Skip to content

The White Working Class: State-Level Declines and Geographic Concentration


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

By Bill Emmons, Lead Economist; Ana Kent, Policy Analyst; and Lowell Ricketts, Lead Analyst, Center for Household Financial Stability

In the first post in this series, we documented the steadily changing racial/ethnic and educational composition of the U.S. In particular, non-Hispanic whites with less than a four-year college degree (hereafter, white working class) have seen a rapid decline in their share of the overall population both regionally and nationally. Here, we document state- and county-level demographic changes.

State-Level Trends

Using the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement, we observed that regionally the white working class’s decrease as a share of the total population has been steeper in the Northeast and West. The group’s share has fallen below a majority (50%) in every regionSee U.S. Census Bureau Regions and Divisions of the United States (PDF) for a map of the states in each census region. except the Midwest, as seen in the figure below.

This line chart shows the changing shares of the white working class between 1975 and 2018 by region.

DESCRIPTION: This line chart shows the changing shares of the white working class between 1975 and 2018 by region. From top to bottom, the regions are the Midwest, Northeast, South and West. For the latter three regions, the white working class fell below 50% of the total civilian noninstitutionalized population age 25 and older in 2006, 2001 and 1994, respectively.

There is even more variability between states. Between 1977 and 2018, some states had a much steeper decline than others. For example:

  • New Jersey had a large 37 percentage point decrease to 32% white working class between 1977 and 2018.
  • Kentucky’s share was similar in 1977 but declined more moderately by 6 percentage points to 64% in 2018.

However, despite some fluctuation, every state has had a decrease in the share of white working class individuals over the past four decades. For many states, the decline has been quite large, as shown in the figure below. On average, states’ white working class shares fell by 24 percentage points, with the decrease ranging from 5 percentage points (Hawaii) to 41 percentage points (Massachusetts).

This bar chart shows the percentage point change in the share of the population that is white working class by state (and the District of Columbia).

DESCRIPTION: This bar chart shows the percentage point change in the share of the population that is white working class by state (and the District of Columbia). From top to bottom, states are ordered from largest to smallest percentage point decrease. For example, California’s share decreased by 36 percentage points and Ohio’s decreased by 19 percentage points.

The white working class’s differing rates of decline across states have contributed to widely varying degrees of geographic concentration for this group today. In particular, the rapid declines in white working class population shares in the Northeast and West—as noted in the first part of this series—are reflected in states with small shares now, such as New Jersey, Connecticut and Colorado. Regions with comparatively slower white working class population-share declines—the Midwest and South—are reflected in states with relatively large shares now, such as Kentucky, Wisconsin and Indiana.

The next figure shows the wide range of white working class shares of the population in 2018 by state. For example:

  • In West Virginia, 3 in 4 peopleCivilian noninstitutionalized population age 25 and older. were white working class.
  • In Hawaii, only 1 in 10 fit into this demographic. In the District of Columbia, less than 3% of individuals were white working class in 2018.

Notably, in 1977, almost all states (48) were over 50% white working class. By 2018, fewer than half (23) of states were.

This bar chart shows the white working class’s share of the population in 2018 by state (and the District of Columbia).

DESCRIPTION: This bar chart shows the white working class’s share of the population in 2018 by state (and the District of Columbia). From top to bottom, states are ordered from largest to smallest share. For example, Missouri’s share was 53% and New York’s share was 31%. The red vertical line emphasizes 50%; states with bars to the left of this line were not majority white working class in 2018.

Not only has the white working class fallen below a majority share in most states, but it is actually a minority group in seven states and the District of Columbia. In three of those states (Colorado, Connecticut and Maryland) and D.C., the plurality (i.e., largest without being the majority) group was whites with a four-year college degree (shares ranging from 28% to 39%). In the other four states (California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas), the largest combined group was Hispanics, blacks and other nonwhite racesThis is a very diverse group with unique experiences that was combined here to form a contrast to the focus of this series: the white working class. Our other work further disaggregates this group. with less than a four-year degree (shares ranging from 40% to 52%).

County-Level Change: A Checkerboard Pattern

Getting accurate county-level estimates required expanding to five-year estimates from the American Community Survey as well as using the decennial census. Comparing the 2000 decennial census with the later period of 2013-17, we found that nearly all counties experienced a decline in the share of white working class individuals. Over this time period, the share fell in 97.6% of counties.This estimate includes only counties and county-equivalents that existed in both time frames. Of those counties that experienced a decline, the average fall was by 7 percentage points.

Counties also varied enormously in terms of their share of the population that is white working class. Counties in the Appalachian region and the Midwest have a much higher concentration of white working class individuals than do counties along the southwestern border of the U.S. For example, 21 of the top 25 white working class counties (with over 88% of the population white working class) in the U.S. are in Appalachia. Comparing the next two figures illustrates the widespread decline of the white working class across the country.

This figure shows the share of each county that was white working class in 2000.

DESCRIPTION: This figure shows the share of each county that was white working class in 2000. Brighter, more yellow shades indicate a higher share of the white working class in that county, while darker, bluer shades reflect a lower share.

DESCRIPTION:This figure shows the share of each county that was white working class in 2013-17. Brighter, more yellow shades indicate a higher share of the white working class in that county, while darker, bluer shades reflect a lower share.

The table below shows how the share of the white working class has changed in the 10 most populous counties in the U.S. The speed of the decline in most of these counties has surpassed the national rate.

White Working Class Has Declined Quickly in the Largest Counties
County (County Seat) Share White Working Class in 2013-17 Percentage Point Change from 2000
United States 43.2% -9.4
Los Angeles, Calif. (Los Angeles) 15.8% -7.6
Cook, Ill. (Chicago) 23.8% -10.6
Harris, Texas (Houston) 18.9% -10.9
Maricopa, Ariz. (Phoenix) 39.6% -11.8
San Diego, Calif. (San Diego) 27.4% -12.1
Orange, Calif. (Santa Ana) 24.3% -11.8
Miami-Dade, Fla. (Miami) 6.8% -6.3
Dallas, Texas (Dallas) 19.0% -13.2
Kings, N.Y. (Brooklyn) 17.2% -8.5
Riverside, Calif. (Riverside) 31.1% -16.2
NOTE: Based on the resident population of individuals age 25 and over.
SOURCES: American Community Survey and authors’ calculations.
Description: This table shows the share of the population that was white working class in 2013-17 (column 2) and the percentage point decrease from 2000 (column 3) for the U.S. and the 10 most populous counties.

Taken together, these numbers illustrate that the decline of the white working class is widespread, fast-paced and more rapid in major urban areas. The fall of the white working class share may be due to numerous factors:

  • Rising educational attainment among whites
  • Rising mortality rates among whites
  • Falling fertility rates among whites
  • Immigration of other races

Potential causes and financial consequences of this decline will be further explored in the final post of this series.

Notes and References

1 See U.S. Census Bureau Regions and Divisions of the United States (PDF) for a map of the states in each census region.

2 Civilian noninstitutionalized population age 25 and older.

3 In the District of Columbia, less than 3% of individuals were white working class in 2018.

4 This is a very diverse group with unique experiences that was combined here to form a contrast to the focus of this series: the white working class. Our other work further disaggregates this group.

5 This estimate includes only counties and county-equivalents that existed in both time frames.

Additional Resources

Posted In Labor  |  Tagged william emmonsana kentlowell rickettshfshousehold financial stabilitywhite working classdemographicscollege
Commenting Policy: We encourage comments and discussions on our posts, even those that disagree with conclusions, if they are done in a respectful and courteous manner. All comments posted to our blog go through a moderator, so they won't appear immediately after being submitted. We reserve the right to remove or not publish inappropriate comments. This includes, but is not limited to, comments that are:
  • Vulgar, obscene, profane or otherwise disrespectful or discourteous
  • For commercial use, including spam
  • Threatening, harassing or constituting personal attacks
  • Violating copyright or otherwise infringing on third-party rights
  • Off-topic or significantly political
The St. Louis Fed will only respond to comments if we are clarifying a point. Comments are limited to 1,500 characters, so please edit your thinking before posting. While you will retain all of your ownership rights in any comment you submit, posting comments means you grant the St. Louis Fed the royalty-free right, in perpetuity, to use, reproduce, distribute, alter and/or display them, and the St. Louis Fed will be free to use any ideas, concepts, artwork, inventions, developments, suggestions or techniques embodied in your comments for any purpose whatsoever, with or without attribution, and without compensation to you. You will also waive all moral rights you may have in any comment you submit.
comments powered by Disqus

The St. Louis Fed uses Disqus software for the comment functionality on this blog. You can read the Disqus privacy policy. Disqus uses cookies and third party cookies. To learn more about these cookies and how to disable them, please see this article.