Tough economic times have brought many issues to the fore in America but one that is noticeably absent from public discourse is white poverty. Racial tension, gun violence, income inequality, immigration, and public debt justifiably command lots of media attention. However, growing poverty and social dislocation among working class whites in rural and suburban areas should be a leading headline, especially since whites represent by far the largest group living below the poverty line in the US.
Nearly 20 million white Americans make less than 23 thousand dollars a year per family of four. That makes whites 41 percent of the poor population, a staggering percentage that is roughly double that of black Americans. And for the last decade, working class white poverty has grown faster than working class non-whites.
Unfortunately, the numbers of white Americans living in poverty is just part of the story. According to various new economic surveys (from sources like the Census Bureau and one published by Oxford University) single parent households headed by white women has soared to levels previously experienced only in the black community. Further, out of wedlock births are up, as are teenage pregnancies. Related problems of drug abuse and high-school drop-out rates accompany these disconcerting trends.
The white working class in particular has been hurt by the last thirty years of economic change in the United States. Probably the biggest problem facing destitute whites is deindustrialization. The disappearance of coal mining, textile, and a dwindling manufacturing sector has left whites, largely though not exclusively in the Mid-West and Appalacia, without jobs.
In truth, declining wages and stagnant economic growth has been the norm for several decades. In his excellent 2005 work The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Benjamin Friedman explained that “The consequence of the stagnation that lasted from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s was, in numerous dimensions, a fraying of America’s social fabric.” The extent of this fracturing finally emerged after the financial crash of 2008.
Still, perhaps the pivotal factor is cultural decay; here too, the white population is center stage. Charles Murray emphasized the cultural decline of white America in his recent book Coming Apart. According to Murray, the civic culture based on family, faith, and community that once strongly united white America has all but collapsed in working class areas. The touchstones of this cultural demise are the breakdown of the family, decline in industriousness, the absence of educational vigor, and the erosion of a value based ethic that used to be strongly supported by Christianity.
Who cares, or rather doesn’t care about these issues is equally troubling. While the problems that plague lower class white Americans are finally creeping to the surface, Charles Murray argues that the upper class that dominates the key public and private institutions in the country are unaware or unwilling to engage them. In many respects, Murray claims, this is because elites no longer understand white America.
The insulation of the elite echelon from their countrymen is not going unnoticed by the often termed “invisible” white poor. As a result, recent surveys show the white population collectively has become more pessimistic about their future, and importantly, more pessimistic than non-white minorities. In short, the white population is increasingly uncertain about its economic future but also feels unrepresented in Washington.
Demographic change has encouraged this sentiment. Massive demographic changes over the last two or three decades has added new voting blocs seized upon mainly by the Democratic Party, though numerous Republicans from George Bush to John McCain have desperately tried to court them as well. The white working class population has been lost in the mix. Consequently a feeling of “white alienation,” a term used by Harvard Professor William Wilson, is increasing.
Political groups in Washington represent virtually every minority group in the country, but who represents impoverished white America? At this moment, it is hard to answer that question. Historically, going back to the New Deal, the Democratic Party captured this electorate. That is no longer the case. The Republican Party may claim to represent them but has not done so explicitly, possibly out of fear.
In an age paralyzed by political correctness and race bating, it may be a challenge to act in the interest of white America. Nevertheless, the United States is in the midst of a social meltdown, and white America is at the center of it. Thus, resolving to address the problems beleaguering working class whites will benefit the entire country, not simply one demographic group.
Cameron Macgregor is a former naval officer. He is currently a graduate student at George Mason University.