The prevailing narrative of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath focused heavily on the economic concerns of Americans, particularly among one key subset of the population — the “white working class,” often defined as white people without a four-year college degree. These anxieties were said to be of unusual political salience, contributing to Donald Trump’s success, especially with the white working class.
Using data from 2018 VOTER Survey (Views of the Electorate Research Survey), this report suggests that the storyline is flawed. A newly developed measure of economic distress – defined by an individual’s response to a number of detailed questions about personal financial stability – shows that economic distress is not distinctively prevalent among the white working class or Trump voters.
- Traditional methods of gauging economic concerns are far more reflective of political leanings than actual economic distress. In contrast, when asked detailed questions about the state of their personal finances and the experience of hardships, racial and ethnic minorities report experiencing more economic distress than white people do. For example, black people and Hispanics are more likely than white people to report difficulty making housing, loan, or credit card payments and to report insufficient savings.
- This new measure of economic distress shows that working-class white people are not distinctively distressed relative to other groups. In fact, white Americans without a college degree report a lower level of distress than college-educated black and Hispanic Americans. Non-white Americans report more economic distress at every level of income.
- Unlike economic “anxiety” as traditionally measured, economic distress has a modest relationship with partisanship. If anything, Hillary Clinton voters report more economic distress than Donald Trump voters. Economic distress is more strongly correlated with support for liberal, not conservative, economic policies.
- Genuine economic distress is arguably hurting, not helping, approval ratings of President Trump. Among political independents, 52 percent of those experiencing relatively little distress approve of Trump, compared to 35 percent of those who are experiencing relatively significant distress.