The white working class is ‘declining,’ here’s why

The U.S. economy may be strengthening, but there is one sect of the labor force for whom measures of economic well-being are deteriorating – the white working class.

According to researchers at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, between 1989 and 2016 the number of white working-class families declined, along with their share of income and wealth. This change is unique among the major socioeconomic groups.

“Today, the white working class is greatly diminished. Alone among major socioeconomic groups defined by race, ethnicity and college degree status, the white working class shrank not only as a share of the population but even in absolute numbers over the past two decades. Their long-term economic and financial declines are even steeper” researchers wrote.

In 1989, white families accounted for 55 percent of all working class families, but by 2016 their share had declined 13 percentage points. Over the same time period, the total income share of white working class families declined to 27 percent from 45 percent.

Among the five measures used to track well-being – family income, family wealth, the share of a group that is made up of homeowners, marriage or cohabitation rates and share reporting good or excellent health – the white working class declined in all categories. While total share of income and wealth declined among whites, it also declined disproportionately relative to their share of the total population.

Whites on the whole, however, have not been adversely affected. Researchers say white college graduates are “thriving.” The gap between the median income of white working class families and white college-educated families has grown, while the corresponding gaps among other ethnicities shrank. Non-graduate families, however, made up about 66 percent of all families in 2016.

The white working class is still the largest demographic group.

So what has driven the decline?

“We suggest the broad-based decline that is unique to the white working class may be due in part to the group’s loss over time of advantages it once enjoyed relative to those of nonwhite working classes,” researchers wrote.


Those advantages included more years of education and plentiful high-paying jobs available in their communities. Additionally, minorities are experiencing less discrimination in the workplace. That in turn, has increased competition for jobs.

“As these advantages eroded, income, wealth and other measures of well-being also may have weakened,” the report said.