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American Association for Public Opinion Research Annual Conference

Who Counts as White Working-Class? A Proposal for a New Approach

Daniel Cox [presenter], Juhem Navarro-Rivera, Robert P. Jones


The influence of the white working-class on American culture and politics is difficult to overstate. Although arguably facing a decline in political clout, white working class Americans still retain an outsized influence in many important battleground states. Their support was pivotal for Obama in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet despite this, there has been a glaring lack of consensus about the best approach to measuring this important group. In different works, the white working-class are defined in terms of income (Bartels 2008; McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006), occupation (Edsall 2007; Spitzer 2012), or some combination of these (McTague 2012; Teixeira and Abramowitz 2008). These different definitions often lead us to draw different conclusions about the political attitudes and behavior of the white working-class Americans.

In this paper we compare several different definitions of the white working-class to a new definition developed from an original large (n=3,000) national survey of Americans. We define the white working-class using a combination of race, education, and an occupational proxy (people who are paid hourly or by the job). This definition is parsimonious and replicable and better captures the complex social, economic, and political realities of this oft-mentioned but often misunderstood group of Americans.

This new approach provides a more complex picture of the working class in terms of their politics, economic outlook, and cultural traits.