There’s no consensus on who constitutes the working class. There are different definitions on membership and disagreement on the exact percentage of the overall population the group represents. Further, it remains a largely unexplored area in terms of academic scholarship and it gets little media attention, despite some estimates that the working class represent over half the U.S. population.
Part of the reason is that we’re uncomfortable discussing class in America. Because we lack a monarchy and have a representative democracy, we like to think that we’ve moved beyond a class system. No one likes to be left out of the mainstream; even people in low-wage situations tend to self-identify as middle class.
What’s not in dispute is that working class folk are a diverse group. As with the poor, women make up the more than half of the population (54% in 1996), according to Michael Zweig in his book “The Working Class Majority”
Whites are the largest group by number, but minorities such as Latinos (56.1%) and African Americans (47.1%) have larger percentages of blue collar jobs within their populations compared to whites (36.8%) and Asians (31.1%) according to one interpretation of 2005 U.S. Census survey data by Sydney Pivack.
Following are a number of ways we can use to define the membership of the working class.
Socioeconomic measures are often viewed as ways to distinguish the different social classes, but income is not always a reliable indicator. Some skilled blue-collar occupations actually have an average annual income that exceeds white-collar positions. For example, electricians averaged $49,890 annually, compared to $48,220 for archivists, according to a 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate.[i]
Generally, the service and retail sectors ($25,050 for retail salespersons in 2008), and the lower-skilled blue-collar positions have the lowest average annual incomes. An ABC News poll from 2010 considered household annual incomes below $35,000 to be working class.[ii]
According to the ABC poll, 39 percent of Americans self-identify as working class, compared to 45 percent middle class, and 14 percent upper-middle class or better off. But self-identification of class isn’t reliable in that the poll also found that 41 percent of those who made $25,000 or less declared themselves middle class. In addition, respondents to polls can often be biased toward picking the “middle-of-the-road” answer when given a choice.[iii]
This may be the one of the more reliable indicators of working-class status, as many blue collar and retail/service positions don’t require a college degree or even in some cases a high school diploma. The ABC poll showed that 46 percent who hadn’t completed college considered themselves working class versus 20 percent of those with college degrees. [iv]
In general, a filtering based on the educational requirements of occupations makes sense since a copyeditor who makes $25,000 per year would probably not be working class, as opposed to a janitor making $35,000.
According to 2009 U.S. Census survey data,[v] 70 percent of adults 25 and older did not have a bachelors degree; of course, not all of these adults are part of the workforce and some of them will complete degrees later in life, but it gives a sense of the potential size of the working class.
Michael Zweig outlines a Marxist-based class structure where groups are delineated not on income but in terms of the power to organize and direct production. The relative few with that power are the capitalist class, the middle class have a supervisory role with some authority, while the working class has little control over the pace and content of their work. [vi]
He sees the widening inequality of wealth as a reflection of a disparity of social and political power. “To be in the working class is to be in a place of relative vulnerability—on the job, in the market, in politics and culture,” he says.
This framework differs from a rich-poor dynamic in that a good number of the rich do not necessarily have the same power over production as say a CEO of a corporation. Counting service industry and other non-supervisory positions, Zweig in 2000 saw the working class as 62 percent of the workforce.”
There are a number of ways to look at who is part of the working class, and there will probably never be a broad consensus on who or how many comprise this group. Whatever calculation is used, the working class is a substantial part of our population.
Why is it so important to identify the working class? While the existence and size of the working class may be largely ignored by the general society, membership in this class can have a large effect on the opportunities and outcomes of peoples’ lives.
Sociologist Michèle Lamont noted that a shared experience of ‘struggling’ was at the center of the American working class collective identity, with limited “life chances” largely because of their education, the precarious nature of the American social safety net, and a harsh environment that focuses blame on the lower classes rather than on an unfair system.[vii]
Life chances is a term coined by the German sociologist Max Weber to describe the effect of class status on the probability that individuals will have opportunities to improve the quality of their lives. Sociologists have found that social class has a pervasive negative effect in such areas as health, access to the Internet, happiness, education, exposure to violent crime, home ownership, dullness or boredom in life, and opportunities to get ahead.[viii]
As long as the working class remains largely invisible to the general public, the inequity of the class system will never be addressed. Looking at our society through the lens of class is important in making public policy decisions, and can point to ways to redirect resources and change systems in order to ensure equal access and opportunity for everyone.
[i] Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2008 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Bureau of Labor Statistics Website.
[ii] Langer, Gary, The Comeback: New Poll Shows Concerns of American Middle Class, ABC News Website (March 15, 2010). http://abcnews.go.com/WN/abc-world-news-poll-us-middle-class-concerns/story?id=10088470
[iii] Bishop, George F., The illusion of public opinion: fact and artifact in American public opinion, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD (2005), p. 55.
[iv] Langer, Gary, The Comeback: New Poll Shows Concerns of American Middle Class, Op. Cit.
[v] U.S. Census Bureau, Census Bureau Reports Nearly 6 in 10 Advanced Degree Holders Age 25-29 Are Women (April 20, 2010) http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/education/cb10-55.html
[vi] Zweig, Michael, The Working Class Majority, Op. Cit., p. 11-13.
[vii] Lamont, Michèle, The Dignity of Working Men, Op. Cit., p. 10-11.
[viii] Gilbert, Dennis L., The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality, Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 7th Edition (2003) p. 2.