One of the great divides in American politics today revolves around the question of why blue-collar workers are having such difficulties.
There is little disagreement among liberal and conservative scholars that blue-collar America is in decline. While white-collar America is doing just fine, the economic and social indicators for working people are heading in the wrong direction.
Those sinking indicators include underemployment, drug abuse, church attendance, college-going rates, suicide, out-of-wedlock births, and even a shrinking lifespan.
It is arguably one of the reasons that voters in 2016 reached out to nontraditional candidates such as Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders during the presidential campaign.
Although this is an oversimplification, liberals and conservatives tend to disagree on the cause of the decline. The main problem, according to liberals, is economic — that traditional blue-collar jobs have dried up, whether it is steel mills and rubber plants up north, or textile and furniture plants in the South. Conservatives tend to point to what they see as cultural rot — a decline in the work ethic, so people are no longer as willing to take whatever job is available; too many people willing to accept government assistance; or a lack of moral fiber or religious values that holds communities together, even during difficult times.
A new national survey about work by East Carolina University will not settle the argument, but it underscores the importance of having a decent job.
The new ECU Labor Day report is part of The Life, Liberty and Happiness Project, a study of American attitudes headed by political scientist Peter Francia and sociologist Melinda Kane, but also including psychologists and health experts. The survey of 1,100 Americans found that “the value of a job extends to much more than a paycheck” and can have a profound effect on people’s outlook on the future and on their personal well-being.
When I was growing up — I am 68 — it was a given that people would live longer than their parents. But not anymore. The survey found that 42 percent of the employed think they will live longer than parents, but only 27 percent of the unemployed do.
If there is such thing as an American credo, it is the belief that people can succeed if they work hard. Two-thirds of the employed believe that hard work leads to success, but only half of the unemployed. The unemployed are just as likely to agree with the statement that hard work is no guarantee of success.
The unemployed are also more socially disconnected, which may be why we have a rise in drug abuse. Among the unemployed, 65 percent say they lack companionship some of the time or often, 64 percent feel left out, and 68 percent feel socially isolated, the survey found. The figures are much lower for the employed.
Being unemployed also makes one much more likely to feel worthless (49 percent), report that one is sometimes depressed (60 percent) and say there are times when things look pretty bleak and hopeless (51 percent).
Another point of contention in the liberal/conservative divide is whether the decades of decline in labor-union membership is hurting blue collar wages. The survey found that people who are members of labor unions are more likely to be better off than non-union members. (Last year, only South Carolina had a lower rate of unionization than North Carolina, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).
Union members are more likely to own their own homes (67 percent) compared to non-union members (52 percent). Union members are also much more likely to spend 30 percent or less of their income on housing than non-union members — an indicator of housing affordability.
Nearly six out of ten union members say they are satisfied with their household’s financial situation, compared to four out of 10 non-union members.
You can draw your own conclusions from the study. But here are mine as someone who grew up in a blue-collar and union household. Most people want to work and are much happier when they are holding a job, providing for their families and pulling their own weight. The lack of decent jobs — even in today’s low unemployment environment — has contributed mightily to many of the social problems we see in today’s news.
Union membership is not always the answer, and enlightened management can make unions unnecessary. But when workers have a collective voice, they can often win better wages and improved working conditions.