Paul Krugman has started a blog, and one of his entries is about whether the working class votes Democratic (he believe it does). He quotes from the paper “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” which starts as follows:
Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No. White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle- and upper-income white voters have trended Republican. Low-income whites have become less Democratic in their partisan identifications, but at a slower rate than more affluent whites – and that trend is entirely confined to the South, where Democratic identification was artificially inflated by the one-party system of the Jim Crow era.
Talking about class is difficult in the United States, and quantifying it (with economic models especially) is even harder. This paper, by Larry M. Bartels, gets around, though I think the response by Frank himself takes care of it.
What is most important in the quote above is the association of “the working class” with the lowest third of the income distribution. This is a very weak assumption. Who is in the bottom third? Students. Graduate students. The retired. People who are physically or mentally disabled to the point of not being fully employable. The unemployed. The 1% of our population who sits in a jail cell, and the numerous others who are in its gears. This is not the working-class of America in any cultural sense, if only because they aren’t working. According to what Frank found, only about 5% of the bottom 3rd is over 30 and full-time employed.
The more you look at it, the more self-definition and whether or not a person has not achieved a college degree but is in a career-track works for a working-class approximation. Yglesias is surprised by one of the numeric conclusions of this:
However, as I point out in this article on the subject, insofar as people want “working class” to mean “no college degree” that the median income for non-college whites is higher than the national median income.
But there are trade-offs with salaries. Many working-class jobs are difficult to work, dangerous, monotonous, etc., and they are compensated with salary for this. Many white-color jobs start off at a low salary to compensate for on-the-job training and then get large salaries later on (a rolling 15-year average of income gives better estimates of this). And as a commenter pointed out, there are compensation of “cultural capital” (to use Bourdieu), where your job confers status outside what a working-class job does.
I think Frank is wrong on a lot of points in his excellent book (I think it’s important to remember that Kansas isn’t full of farmers in the 21st century, I think The Right are more sincere than he believes, and his proposed alliance between progressives and cultural conservatives against The Culture Industry is off-point), but I think he’s dead right on this.