More Americans see themselves as belonging to the lower classes today than ever in recent times. In 2000 some 63 of Americans, according to Gallup, considered themselves middle class, while only 33 percent identified as working or lower class. In 2015, only 51 percent of Americans call themselves middle class while the percentage identifying with the lower classes rose to 48 percent.Kotkin notes that few groups (PDF) have seen their incomes drop more than people under 30.
The bulk of this population belongs to what some social scientists call the “precariat,” people who face diminished prospects of achieving middle class status—a good job, homeownership, some decent retirement. The precariat is made up of a broad variety of jobs that include adjunct professors, freelancers, substitute teachers—essentially any worker without long-term job stability. According to one estimate, at least one-third of the U.S. workforce falls into this category. By 2020, a separate study estimates, more than 40 percent of the Americans, or 60 million people, will be independent workers—freelancers, contractors, and temporary employees.
This constituency—notably the white majority—is angry, and with good cause. Between 1998 and 2013, white Americans have seen declines in both their incomes and their life expectancy, with large spikes in suicide and fatalities related to alcohol and drug abuse. They have, as one writer notes, “lost the narrative of their lives,” while being widely regarded as a dying species by a media that views them with contempt and ridicule.
In this sense, the flocking by stressed working class whites to the Trump banner—the New York billionaire won 45 percent of New Hampshire Republican voters who did not attend college—represents a blowback from an increasingly stressed group that tends to attend church less and follow less conventional morality, which is perhaps one reason they prefer the looser Trump to the bible thumping Cruz, not to mention the failing Ben Carson.
In a decade, these millennials will dominate our electorate and as early as 2024 outnumber boomers at the polls. They may be liberal on many social issues, but their primary concerns, like most Americans, are economic, notably jobs and college debt . Fully half, notes a recent Harvard study (PDF), already believe “the American dream” is dead.
For many millennials, Clinton style incrementalism is less than enough. A recent yougov.com poll found some 36 percent of people 18 to 29 favor socialism compared to barely 39 percent for capitalism, making them a lot redder than earlier generations. No surprise that Sanders beat Clinton among younger voters. As one student, a Sanders backer, recently asked me, “Why should I support her. How is she going to make my life better?”
Below the precariat lie the traditional lower classes. Almost 15 percent of Americans live in poverty (PDF), and the trend over time has gotten worse. More than 10 million millennials are outside the system, neither in the labor force or education. This is just the cutting edge of a bigger problem: a labor participation rate which is among the lowest in modern history.
The low-income voters are helping both Trump and Sanders. The Vermont socialist won an astounding 70 percent of the votes among people making less than $30,000 a year. Trump’s largest margins were among both these voters and those making under $50,000 annually, who together accounted for 27 percent of GOP primary voters.