ByWilliam R. Emmons , Ana Hernández Kent , Lowell R. Ricketts
The United States is going through a time of demographic change. The country as a whole is becoming less white, and “majority minority” is now a common term given census projections that the country will become “minority white” by 2045.See www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/03/14/the-us-will-become-minority-white-in-2045-census-projects/.
Research from the St. Louis Fed’s Center for Household Financial Stability mirrors these findings and dives deeper. One recent essay, titled “The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall: The Decline of the White Working Class,”Emmons, William R.; Kent, Ana. H.; and Ricketts, Lowell, R. "The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall: The Decline of the White Working Class." The Demographics of Wealth 2018 Series, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, September 2018, Essay No. 3. looked into population, income and wealth share changes for groups defined not only by race/ethnicity but also by education.
We focused our findings on the white working class – non-Hispanic whitesHereafter referred to as whites. with less than a four-year college degree – for three reasons. First, this group is the largest by farWhite nongrads make up 42.1 percent of families (defined by the race/ethnicity and education of the family head) and 43.2 percent of individuals 25 and older. and consequently has considerable influence in terms of consumption patterns and as a voting bloc. Second, the outcomes of white nongrads (i.e., less than a four-year college degree) have diverged from that of otherwise similar groups (e.g., white grads and minority nongrads). Finally, the decline of the white working class has been a popular topic over the past few years. Dozens of academic and nonacademic works alike – such as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, and Justin Gest’s The New Minority – have attempted to document and explain the weakening of the white working class and the consequences for the United States as a whole.
Our work has found that the white working class is indeed stressed. Over nearly a 30-year period (1989-2016), white nongrads lost ground in terms of both financial and nonfinancial indicators of well-being.Emmons, Kent and Ricketts, in 2018, used the 2016 (latest) Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances, a triennial survey considered to be the gold standard in household income and wealth data. Importantly, their share of all families fell from a numerical majority (55 percent) to a plurality (42 percent). Thus, while the white working class still makes up the largest share of families, it is no longer the majority.
The financial decline of the white working class was even more rapid than the population decline, with share of income falling 18 percentage points (from 45 to 27 percent) and share of wealth deteriorating even more steeply with a 23-percentage-point drop (from 45 to 22 percent). These losses translated into other groups’ gains, most notably for the white college-educated group. Other indicators of well-being (homeownership, marriage or cohabitation, and self-reported good-health rates) dropped as well.
It’s difficult for a group to experience a fall while watching other groups rise. This type of relative deprivationGuimond, Serge; and Dambrun, Michaël. “When Prosperity Breeds Intergroup Hostility: The Effects of Relative Deprivation and Relative Gratification on Prejudice.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2002, Vol. 28, No. 7, pp. 900-12. (as opposed to absolute deprivationWhile the white working class has declined in terms of population, income and wealth shares, it is important to remember that it still has a much larger share of income and wealth than minority groups. Racial income and wealth gaps also remain quite staggering (see Emmons, Kent and Ricketts, 2018).) may help explain the psychological distress related to the deaths-of-despair narrativeCase, Anne; and Deaton, Angus. “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife among White Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st Century.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015, Vol. 112, No. 49, pp. 15078-83. that is affecting the white working class, as well as the decline in the marriage/cohabitation rate and self-reported good-health rate.
At the national level, the tale of the white working class is one of weakening strength. However, white nongrads are not distributed equally around the country. The effects of their decline might be felt more acutely in areas where large portions of the population are whites without a four-year college degree, such as in the Eighth District.Geographic information is not available for public research purposes within the Survey of Consumer Finances. Therefore, we cannot explore the financial and nonfinancial outcomes observed for the nation within the Eighth District.
The Eighth Federal Reserve DistrictThe following analyses use the five-year 2013-2017 American Community Survey dataset. is composed of 339 counties from seven different states: portions of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, and all of Arkansas. In the vast majority (316) of those counties, the largest racial group is non-Hispanic white. In the remaining 23, the largest racial group is non-Hispanic black. (See Table 1.) The Eighth District as a whole is less diverse than the U.S. (61.5 percent white), as three in four people are white. However, nearly half (164) of the counties are over 90 percent white, illustrating geographical racial stratification. For example, nine out of the 10 most diverse (i.e., nonwhite) counties are located in the Mississippi Delta region.
|Largest White Percentage||Largest Nonwhite Percentage|
|Hamilton County, Ill. (98.9%)||Holmes County, Miss. (84.4%|
|Douglas County, Mo. (98.0%)||Tunica County, Miss. (80.5%)|
|Osage County, Mo. (97.5%)||Humphreys County, Miss. (78.7%)|
|Scotland County, Mo. (97.5%)||Coahoma County, Miss. (78.4%)|
|Schuyler County, Mo. (97.3%)||Leflore County, Miss. (77.1%)|
SOURCE: 2013-2017 American Community Survey dataset, authors’ calculations.
The Eighth District is also less educated than the country as a whole.In the U.S., of those aged 25 or older, 30.9 percent are four-year college grads, 29.1 percent have some college experience (but not a four-year degree), 27.3 percent are high school graduates or have a GED, and 12.7 percent have less than a high school education. Looking at those aged 25 or older,Calculations that include education restrict the sample to individuals aged 25 and older to allow time to complete a four-year degree. 24.2 percent are four-year college grads, 30.2 percent have some college experience (but not a four-year degree), 32.6 percent are high school graduates or have a GED, and 13.0 percent have less than a high school education. The counties with the largest percentages of college graduates are home to universities (e.g., Boone County, Mo., with the University of Missouri, at 45.9 percent grads; Oktibbeha County, Miss., with Mississippi State University, at 42.6 percent; and Lafayette County, Miss., with the University of Mississippi, at 41.9 percent), are suburbs of large cities (Oldham County, Ky., a suburb of Louisville, at 40.4 percent), or both (Washington University in St. Louis, in St. Louis County, at 42.8 percent).
The Eighth District is both whiter and less educated than the U.S. as a whole; additionally, a larger percentage of its population is white working class (58.7 versus 43.2 percent in the U.S.). The rest of the Eighth District is split roughly evenly between white grads (20.2 percent) and everyone else (21.1 percent). Figure 1 shows the percentage of the population that is white working class by county. The white working class is a larger share of the population than that of the U.S. in over 90 percent of the counties in the Eighth District, and in 295 counties, the white working class forms a numerical majority (i.e., over 50 percent) and not just a plurality.
SOURCE: 2013-2017 American Community Survey. Data acquired with the R tidycensus package.
These findings highlight the ubiquity of the white working class in the Eighth District. Monitoring the trends of this group’s financial and nonfinancial measures of well-being may help us better understand the challenges it faces.