dotted with once-thriving communities built around manufacturing plants where Walmart is now the biggest employer, setting the low standard for local wages. Well before Trump ran for president, the scale of class inequality in the United States was already the worst in the industrialized world. The Allianz Global Wealth Report 2015 reported that the United States possessed a larger amount of personal wealth than any other country—41.6 percent of the global wealth total. At the same time, the United States also had the largest concentration of overall wealth in the hands of the proportionately fewest people, leading it to call the United States the “Unequal States of America.”35

In January 2017, the Economist reported that its Intelligence Unit had downgraded the US from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”—based on low voter turnout, the degree of distrust that the population holds toward government institutions, and the high level of class inequality. “Popular trust in government, elected representatives, and political parties has fallen to extremely low levels in the US. This has been a long-term trend and one that preceded the election of Mr. Trump as the US president in November 2016,” stated the report. It added, “[Trump] appealed to the angry, anti-political mood of large swathes of the electorate who feel that the two mainstream parties no longer speak for them.”36

The neoliberal project over the last forty years has been entirely bipartisan, continuing unabated no matter which party occupied the White House, or whether the economy was in boom or slump. To be sure, Democrats and Republicans have often heatedly bickered over the details of this project—but without either side challenging its overriding goals. The US ruling class began what was then called the “employers’ offensive” in the mid-1970s, before anyone had coined the term neoliberalism to describe it. In 1974, Business Week put forward the plan of the corporate class to shift the balance of class forces decisively in its favor: “It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow — the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more. Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality.”37

That new reality was straightforward, thanks to a coalition of Democrats and Republicans in Congress: a green light for union-busting, corporate deregulation, regressive taxation, and so-called globalization—allowing capital to cross national borders unrestrained in their search for low-wage labor and maximum profits around the world. Meanwhile, the global working class was yet more tightly controlled when attempting to migrate through borders, whether these migrants were fleeing from war, poverty, and hunger or from violent dictators. The neoliberal agenda forced workers on a global scale yet more directly in competition with each other, in a race to the bottom.

The race to the bottom on a global scale

Employers have always threatened to relocate their companies elsewhere as a tactic to keep workers from organizing unions and demanding higher wages. Throughout much of the twentieth century, this usually pitted workers in the northern United States against those in the nonunion South. Neoliberal globalization extended this competition among workers far beyond US borders, as capitalists scoured the world in search of the cheapest wages and operating costs to maximize profits. Thus, the textile industry moved most of its operations to the southern United States by the mid-twentieth century, only to relocate to the Global South in the 1990s and 2000s.

Free trade agreements like NAFTA came to symbolize neoliberalism’s assault on the US working class, but they were just one part of its multipronged attack—and far from its most destructive. There are plenty of reasons why socialists oppose NAFTA and other so-called “free trade” agreements. First and foremost is our opposition to imperialism. NAFTA was “sold” by then-President Bill Clinton partly on the basis that it would bring prosperity to ordinary Mexicans as well as US workers. In reality, NAFTA resulted in the further impoverishment of Mexican workers and wiped out small farmers in Mexico over the course of more than two decades, due to US-subsidized corn and other products. The growth in poverty accelerated Mexican migration to the United States. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in 2014, “From 1994-2000, the annual number of Mexicans emigrating to the United States soared by 79 percent. The number of Mexican-born residents living in the United States more than doubled from 4.5 million in 1990 to 9.4 million in 2000, and peaked at 12.6 million in 2009,” the report stated. 38 This migration, in turn, was used to bolster the Right’s lies that Mexican workers were “stealing” American workers’ jobs.

And while outsourcing US jobs in recent decades, especially to China, certainly played a role in the downward spiral of US wages, increasing technology and automation played a larger role, allowing manufacturers to increase output with far fewer workers. As labor activist and scholar Kim Moody recently argued, “While manufacturing jobs disappeared by the millions [since 1980], manufacturing output increased, so that by 2010 manufacturing production workers were producing four-times what they had in the 1950s and twice their production of 1983.”39

Elsewhere he argued,

A more likely explanation for manufacturing job losses on the scale of the last thirty years or so, one that is internal to the workings of US capitalism and, indeed, capitalism generally, is to be found in the rise of productivity extracted after 1980 by the introduction of lean production methods, new technology, and capital’s accelerated counteroffensive against labor—an explanation based in class conflict itself.40 [Emphasis added.]

Losing the one-sided class war

One of the most central goals of neoliberalism is to crush working-class organizations that could fight against falling wages. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, one of his first presidential actions was the firing of the striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO), crushing the strike and destroying the union (one of the few unions that had endorsed his presidential campaign) and sharply escalating the employers’ offensive. After that, employers were given free rein to force their workers to “give back” hard-earned wages and benefits during contract negotiations and to break unions by hiring professional union-busting firms, even when profits were high. It is not coincidental that strike levels dropped significantly during the 1980s, falling steadily ever since. In February 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that work stoppages over the last decade have been the lowest on record, noting that the “average number of major work stoppages by decade has declined over 95 percent since 1947.”41

Amid this prolonged one-sided class war, union membership also fell sharply, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.7 percent overall in 2016, and just 6.4 percent in the private sector, a level comparable to what existed before the labor upheaval of the 1930s won the legal right to organize unions.42 As of 2014, only 7.4 percent of young workers aged 18-29 were members of unions, even though 55 percent of them viewed unions favorably.43

Indeed, the war on unions escalated over the last decade, as Republican-dominated state legislatures went on anti-union rampage in the Midwest, passing a wave of “right to work” laws that, among other things, allow nonunion workers to withhold union dues even when they benefit from union contracts. Once a hallmark of the anti-union, low-wage South, twenty-eight states had adopted “right to work” by February 2017—including the once union-dense Midwestern states of Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri—with no end in sight.

Historically, low unemployment has led to rising wages and rising confidence among workers as employers facing labor shortages were forced to offer higher compensation.44 By May 2017, unemployment had dropped to 4.3 percent—a low not seen since 2001. But as Wall Street Journal reporter Justin Lahart argues,

It took a long seven years for the unemployment rate to get to 4.3% from the peak of 10% in October 2009. Because of the sluggish growth, businesses never had to scramble, and pay more, to add workers. And at no point did workers feel they were awash in opportunity.

This slow growth doesn’t give people confidence to ask for higher wages. And plenty of workers have never experienced that kind of environment. . . . Only workers in their 40s and older remember the 1990s boom. Maybe the US labor market is turning a bit like Japan’s, where the unemployment has fallen to its lowest level in nearly a quarter-century, but after so many years of disappointment, workers are hesitant to demand higher wages, and employers are hesitant to give them.

The disappearing middle-income earner

The US working class was the highest-paid in the world during the post-World War II economic boom, but its wages entered a downward spiral in the mid-1970s. Today it is the lowest-paid among OECD countries, with the greatest proportion of low-wage jobs, defined as paying less than two-thirds of the nation’s median income. Twenty-six percent of jobs in the US fell into this category, earning less than $23,390 in the OECD’s 2014 report.45

While most media reports have described US wages as “stagnating” over recent decades, the reality is far worse. Most middle-income earners have fallen off the face of the map, either advancing into the upper-income tier or, far more likely for the lower-middle and working class, joining lower income earners.46 In addition, examining wages and incomes does not tell even half the story about those in the lower-income tier, now encompassing much larger numbers of workers as the category of middle-income earners has hollowed out.

Far from its ostensibly “free market” ideology, neoliberalism has produced government austerity for the working class combined with economic welfare for the corporate class. This policy has taken many forms that have severely eroded working-class living standards, including regressive taxes (such as skyrocketing sales taxes); cuts in emergency heating and food stamp subsidies; higher fees for everything from public transportation to traffic tickets; rising premiums and deductibles for health insurance coverage; higher rents; unaffordable childcare costs—among other expenses built into daily life. Almost none of these are adequately incorporated into mainstream analyses of the class divide.

The political establishment perhaps believed that shielding this reality from the mainstream conversation would fool those suffering because of these policies. “Poverty Goes Down, Coverage Goes Up, and America Gets a Raise,” MSNBC declared in a September 2016 report on the Census Bureau finding that not only did all US incomes rise in the previous year, but incomes also grew the fastest for the poorest people.47 We must ask whether this cheerful announcement fooled those workers whose lives have been turned upside down in recent decades. Even by the Census Bureau’s own measurement, in 2015 median household income (which is the level at which 50 percent of the population makes more and the other 50 percent makes less) was lower than in 2007, and lower still than the all-time high in 1999. Further examination also reveals that people in rural areas didn’t share in the increase, but rather experienced a 2 percent decrease in median income in 2015—which fell to just $44,657 for these households, far below the national median.

The Census Bureau generalizations about median income dramatically downplayed the deep concentrations of poverty that exist across the country. For example, North Dakota had the nation’s biggest drop in child poverty between 2011 and 2016, but the poverty rate for Native American children, the majority living on reservations, is five times higher than for the rest of the state’s children.48 Likewise, buried within a Detroit Free Press article headlined “Michigan Posts Its Largest Income Gain Since the Recession” is the admission that the majority Black cities of Flint and Detroit continue to have some of the highest poverty rates in the United States, 40.8 percent and 39.8 percent, respectively. The child poverty rate is even higher; more than half of the children who lived in Detroit and Flint in 2015 lived in poverty, at a rate of 57.6 percent and 58.3 percent, respectively.49

Defining poverty in the twenty-first century

The Census Bureau figures also ignore the enormous income disparities, often along racial lines, within individual cities. According to the Census Bureau, Washington, DC’s median household income rose to $75,600 in 2015, but that breaks down to $120,000 for white households compared to just $41,000 for Black households. The poverty rate for the city’s Black population is 27 percent—and 75 percent of all D.C. residents living in poverty are Black.50

There is yet another way that the Census Bureau’s poverty statistics skew lower while its median income figures skew higher. In the introduction to its Current Population Survey, the Bureau makes the following caveat about its “sample” population: “People in institutions, such as prisons, long-term care hospitals and nursing homes, are not eligible to be interviewed in the CPS. . . . People who are homeless and not living in shelters are not included in the sample.” The list of those excluded from the survey thus includes millions of the most impoverished people in the United States. Despite the flaws in the Census Bureau’s findings, they still show roughly one in four African Americans and Native Americans and more than one in five Latinx living under the official poverty line. One in five children overall are living in poverty by official standards, and 10 percent of US households are trying to survive on less than $13,300 a year.

But the most glaring problem with the Census Bureau’s methodology is its appallingly low poverty threshold. If the poverty line were scaled upward to a more accurate level, the official poverty rate of the US population would certainly skyrocket. The Social Security Administration developed the current poverty measure back in 1963, adopting a formula based on the minimum amount of money necessary to buy a subsistence level of food, using data from the 1955 Household Food Consumption Survey. On the assumption that food expenditures made up one-third of what a family of four needed to survive at the time, that amount was then multiplied by three to define the poverty line. This definition, using obsolete fifty-year-old consumption patterns and even more antiquated sixty-year-old prices (adjusted annually based on the also-inadequate consumer price index), is still in use today. If that formula (food expenses times three) was ever adequate for survival—and it most likely wasn’t—it is preposterous today. In 2015, the poverty threshold was set at just at $24,250 for a family of four and $11,770 for an individual. While those cloistered in the bubble of the federal bureaucracy seem to find its poverty threshold adequate for survival, anyone with at least one foot in the real world is aware that no family of four can make ends meet on $24,250 a year.

Just as every household needs a budget measuring its income in relation to expenses, we should examine the actual cost of just a few major household necessities to give a cursory sense of whether that 5.2 percent rise in median household income in 2015 actually made a dent in falling working-class living standards:

■    Rent: According to, using Census data from 1960 to 2014, median rent has risen by 64 percent after adjusting for inflation, while real household income only increased by 18 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, rents rose by 18 percent while household income fell by 7 percent.51 As concluded, “As a result, the share of cost-burdened renters [households spending more than one-third of their income on rent] nationwide more than doubled, from 24 percent in 1960 to 49 percent in 2014.”

■    Childcare: The cost of child care has nearly doubled since the 1980s—yet it is not considered a necessary household expenditure, even though 75 percent of mothers with children six to seventeen years old are in the labor force, as are 61 percent of mothers with children under 3 years old. In 2015, the average childcare cost rose to over $143 per week. As a result, fewer working parents can afford to pay for it and end up keeping children with relatives or trading off childcare shifts while the other parent, if they have one, is at their job.52 Whereas 42 percent of parents paid for childcare in 1997, only 32 percent did so by 2011. The poorest families spend the largest proportion—one-third of their incomes—on childcare.

■    Health care: The Supplemental Poverty Measure for 2015 showed that with medical expenses—including insurance premiums, copays, coinsurance, prescription drug costs and other uncovered medical expenses—factored in, 11.2 million (or 3.5 percent) more people are living in poverty than the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey acknowledges. And we can expect next year’s statistics to be even worse, as employers continue to push more insurance costs onto their employees. More and more employers are turning to plans with higher copays and “high-deductible” plans, offering premiums workers can barely afford and deductibles of $1,000 or much more per family member—meaning workers must pay these amounts before insurance kicks in even a penny toward their medical care. In 2016, deductibles alone rose nearly six times faster than wages, according to the 2016 Employer Health Benefits Survey of the Kaiser Family Foundation. According to the Commonwealth Fund, higher-deductible plans on average cost $5,762 for individuals and $16,737 for families.53

The real state of the working class

Determining a living wage therefore requires a realistic accounting for the cost of living, which varies considerably by geographic region. Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a “living wage calculator” that estimates living wages for specific localities across the United States. Glasmeier’s calculation is based on fulfilling only basic necessities—housing, childcare, food, transportation, and healthcare—not vacations, dining at restaurants, generous health insurance policies, savings, or college funds. The living wage can also be described as the “minimum subsistence wage.”54

On this basis, the 2016 MIT living wage calculator estimated that the lowest livable wage was in Knoxville, Tennessee, at $54,745. The highest livable wage is in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, at $90,621.55 In April 2017, the MIT researchers demonstrated the gross inadequacy of the official federal poverty level of $24,491 in 2016, estimating that the living wage was actually “$65,860 on average for two working adults, two children per year before taxes.”56

Put differently, millions of working-class people in the United States today are deprived of basic necessities simply because they do not earn a minimum subsistence wage, while corporate profits soar.

A Georgetown University study on job creation showed that workers with a high school diploma or less lost the most income during the recovery, as more jobs go to those with at least some postsecondary education—likely reflecting a glut of “over-educated” applicants for low- wage jobs. Recent college graduates are filling barista jobs at a higher level, as roughly 40 percent are “‘underemployed,’ often for a long time.”57

The business magazine Forbes recently described that a new Amazon warehouse in Fall River, Massachusetts, offers starting pay for workers without college degrees at $12.75 per hour. Those with bachelor’s degrees qualify for “junior inventory clerks”— if they have prior “warehousing experience”—at $14.70 an hour. Forbes headlined this story as “China-Like Wages Now Part of US Employment Boom.”58 This downward trajectory for college graduates has further impacted workers without higher education, as both are forced into competition even for low-paying jobs.

“Of the 7.2 million jobs lost in the recession,” the Georgetown study states, “5.6 million were jobs for workers with a high school diploma or less. . . . On net, there are now more than 5.5 million fewer jobs for individuals with a high school education or less than there were in December 2007.”59 The downward trend in wages for this group of workers began well before the Great Recession. A report by the Hamilton Project of the Brookings Institution found that between 1990 and 2003, real median wages had already fallen by 20 percent for male workers without a high school diploma age 30 to 45, and by 12 percent for women in the same category. As the New York Times, citing the report, concluded: “Less-educated Americans, especially men, are shifting away from manufacturing and other jobs that once offered higher pay, and a higher share are now working in lower-paying food service, cleaning and groundskeeping jobs.” 60

But this decline in wages is tied to more than the decline in manufacturing jobs. As the Times article added, “Pay levels are declining in almost all of the fields that employ less-educated workers, so even those who have held onto jobs as manufacturers, operators and laborers are making less than they would have a generation ago.” Inflation-adjusted annual pay for manufacturing jobs fell from $33,600 in 1990 to $28,000 in 2013. The greatest damage from neoliberalism was done early on, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.61 The average real hourly wages of production and nonsupervisory workers fell by 15 percent between 1973 and the mid-1990s, lowering the ceiling for working-class wages ever since. Wages briefly rose during the economic boom of the late 1990s—only to be derailed by the early 2000s when wages began to stagnate again. The Great Recession once again accelerated the decline.

A third-party alternative

Donald Trump intends to further depredate the working class, given the opportunity. While his unstable and incompetent administration has failed so far to advance its agenda through Congress, his executive orders and cabinet appointments have managed to wreak havoc on the future of legal abortion, immigrants’ rights, transgender rights, the fight against global warming, Indigenous rights, and much more. His encouragement has emboldened the racist Far Right to an extent not seen since the 1920s. These are frightening times.

But it is important to acknowledge that the “out of touch” Democratic Party establishment has played a key role in the entire neoliberal project and does not offer a viable alternative to the class and social status quo. Meanwhile, the working class is desperately seeking a voice in electoral politics. This will require a third-party alternative to the corporate duopoly that together represents both wings of the US ruling class. It is the job of the Left to build this third-party alternative today instead of feeding the illusion that the Democratic Party can be reformed in working-class interests, when it has proved time and time again that its loyalties lie only with the corporate class.

Portions of this article appear in the updated edition of the author’s Subterranean Fire (Haymarket Books, 2018).

  1. Jim Tankersly, “How Trump Won: The Revenge of Working-Class Whites,” Washington Post, November 9, 2016,
  2. Jill Filipovic, “The Revenge of the White Man,” Time, November 10, 2016,
  3. Alec McGillis, “Revenge of the Forgotten Class,” ProPublica, November 10, 2016,
  4. Helena Bottemiller Evich, “Revenge of the Rural Voter,” Politico, November 13, 2016,
  5. Nate Cohn, “Why Trump Won: Working-class Whites,” New York Times, November 9, 2016,
  6. See, for example, Richard Fording and Sanford Schram, “‘Low Information Voters’ are a Crucial Part of Trump’s Support,” Washington Post, November 7, 2016,
  7. Markos “kos” Moulitsas, “Be Happy for Coal Miners Losing Their Health Insurance. They’re Getting Exactly What They Voted For,” Daily Kos, December 12, 2016,
  8. Nate Silver, “The Mythology of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support,” FiveThirtyEight, May 3, 2016, For the general election income data on Trump voters, see Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class,” Washington Post, June 5, 2017,
  9. Carnes and Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth.”
  10. Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, “The Myth of the Rust Belt Revolt,” Slate, December 1, 2016,
  11. Nate Cohn, “Why Trump Won.”
  12. Sabrina Tavernise, “Many in Milwaukee Neighborhood Didn’t Vote—and Don’t Regret It,” New York Times, November 20, 2016
  13. Mark Lilla, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” New York Times, November 18, 2016,
  14. William H. Frey, “Five Charts That Show Why a Post-White America Is Already Here,” New Republic, November 21, 2014,
  15. Nate Cohn, “How the Obama Coalition Crumbled, Leaving an Opening for Trump,” The New York Times, December 23, 2016,
  16. Jason Le Miere, “Bernie Sanders Voters Helped Trump Win and Here’s Proof,” Newsweek, August 23, 2017,
  17. Robert Dreyfuss, “How the DLC Does It,” The American Prospect, December 19, 2001,
  18. Ibid.
  19. Feliz Solomon, “Hillary Clinton Called for Strikes on Syrian Airfields Shortly Before Trump’s Announcement,” Time, April 6, 2017,
  20. Daniel Strauss, “Clinton Haunted by Coal Country Comment, Politico, May 10, 2016,
  21. Nate Cohn, “How the Obama Coalition Crumbled.”
  22. Christian Parenti, “Listening to Trump,” CommonDreams, November 21, 2016,
  23.  “Election 2016: Exit Polls,” CNN Politics, November 23, 2017,
  24. See, for example, Akhil Reed Amar, “The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists,” Time, November 8, 2016 [updated November 10, 2016],
  25. Sean McElwee, “The Income Gap at the Polls: The Rich Aren’t Just Megadonors. They’re Also Dominating the Voting Booth,” Politico Magazine, January 7, 2015,
  26. Sean McElwee, “Why the Voting Gap Matters,” Demos: An Equal Say and an Equal Chance for All, October 23, 2014,
  27. Linda Qiu, “Bernie Sanders Said Poor People Don’t Vote,” Politifact, April 24, 2016,
  28. Maria Murriel, “Millions of Americans Can’t Vote for President Because of Where They Live,” Public Radio International, November 1, 2016,
  29. Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, “The United States Makes The Case For Why Puerto Rico Is Still Its Colony, Huffington Post, THE BLOG, updated Jun 15, 2017,
  30. Jean Chung, “Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer,” The Sentencing Project, May 10, 2016,
  31. McElwee, “Why the Voting Gap Matters.”
  32. Ron Fonger, “Weaker Democratic support in Detroit, Flint Made Trump Stronger in Michigan,” MLive, November 9, 2016,
  33. McElwee, “Why the Voting Gap Matters.”
  34. Lauren McCauley, “Pro-Clinton Probe of 2016 Reveals That, Yes, Democrats Have a ‘Wall Street Problem,’” CommonDreams, May 1, 2017,
  35. Erik Sherman, “America is the Richest, and Most Unequal, Country, Forbes, September 30, 2015,
  36. “Declining Trust in Government is Denting Democracy: According to a New Index, America’s Democracy Score Deteriorated in 2016,” Economist, January 25, 2017,; Elena Holodny, “The US Has Been Downgraded to a ‘Flawed Democracy,’” Business Insider, January 25, 2017,
  37. Ken Silverstein, “Labor’s Last Stand: The Corporate Campaign to Kill the Employee Free Choice Act,” Harper’s Magazine, July 2009,
  38. Mark Weisbrot, Stephan Lefebvre, and Joseph Sammut, “Did NAFTA Help Mexico? An Assessment After 20 Years,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, February 2014,
  39. Kim Moody, “US Workers in the Late Neoliberal Era,” International Viewpoint, August 13, 2017,
  40. Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital Reshaped the Battleground of Class War in the US (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 12.
  41. Economic News Release: Work Stoppages summary, Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 9, 2017.
  42. Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, ”Union Membership Rate 10.7 percent in 2016,” TED: The Economics Daily, February 9, 2017,
  43. Charity Jackson, “18 to 29 Things You Didn’t Know about Young Qorkers,” Main Street, a project of Working America, March 12, 2015,;  Elizabeth Bruenig, “Even Conservative Millennials Support Unions, New Republic, May 1, 2015,
  44. Justin Lahart, “If Jobs are Plentiful, How Come No One is Getting a Raise?” Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2017,
  45. Andy Kiersz, “America Is No. 1 In Low-Paying Jobs,” Business Insider, September 23, 2014,
  46. Paul Mason, “The Strange Case of America’s Disappearing Middle Class,” Guardian, December 14, 2015,
  47. Steve Benen, “Poverty Goes Down, Coverage Goes Up, and America Gets a Raise,” MSNBC, September 13, 2016,
  48. Census Bureau, “ND Child Poverty Data Highlights Local Racial Disparities,” KFGO, September 20, 2016,
  49. Kristi Tanner, “Michigan Posts its Largest Income Gain Since the Recession,” Detroit Free Press, September 15, 2016,
  50. Claire Zippel, “As DC has grown, so has its racial prosperity gap, Greater Greater Washington, September 22, 2016,
  51. Andrew Woo, “How Have Rents Changed Since 1960?” Apartment List Rentonomics, June 14, 2016.
  52. Tom Gerencersep, “The Exploding Cost of Childcare in the US,” MoneyNation, September 1, 2015,
  53. Andrew Siddons, “Deductibles Rise in Employer-Sponsored Health Plans,” Washington Health Policy Week in Review, September 19, 2016,
  54. Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier, “Introduction to the living wage model,” MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, 2017,
  55. Dr. Carey Anne Nadeau, “A Calculation of the Living Wage,” MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, February 7, 2017,
  56. Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier and Carey Anne Nadeau, “Results from the 2016 data update,”, April 13, 2017,
  57. Richard Vedder and Justin Strehle, “The Diminishing Returns of a College Degree,” Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2017, at
  58. Kenneth Rapoza, “China-Like Wages Now Part Of US Employment Boom,” Forbes, August 4, 2017,
  59. Anthony P. Carnevale, Tamara Jayasundera, and Artem Gulish, “America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots 2016,” Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce, McCourt School of Public Policy, June 30, 2016,
  60. Neil Irwin, “Why American Workers Without Much Education Are Being Hammered,” New York Times, April 21, 2015,
  61. David R. Howell, “The Collapse of Low-Skill Wages: Technological Change or Institutional Failure?” National Jobs for All Coalition, February 1998,

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

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