This is the third and final post in a series on the state of the U.S. white working class. We have shown that non-Hispanic whites with less than a four-year college degree (hereafter referred to as white working class) were once a thriving majority but their share of the population has been steadily declining. Specifically, we found that:
The number of adult white working class individuals reached its peak in the early 1990s and has been trending downward since then.Our analyses focus on civilian noninstitutionalized individuals age 25 and over. Meanwhile, all other major groups defined by race/ethnicity and college degree status have increased in number. In fact, the white working class in 2019 was similar in size to the group in 1980, as seen in the figure below.
This line graph shows the number of white working-class civilian noninstitutionalized individuals age 25 and older between 1976 and 2019. There were 85.8 million white working-class individuals in 1980, and there were 85.4 million such individuals in 2019.
Over the same time period, the rest of the population grew rapidly by a factor of 2.5. Is the white working class’s notable population decline a negative or positive development?
Much attention has been directed to adverse trends in death rates in this group, especially so-called “deaths of despair,” which include suicide and alcohol- or drug-related deaths. Since 1992, the age-adjusted rate of deaths from these three causes has tripled among white working-class adults, overshadowing smaller increases in other groups.
However, we found that deaths of despair are relatively rare—even given their alarming increase in recent years—and thus they remain a small part of the explanation of white working-class population decline, as seen in the figure below.
This line graph shows the rate of age-adjusted deaths per 100,000 individuals for the white working class between 1992 and 2017. The age adjustment method uses the 2000 Standard Population. The top line shows all types of deaths. The middle line shows the “other major deaths” category, including heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular and chronic lower respiratory disease. The bottom line shows deaths of despair, which rose from 37.7 per 100,000 in 1992 to 113.9 per 100,000 in 2017.
Between 2010 and 2017, for example, the white working-class population declined from 92.0 million to 87.8 million, a drop of 4.2 million people. If the 2010 death rate from deaths of despair had remained at 70.2 per 100,000 through 2017—rather than increasing to 113.9 per 100,000—roughly 40,000 people would not have died from these causes. But this represents less than 1% of the cumulative population decline. Thus, an increased rate of deaths of despair cannot explain the large population decline.
Instead, we found that rising educational attainment is more important than relative changes in deaths of despair in explaining the white working-class population decline. The number of whites with at least a four-year college degree (hereafter, college grads) has grown rapidly, increasing every year for which we have data and more than tripling between 1976 and 2019.
The shrinking of the white working class in large part reflects this positive trend of increased educational attainment. We estimate that the rate of educational change between 1992 and 2017 was 15,899 per 100,000 white people. Averaged over 25 years, this equates to about 636 “diversions” each year per 100,000 white working-class people. Scaled to the size of the group (approximately 142 million), this translates into almost 1 million fewer people per year in the white working class.
The changing demographic makeup of the U.S. has important implications for household balance sheets. For example, using the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances, we found that white college grads have collectively seen phenomenal wealth gains over the past few decades. The median white college grad family also had four times as much wealth as the typical white working-class family in 2016.
To the extent that the decline of the white working-class population in recent years is due to rising college degree attainment, this population change can be viewed positively. This is because college graduates generally fare better on a wide variety of socioeconomic indicators than those without college degrees.
Demographic shifts in the U.S. are occurring rapidly. In most areas, the share of the white working class is falling. These changes have important implications for the U.S. economy and family balance sheets. How these changes play out in economic, political and cultural spheres is sure to interest researchers and the general public for years to come.
1 Our analyses focus on civilian noninstitutionalized individuals age 25 and over.