Working-class pessimism

Working-class whites -- long considered most-likely-to-be-upwardly-mobile among blue-collar families -- now find themselves the most pessimistic. You can find a lot of reasons for this dilemma in the classic sitcom "All in the Family."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times and the National Journal that working class whites are now the most alienated sector of American voters. According to polls Brownstein cites, just one-third think their children will do better than they do -- an equal number believe their kids will actually do worse. "No other group is that negative," Brownstein says.

He and others call this concern "hardly irrational" -- whites have been losing economic and educational ground to other groups (Latinos and Asians among them) for several years. Brownstein then hits on something he implies is an effect of that lost ground, but really may be a cause: "under these pressures, noncollege whites are experiencing rates of out-of-wedlock birth and single parenthood approaching levels that triggered worries about the black family a generation ago."

How did that happen? How did the family portraits of Norman Rockwell turn into a something closer to "Married… with Children"?

Look back at the sitcom "All In the Family," which has often been used by sociologists trying to trace the story of the working class. It debuted in the 1970s and featured a white working-class patriarch, Archie Bunker, who was seething with resentments against minorities, feminists, and liberal politicians who promised the moon and delivered a society that had stalled for families in places like Queens.

But Archie had one thing studies show white blue collar workers don't have now: an intact family. Sure, his wife was a constant source of aggravation and his daughter had gone and married a "meathead" college student know-it-all. But they had each other. Week after week, Edith was a shoulder to cry on; when things got tough, she entered the workforce at the checkout counter of a local supermarket. Even his daughter stayed there under the same roof, to sit on his lap and watch baseball with him.

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Below the surface anger and humor, it was clear that family structure allowed Archie to keep going -- even as working-class fortunes rapidly declined throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.

That is gone now. Yes, huge forces are at play here, too. Exploited workers a century ago had a vital union movement and the Progressives to turn to; they had the New Deal in the 1930s and '40s. These grand systems provided hope -- hope that seemed to be rewarded as the middle class bloomed in the post-war period. But those same institutions and impulses seemed to work against blue collar men in the 1970s onward. There was less hope in joining an expanding economic universe -- it became a fight to hold on to what you had, or keep the losses to a manageable level.

But family matters too. It is the harbor that gets you through the storms -- broken and split, it can help less and make pessimism easier. It is hard to know whether blue collar decline led to family disintegration, or the other way around. But clearly now, both are feeding on each other in a cycle that can be very hard to break.

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