Donald Trump boasted that his election reflected the “voice of the people,” but it was mostly the voice of fear. And while ingrained racism and misogyny drove much of Trump’s support, his popularity reflected a massive sense of loss: real economic loss, perceived cultural loss, and anticipatory loss for their children’s generation. Just how “real” this decline actually has been, however, depends on where you stand, and where you’re falling from.
A recent study of stratification and eroding quality of life across generations, between races, and between socioeconomic classes sheds light on how America’s so-called “middle class” perceives itself.
Social-inequality trends over the past half century indicate that class divisions are growing more rigid, most are getting worse off, and those at the bottom are falling further, faster by the day. It’s the momentum of change that is causing much of the pain and anxiety, as many self-identified “middle-class Americans” are realizing the truth only now: They were never as well-off as they thought they were.
“Overall, if you look back 30 years, most of the distribution [of wealth] is lower than where it was in the ’80s. So…the typical American family today has less wealth than the typical American family in the ’80s,” says University of Michigan sociologist Fabian Pfeffer, who co-published a new research collection on trends in inequality. And yet, Pfeffer observes, higher on the economic hierarchy, affluent households experienced “the mirror image,” accruing riches and power at others’ expense.
For households losing wealth, Pfeffer found that social insecurity hurts from many different angles: not just in the evaporation of housing and retirement wealth but also through declining health, diminished prospects for their kids, and ensuing despair and anger.
“One of the things wealth gives you is safety and security,” Pfeffer says, but when insecurity becomes chronic “as labor markets become more insecure…and as public safety nets become more porous…that role of private safety nets, such as in the form of wealth, may become even more pronounced.”
Take the case of a working-class, jobless white youth in a marginal postindustrial suburb. He hovers in the same social status as his blue-collar parents, but his life is markedly harder than theirs were. He is priced out of higher education in a community with few living-wage jobs and has virtually none of the health or retirement benefits his parents attained through their now-vanished industrial vocations.
But white anxiety about middle-class precarity is only part of the picture because the middle-class was always built on structural inequality and social exclusion. The anxiety Trump manipulated so deftly on the campaign trail expresses real agony that working people are feeling. Yet the people who aren’t represented in Trump’s support base are in many ways suffering the most from long-term economic polarization.