Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?

REMEMBER WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA sold Obamacare by constantly stressing that it delivered health care to 20 million people? To many in the working class, this made it sound like just another program that taxed the middle class to help the poor. And in some cases that’s proved true: the poor got health insurance, while some Americans just a tiny bit better off saw their premiums rise.20

Progressives have lavished attention on the poor for over a century, devising social programs targeting them. Because America is particularly testy about the kinds of taxes that many European countries take for granted, these programs are not universal. Instead, they are limited to those below a certain income level, which means they exclude those just a notch above. This is a recipe for class conflict.

Is it any wonder the working class feels “totally forgotten,” to quote Annette Norris?* “I raised three children on [$40,000 a year]. . . . But we didn’t get any assistance because we did not qualify.” Annette is not wrong, or alone: although about 30% of poor families using center-based child care receive subsidies, subsidies are largely nonexistent for the middle class.21 My sister-in-law worked full time for Head Start, providing free child care for poor women while earning so little that she almost couldn’t pay for her own. She resented this, especially the fact that some of the kids’ moms did not work. One arrived late one day to pick up her child, carrying shopping bags from the local mall. My sister-in-law was livid.

J. D. Vance’s much-heralded Hillbilly Elegy captures this resentment.22 Hard-living families like that of his mother live alongside settled families like that of his biological father. While the hard-living succumb to despair, drugs, or alcohol, settled families keep to the straight and narrow, like my parents-in-law, who owned their home and sent both sons to college. To accomplish that, they lived a life of rigorous thrift and self-discipline. Vance’s book passes harsh judgment on his hard-living relatives and neighbors, which is not uncommon among people from families who kept their nose clean through sheer force of will.23

Understanding working-class resentment of the poor needs to begin by looking at everyday life for working-class Americans of all races. Their rigid, highly supervised jobs often are boring, repetitive, or both, which makes the work psychologically challenging: think of medical technicians, factory workers, bus drivers. Men’s jobs, and some women’s, are physically demanding: consider construction workers, long-haul truck drivers, physicians’ assistants. Women’s jobs—in nursing, customer service, managing small stores—can be emotionally demanding, too.

Job demands are compounded by those of child care. Many couples tag team, with parents working different shifts to minimize child care costs. Here’s what that looks like:

Mike drives a cab and I work in a hospital, so we figure one of us could transfer to nights. We talked it over and decided it would be best if I was here during the day and he was here at night. He controls the kids, especially my son, better than I do. So now Mike works day and I work graveyard. I hate it, but it’s the only answer: at least this way somebody’s here all the time. I get home at 8:30 in the morning. The kids and Mike are gone. I clean up the house a little, do the shopping and the laundry and whatever, then I go to sleep for a couple of hours before the kids get home from school. Mike gets home at 5, we eat, then he takes over for the night, and I go back to sleep for a couple of hours. I try to get up at 9:00 so we can have a little time together, but I’m so tired that I don’t make it a lot of times. And by 10:00, he’s sleeping because he has to get up at 6:00 in the morning. It’s hard, it’s very hard. There’s no time to live or anything.24

That’s the face of working-class life today. Not easy. And it shouldn’t be surprising that many—women as well as men—look back with nostalgia to their parents’ generation, when women worked only intermittently or part time.

Working-class people may not know the exact statistics, but they understand the differences between their families and those of the poor. Poor married mothers (60%) are more than twice as likely to be at home full time as married mothers in the middle (23%). Nearly 60% of working-class mothers work full time; only 42% of poor moms do. In families with children in center care, 30% of poor families get subsidies; very few working-class families do (about 3%).25

I know, but only because I study such things, that child care subsidies for the poor are sporadic and pathetically low (sometimes $2.00 an hour).26 I know that poor moms stay home because the minimum wage is so low they would lose money by working. And that poor men have trouble finding full-time work because part-time jobs allow employers to avoid paying health insurance.

Mike’s family doesn’t know any of that, or if they do, they may not care. All they see is their stressed-out daily lives, and they resent the subsidies and sympathy available to the poor. This resentment reflects the realities of working-class lives combined with a woeful lack of graduate-level training in policy analysis. (Joke.)

For working-class Americans, maintaining two full-time jobs and a settled life is a significant achievement, one that takes unrelenting drive and rigorous self-discipline. So when asked what traits they admire, both black and white working-class Americans mention moral traits, in contrast to elites, who derive self-worth more from merit than morality. Working-class whites like “people who care,” “who are clean,” “not disruptive,” “stand-up kind of people.” They dislike “irresponsible people who live for the moment.” The values most admired are “honesty,” “being responsible,” “having integrity,” and “being hardworking.” Those most despised are “dishonesty,” “being irresponsible,” and “being lazy” (see Table 1).27

“My father made a religion of responsibility,” noted the son of a bricklayer who became a reporter; his father had “a well-developed work ethic, the kind that gets you up early and keeps you locked in until the job is done, regardless of how odious or personally distasteful the task.”28 “Sometimes I wish I could be more carefree,” a printer told Michèle Lamont, the sociologist who wrote the single best book on working-class Americans. “And then I say no, I like the way I am . . . I like people who are responsible.”29 Makes sense: if he were a free spirit, he might soon be homeless. So he’s disciplined and looks down on “hard-living” people who aren’t.

For an example of “hard living,” we can look to Vance’s mother. She falls into addiction and has serious impulse-control issues and a series of unsavory boyfriends. Vance was raised chiefly by his grandmother, a classic pattern in hard-living families. His father, who plays a minor role in the book and his life, represents “settled living”: he owns “a modest house,” has a stable marriage and a family life of “an almost jarring serenity.” He doesn’t drink and runs a highly religious family with strict rules of behavior. Vance didn’t want to live with him, because Led Zeppelin was not accepted. Vance escaped his mother’s hard-living life by joining the military, which gave him what his upbringing failed to provide. For kids from hard-living families, the military provides a reset button—a proxy for being brought up in a stable and ordered environment.30


Dimensions of morality most salient to white and black workers and to professionals and managers

Source: The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration by Michèle Lamont (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, copyright © 2000 by the Russell Sage Foundation).


++Very frequent

A study of California’s Central Valley found that in settled-living families, typically both parents are high school graduates, with at least one stable job between them and health insurance.31 They maintain strict control over their children and expect them to finish high school,32 keep their nose clean, and not run wild. The working class values responsibility “because they are highly dependent on the actions of others. . . . The physical conditions in which they work and live and their limited financial resources make it difficult for them to buffer themselves from the actions of neighbors, coworkers, kin, and friends,” notes Lamont.33 A friend from Atlanta remarks, “Why did people vote for Trump? All they want is a three-bedroom, two-bath cinderblock house. But now they’re losing those homes.” The working class worries that opportunities for a settled life are slipping away.

Maria Kefalas’s study of working-class Chicago described houses set very close together, with “elaborate lawn decorations, manicured grass, color-coordinated kitchens, [and] American-made cars.”34 And owners house-proud and insistent on upkeep; “[m]uch more is at stake than dust bunnies.”35 Well-kept homes are “an outward manifestation of work ethics,”36 notes Jennifer Sherman’s study of a rural community in California.

The professional elite also values hard work, of course—but it’s different. To working-class members of all races, valuing hard work means having the rigid self-discipline to do a menial job you hate for 40 years, and reining yourself in so you don’t “have an attitude” (i.e., so that you can submit to authority). Hard work for elites is associated with self-actualization; “disruption” means founding a successful start-up. Disruption, in working-class jobs, just gets you fired.

Free spirits born working class can’t count on the second chances available to elites. That’s why blue-collar families are so big on stability and self-discipline, and they embrace institutions that support these traits. Chief among these is religion. The devout have greater impulse control and “tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.”37 “Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all.”38 Churchgoing can also provide a financial safety net: when Vance’s father had financial troubles, people in his church bought him a used car so he could get back on his feet.39

And going to church regularly is not just correlated with good actions; it seems to prompt people to be their best selves.40 One class migrant recalled her struggles in high school: “Learnedness itself was suspect, and making a display of learning was simply not done; in school as elsewhere, the worst failure of character was to get a ‘swelled head.’ You could do intellectual work, though, if you called it something else. We called it religion.”41 For many in the working class, churches provide the kind of mental exercise, stability, hopefulness, future orientation, impulse control, and social safety net many in the professional elite get from their families, their career potential, their therapists, and their bank accounts.

Tea Party members believe the “federal government was taking money from . . . people of good character and giving to people of bad character,”42 found a 2016 study. Researchers have found the same belief time and again. Means-tested programs inadvertently set the “have-a-littles” against the “have-nots,” noted an Italian lawyer interviewed by Jonathan Rieder in his 1985 book.43 In his high school job at a grocery, Vance “learned how people gamed the welfare system.” They’d buy sodas with food stamps and then sell them, or use food stamps for food and their own money for beer, wine, and cigarettes. He’d see them going through the checkout lines using cell phones. How could they afford cell phones? “I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle,” wrote Vance of his own family, “while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.”44

Government benefits tied to work are seen quite differently. Unemployment is seen “as income that a person deserves and has basically worked for.” Disability is seen as symbolizing past hard, dangerous work. In sharp contrast, means-tested benefits were stigmatized. In rural California, Sherman found that food stamps and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) triggered “strong social disgrace.” One family drove an hour or more from home to use their food stamps when the husband was unemployed. “I don’t want to be considered lazy or a freeloader or something like that,” the wife explained. “You want people to think you’re a hard worker—and, you know, we pride ourselves on that,” she added. The stigma associated with welfare and food stamps has concrete economic consequences. In the community Sherman studied, only those in good moral standing were considered for the few cherished job openings. Those without good moral standing also jeopardized their access to community-level charity.45

I spoke with Lisa McCorkell, who worked as a financial counselor, who told me, “When I spoke with working-class people across the country about their financial issues, whether it be crippling debt, impending foreclosure, unemployment, or all three, I found that they were much more likely than the poor to reject the government benefits they were eligible for, at least until it was absolutely necessary to survive. They saw it as an affront to their dignity. I heard so often things like, ‘I don’t want a government handout; I can do this on my own.’ So even when they were aware of the government benefits they were entitled to, they did not accept them.”

When it comes to attitudes toward government programs, working-class African-Americans differ from whites in an important way: African-Americans understand the structural nature of inequality. Working-class African-Americans are more like the French (and unlike white working-class Americans) in their nonjudgmental “there but for the grace of God go I” attitude toward the poor, and their felt need for solidarity.46

All this explains why Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president to truly understand the white working class, ended “welfare as we know it.” He understood it was political poison to allow poor women to remain stay-at-home moms while Mike’s family tag-teamed its way to exhaustion. What went deeply wrong was that the replacement TANF program failed to provide the kind of support necessary for working families. By 2006, in poor familes, 7.5% of children aged 5–8 were home alone; nearly 14% of kids 9–11 were.47

If America’s policymakers better understood white working-class anger against the social safety net, they might have a shot at creating programs that don’t get gutted in this way. Far from abandoning the poor, we’d be doing a better job of helping them.

Lamont’s study gives percentages of the white (and black) working class who embrace the dominant values. To make the text more readable throughout this book, I have made blanket statements that actually reflect tendencies, not absolutes.

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