Did the white working class vote its economic interests?
The day after the presidential election — in a long and brooding interview with Rolling Stone magazine — President Obama offered his take on why blue-collar whites flocked so decidedly to Donald J. Trump.
“This is not simply an economic issue,” Mr. Obama concluded. “This is a cultural issue. And a communications issue.” From family leave and overtime rules to Obamacare, he noted, his administration offered a steady stream of policies to help working-class communities. But “whatever policy prescriptions that we’ve been proposing don’t reach, are not heard, by the folks in these communities.”
This view fits a common narrative among liberal analysts of American politics, most prominently conveyed in “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” the 2004 best-selling book by Thomas Frank: Republicans use cultural issues like abortion, guns and gay marriage to gain the votes of struggling workers who nonetheless stand to lose the most from the Republicans’ small-government agenda.
But it largely misses the mark. Yes, the economy has added millions of jobs since President Obama took office. Even manufacturing employment has recovered some of its losses. Still, less-educated white voters had a solid economic rationale for voting against the status quo — nearly all the gains from the economic recovery have passed them by.
Despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the labor force, Hispanics got more than half of the net additional jobs. Blacks and Asians also gained millions more jobs than they lost. But whites, who account for 78 percent of the labor force, lost more than 700,000 net jobs over the nine years.
The racial and ethnic divide is starker among workers in their prime. Whites ages 25 to 54 lost some 6.5 million jobs more than they gained over the period. Hispanics in their prime, by contrast, gained some three million jobs net, Asians 1.5 million and blacks one million.
“In every age group,” wrote Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute in a penetrating analysis, “blacks, Hispanics and Asians have more jobs now than they did at the November 2007 high-water mark.”
This lopsided racial sorting of jobs is only one of the fault lines brought to the fore by the presidential election.
Only 472 counties voted for Hillary Clinton on Election Day. But according to Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution, they account for 64 percent of the nation’s economic activity. The 2,584 counties where Mr. Trump won, by contrast, generated only 36 percent of America’s prosperity.
The political divide between high-output and low-output parts of the country also meshes with the cleavage between urban America — largely won by Mrs. Clinton — and the vast, less-populous rural stretches where Mr. Trump racked up large numbers of votes.
Non-Hispanic whites account for 62 percent of the population. But they make up some 78 percent of the population of nonmetropolitan areas and 71 percent of that of small cities, according to the demographer William H. Frey from Brookings. By contrast, they account for only 56 percent of the population of the 100 largest urban areas in the country.
Problem is, many of the jobs created since the economy started recovering from recession were in service industries, located primarily in large metropolitan areas — not in small towns and rural areas where the factories that once provided steady good jobs were either shuttered or were retooled to replace workers with machines.
Even as the typical American household experienced the fastest income growth on record last year, median household income outside of metropolitan areas fell 2 percent, according to the Census Bureau. By last summer employment in nonmetropolitan areas was still 2 percent lowerthan in the first quarter of 2008.
Metropolitan areas, by contrast, had 5 percent more jobs than they did eight years earlier. And that is where most Hispanics, blacks and Asians live. The low-end service jobs there certainly pay less than those that lifted white blue-collar workers into the middle class. But they do offer a more hopeful future than a shrinking employment base.
Supporters at a Donald J. Trump campaign event in Leesburg, Va., in early November. While Hillary Clinton largely won urban America, Mr. Trump racked up large numbers of votes in the vast, less-populous rural stretches. CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
“It has been a good decade for metropolitan America,” said Mr. Muro, who heads the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. By contrast, “you can’t underestimate the economic and social pain across the rural tier.”
Given such clear divisions — less-educated whites living in depressed rural areas, on one side, and minorities living in more vigorous big-city economies on the other — the social and racial animosity manifest during the election campaign is hardly a surprise.
So there is a clear economic argument for Mr. Trump’s angry voters to have bucked the establishment.
But all that raises a bigger question. Will President Trump deliver on the promises — the new, well-paying jobs — that his supporters demand? Mr. Achuthan, for one, thinks not.
“Trump will get smacked in about a year or so,” he told me. “Regardless of his policies.”
The story extends back to the turn of the century — when China was allowed into the World Trade Organization, setting off a wave of investment by multinational corporations hoping to take advantage of cheap Chinese labor.
Goods-producing jobs in manufacturing and construction, which had been roughly flat since 1979, plummeted by more than three million before a building boom fueled by an inflating housing bubble clawed back many of them. When that bubble burst, the construction jobs evaporated too. And there has been no new job-producing boom to take its place.
Can Mr. Trump do more for his supporters than previous presidents? It’s doubtful. Most of his promises are empty. No matter what he does, he cannot bring back the coal jobs of yore or the old labor-intensive manufacturing economy. Some of his proposals — walling off the country with protective tariffs, for example — would make things worse for the middle and working class, while tax cuts for the wealthy will exacerbate inequality rather than lessen it.
The job market has tightened and there are a number of underlying forces that may well propel the economy forward for a while in a way that prosperity spreads more outside the major cities. A major program of public investment in infrastructure would probably increase employment, but it is not a long-term solution for a rural population cut off from the most dynamic sectors of the economy.
What progress the nation has in store is likely to come through investments in technology and human capital. This will happen mostly in its cities. Less-educated rural whites, with deep roots in their local communities, are often reluctant to move. But that means all too many are likely to be left behind