The white working class played a key role in Donald Trump’s election and in the election of Republican majorities to the House and Senate, and yet has been all but ignored in the on-going tax-reform debate. With the House bill already passed, and a vote on the Senate bill just around the corner, the window for their voice to be heard is quickly closing.
In 2016, support for Trump surged among whites without college degrees—a constituency that also made up a disproportionate share of the vote for House and Senate Republicans. For many of these voters, their support for Trump was, and continues to be, driven by concerns about the fragility of family life in America. Trump voters, in particular, have registered serious concerns about the number of children being raised in single-parent families and the difficulty of living paycheck to paycheck.
These concerns stem in part from what working-class whites are seeing playing out in their communities. The predominantly working-class counties that went from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 had higher rates of family instability than did the counties that usually trend Republican, due in no small part to economic dislocations associated with the new economy, including increased trade with China and Mexico.
This economy has been particularly disastrous for men with less than a four-year college education, a group whose real wages declined between 5 and 25 percent between 1979 and 2010, according to economists David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, even as spells of unemployment have increased. This matters because men are less likely to get and stay married when they are not stably employed in a decent-paying job.
As a result, fewer than half of white working-class adults aged 25 to 60 are living in a first marriage, compared to more than 50 percent of college-educated whites. Only about one in two 14-year-olds in white working-class families are living in an intact, two-parent home, compared to approximately 80 percent of 14-year-olds in white, college-educated homes. These family trends are paralleled by economic trends: Today, the median family income where the household head has a high school degree is $54,600, compared to $114,640 where the head has at least a college degree. As Wilcox noted in When Marriage Disappears, the United States is in danger of “devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones.”
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