Politics Columns & Blogs

Christensen: It’s all about the blues in the economy

If you want to understand this year’s extraordinary presidential election, you don’t have to look any further than the collapse of blue collar America.

Working people have been at the core of the rise of New York businessman Donald Trump to the top of the GOP presidential primary field. And they have played a role in the success of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has made economic inequality and the excesses of Wall Street the centerpiece of his campaign.

If you are a Baby Boomer like me who grew up in the 50s and 60s, you remember when there were fewer class differences. Between 1910 and 1970 the distribution of income gradually became more equal, sociologist Robert Putnam writes in his 2015 book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”

But since then, there has been growing inequality, Putnam writes. Between 1980 and 2012, the real hourly earnings of full-time, college-educated U.S. males rose anywhere from 20 percent to 56 percent, with the greatest gains among those with a graduate degree. Real earnings of males with only a high school diploma or less declined substantially, falling 22 percent among high school dropouts and 11 percent among high school graduates.

This has little to do with race, Putnam notes. Both white and black families with education are doing well, while both white and black families with lower education are doing poorly.

Since the Great Recession, inequality has been speeding up. From 2009 to 2012, the real incomes of the top 1 percent of American families rose 31 percent, while the real incomes of the other 99 percent barely budged (up less than half a percentage point), Putnam writes.

There are many causes of the rise in inequality under both Democratic and Republican administrations. One is the collapse of industrial jobs – particularly in the rust belt of the Midwest and the textile and furniture belts of the South.

Mike Walden, an economist at N.C. State University, says most people in North Carolina have seen their income – adjusted for inflation – drop in the last decade.

“On average, all North Carolina workers experienced a 7 percent drop in their annual earnings between 2006 and 2014,” Walden told me. “But there is a distinct difference by educational level of the worker. Those with college degrees did the best, losing only 3 percent of their inflation-adjusted income. Those with an associate’s degree lost 12 percent, high school dropouts were down 10 percent, and high school grads and workers with a bachelor’s degree had a cut of near 8 percent.

“Three big reasons are causing these trends for worker income – international competition, a slow-growing economy, and an ability of technology to do more of the jobs performed by humans.”

Walden, like me, has blue collar roots. Three of my four grandparents worked in textile mills, my father punched a clock in a factory until he retired, and I worked my way through college laboring in factories, including one summer in a textile mill. But those plants are now closed.

When one of my father’s plants closed, he worked two jobs for a long time.

Shifting schedules

But that is increasingly difficult today. I hear stories of people working for major retail chains who can’t take a second job, because their work shifts are constantly being rotated.

And these blue collar woes have all kinds of implications. Many statistics for working people have been trending in the wrong directions – rising out-of-wedlock births, increased divorces, more drug use, increased health issues, declining church attendance.

It is no wonder that poll after poll finds people – regardless of whether they are Republican or Democrat — who think America is heading in the wrong direction.

For many middle class people, the political system is not working for them. Which is why it resonates with many voters when Trump talks about making better trade deals, and about getting tough on illegal immigrants who they believe are competing for scarce jobs. And that is why it also rings true for other voters when Sanders talks about cracking down on Wall Street, and about the need to address inequality.

There are, of course, multiple reasons offered on why this has been the year of the outsider in politics – from gridlock in Congress, to the power of big money in politics, to the toxic tone of political discourse, to the perceived failures of President Barack Obama, to perceived racism, and so on.

But at the heart of the discontent is blue collar blues.

“So many individuals are angry and upset,” Walden wrote, “and a simple reason is declining incomes.”